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Push For Simpler Spelling Persists Despite Lack Of Public Interest


When “say,” “they” and “weigh” rhyme, but “bomb,” “comb” and “tomb” don’t, wuudn’t it maek mor sens to spel wurdz the wae thae sound? 

Those in favor of simplified spelling say children would learn faster and illiteracy rates would drop. Opponents say a new system would make spelling even more confusing.

Eether wae, the consept has yet to capcher th publix imajinaeshun.

It’s been 100 years since Andrew Carnegie helped create the Simplified Spelling Board to promote a retooling of written English and President Theodore Roosevelt tried to force the government to use simplified spelling in its publications. But advocates aren’t giving up.

They even picket the national spelling bee finals, held every year in Washington, D.C., costumed as bumble bees and hoisting signs that say “Enuf is enuf but enough is too much” or “I’m thru with through.”

They say the spelling bee celebrates the ability of a few students to master a difficult system that stumps many others who could do just as well if spelling were simpler.

“It’s a very difficult thing to get something accepted like this,” says Alan Mole, president of the American Literacy Council, which favors an end to “illogical spelling.” The group says English has 42 sounds spelled in a bewildering 400 ways.

Proponents of simpler spelling note that a smattering of altered spellings have made the leap into everyday use.

Doughnut also is donut; colour, honour and labour long ago lost the British “u” and the similarly derived theatre and centre have been replaced by the easier-to-sound-out theater and center.

“The kinds of progress that we’re seeing are that someone will spell night ‘nite’ and someone will spell through ‘thru,’” Mole says. “We try to show where these spellings are used and to show dictionary makers that they are used so they will include them as alternate spellings.”

“Great changes have been made in the past. Systems can change,” a hopeful Mole says.

Learning English requires rote memory rather than logic, he said.

In languages with phonetically spelled words, like German or Spanish, children learn to spell in weeks instead of months or years as is sometimes the case with English, Mole says.

But education professor Donald Bear says to simplify spelling would probably make it more difficult because words get meaning from their prefixes, suffixes and roots.

“Students come to understand how meaning is preserved in the way words are spelled,” says Bear, director of the E.L. Cord Foundation Center for Learning and Literacy at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The country’s largest teachers union, once a supporter, also objects.

Michael Marks, a member of the National Education Association’s executive committee, says learning would be disrupted if children had to switch to a different spelling system. “It may be more trouble than it’s worth,” says Marks, a debate and theater teacher at Hattiesburg High School in Mississippi.

E-mail and text messages are exerting a similar tug on the language, sharing some elements with the simplified spelling movement while differing in other ways. Electronic communications stress shortcuts like “u” more than phonetics. Simplified spelling is not always shorter than regular spelling. For example, sistem instead of system, hoep instead of hope.

Carnegie tried to move things along in 1906 when he helped establish and fund the spelling board. He also used simplified spelling in his correspondents, and asked anyone who reported to him to do the same.

A philanthropist, he became passionate about the issue after speaking with Melvil Dewey, a spelling reform activist and Dewey Decimal system inventor who simplified his first name by dropping “le” from Melville.

Roosevelt tried to get the government to adopt simpler spellings for 300 words but the U.S. Congress blocked him. He used simple spellings in all White House memos, pressing forward his effort to “make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.”

The Chicago Tribune also got into the act, using simpler spellings in the newspaper for about 40 years, ending in 1975. Playwright George Bernard Shaw, who wrote most of his material in shorthand, left money in his will for the development of a new English alphabet.

Carnegie, Dewey, Roosevelt and Shaw’s work followed attempts by Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Webster and Mark Twain to advance simpler spelling. Twain lobbied The Associated Press at its 1906 annual meeting to “adopt and use our simplified forms and spread them to the ends of the earth.” AP declined.

“I think that the average person simply did not see this as a needed change or a necessary change or something that was … going to change their lives for the better,” says Marilyn Cocchiola Holt, manager of the Pennsylvania department of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

But if Carnegie were alive today, he probably be pleased to know that millions of people send text and instant messages every day using their own forms of simplified spelling: “Hav a gr8 day!”

— Associated Press


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