The futile attempts to change English spelling

The idiosyncratic spelling of English words is the bane of anyone trying to learn the language. Many people have come forward with ideas about how to make it more sensible, or at least remove some of the more absurd examples, but they have failed because languages tend to change from the bottom up, because some new usage emerges more or less spontaneously and then becomes the norm. Efforts to change things by fiat almost never seem to work.

I found this list of eight past attempts at spelling reform (proposed by people like Benjamin Franklin, Melvil Dewey, and George Bernard Shaw) that did not work interesting. What was particularly amusing was item #6 on the list where president Theodore Roosevelt tried to use the power of the presidency in this cause, but still failed.

As president he issued an edict to the Government Printing Office, informing them that they would henceforth adopt a list of 300 changed words, suggested by the Simplified Spelling Board (including partizan instead of partisan, and phenix instead of phoenix). There was an immediate outcry (and ample mockery of President “Rozevult”), and Congress overturned the order four months after it was signed.

He also wanted to replace ‘kissed’ with ‘kist’.

Noah Webster was perhaps the most successful in this attempt with his 1828 dictionary, the first of its kind in North America, where he dropped the letter ‘u’ from the British spellings of many words.

Eddie Izzard had some fun with the difference between American and British spellings and pronunciations.


  1. A. Noyd says

    There’s also the problem of whose accent/dialect we would base a new spelling system on. I’m an assistant ESL teacher and my students often try to spell words using whatever letters make the most sense to them. The systems they come up with are much more consistent and logical than what we use now, but they’re also very obviously based on the students’ own accents. The same thing would happen with reforms made by native speakers. What we have now is horrible and arbitrary, but, in a way, it’s kind of egalitarian to have it horrible and arbitrary for everyone rather than decent for only one group of English speakers.

  2. dean says

    including partisan instead of partisan

    I’ve had a long day, so I could be missing something, but I don’t get that one.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    including partisan instead of partisan
    I’ve had a long day, so I could be missing something, but I don’t get that one.

    Obviously a typo. I’m pretty sure the second one was supposed to be courtesan.
    Or possibly Parmesan.

  4. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    He also wanted to replace ‘kissed’ with ‘kist’.

    That would be a return to standard spelling up to the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, not an innovation. The —-t rather than —-ed spelling for past participles still exists in some words- learnt, for example, where learned has a different pronunciation and meaning.

  5. Mano Singham says


    I should have typed partizan. Or I may typed it and autocorrect foiled me.

  6. khms says

    languages tend to change from the bottom up, because some new usage emerges more or less spontaneously and then becomes the norm. Efforts to change things by fiat almost never seem to work.

    … in English.

    German seems to have fared better in that regard. I don’t know much about Webster, but in German Duden (another guy who made dictionaries) was only the first one.

  7. Holms says

    I suspect a major reason for the different success between the languages is that english is very far flung, having encircled the globe centuries ago at the height of British power. Now, there are simply too many individual regions for changes in one to have any lasting impact on the whole.

  8. khms says

    In any case, the first German spelling reform was, IIRC, 1901. That must have been the one where most of the German words with th lost that h.

  9. bryanfeir says

    There was an article published on the CBC website years ago called MNOPSPTEICHE? RELAX FOR A SPELL. It went through some of the attempts at change, including Webster’s as was mentioned above.

    It also covers several of the reasons why change is difficult, such as the fact that ‘spelling it how it’s pronounced’ doesn’t work when different people can pronounce the same word considerably differently, and that in many cases the spelling of the word is an artifact of the language it was borrowed from. English, having borrowed words from just about everywhere, tends to import the foreign spelling rules as well.

    (And then we get cases where we import the same word twice, before and after the foreign language revises its spelling rules. Such as hostel and hotel, both from the French hôtel. The circumflex over the o in French represents the previous ‘s’ that was removed, just like with the French hôpital being borrowed pre-revision to form the English hospital.)

  10. Vicki says

    I used to know someone who spelled phonetically, with a fairly strong Missouri accent. I’m from New York City. It was sometimes interesting to try to understand (though reading it out loud helped some).

  11. says

    Language reform can depend a lot on the country and its attitude toward language. The French are positively paranoid about English words creeping in and mandate against their use (e.g. le weekend).

    Taiwan and China are also examples. Taiwan writes Mandarin with traditional Chinese characters which are voluminous and difficult to learn, but also in the last century invented the “bo po mo fo” phonetic script for children to start learning. It’s similar to Japan’s hiragana and katakana, and to Korea’s hangeul script, all of which are phonetic and easy to pick up. North Korea also changed the hangeul script, adding in one or two characters not used in the South. But unlike South Korean children who still learn Chinese characters (hanja) as do the Japanese (kanji), the North Korean government eliminated them from their school.

    Contrast that with the PRC dictatorship which used force to implement the simplified script, which uses fewer characters with fewer strokes. Like the Soviets who tried to eliminate all non-Russian languages from the USSR or the Turks eliminating Kurdish (among other examples like England…), the PRC govenrment is trying to eliminate the other seven Chinese languages from the mainland and impose Mandarin on all its citizens.

  12. Katydid says

    @6: A better example of -t vs. -ed would be “slept” vs. “sleeped”. Example: “I only slept 6 hours last night.” Another one is “felt” instead of “feeled”, as in “I felt tired after only sleeping 6 hours last night.” We seem to use both forms equally in “burnt” vs “burned”. British English has held on to more -t endings. The only one that comes to mind this very second is “learnt” instead of “learned”.

  13. says

    Katydid (#17) --

    Really? I never dreamt of such a thing.

    And I understand not the use of the auxiliary verb “do”. Shakespeare’s English is readable without it.

  14. anat says

    The Soviets reformed Yiddish spelling to make it phonetical and lose the many Hebrew words that are part of Yiddish. Still spelled it with Hebrew letters, but used them very differently.

  15. Katydid says

    @19: the auxiliary “do” is a British thing (and possibly an Australian one?). It always throws my American ear for a loop whenever I hear that. Example: “Will you come to dinner with us?” “I might do.”

  16. says

    Katydid (#21) --

    Actually, I was referring more to how we write negatives and questions. Remember the overly quoted line from the bible, “judge not lest ye be judged”. Centuries ago, negation came after the verb, not before with the auxiliary do. Compare also the middle English question form, “Hast thou…?” and the continued modern British English use of “have”.

    England: “Have you any money?”
    USA: “Do you have any money?”


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