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George Curme: Orthographic Radical

As I promised last week, let me briefly discuss a further noteworthy fact about an interesting 1914 paper by George O. Curme. When I first saw the paper I thought there was a PDF encoding bug, or my eyes were playing tricks, but not so. It turns out that Curme was a radical reformer in one respect: He published his paper using an extensively revised spelling system. (My quotations from him last week regularized his spellings to current practice.)

Curme was apparently following proposals made over the previous 40 years, particularly at the International Convention for the Amendment of English Orthography (Philadelphia, August 1876), which inspired societies like the English Spelling Reform Association and American Spelling Reform Association, and influenced the American Philological Society and the American Philological Association (which teamed up to issue a long list of proposed respellings) as well as the National Education Association. A group called the Simplified Spelling Board started getting significant donations (up to $25,000 per year, starting in 1906) from Andrew Carnegie to work on the issue. A few newspapers (e.g., the Chicago Tribune) experimented with simplified spellings, and by 1914 Modern Language Notes clearly permitted authors to experiment thus but did not require it (the papers before and after Curme’s use standard spelling).

Inducing Curme’s rules from his practice, like most reverse engineering, is not straightforward; but the relevant principles seem to include these:

  1. Silent e is dropped from the ends of short-vowel syllables, so we find accurate → accurat, definitedefinit, givegiv, havehav, imagineimagin, immediatelyimmediatly, infinitiveinfinitiv (as in Curme’s title), moderatelymoderatly, negativenegativ, practisepractis, treatisetreatis, and (treating the syllabic laterals on the ends of words like bottle as short-vowel syllables) also exampleexampl, inseparableinseparabl, littlelittl, possiblepossibl, resembleresembl, simplesimpl, etc.
  2. Silent e is also dropped from certain commonly unstressed function words ending in -re: arear, therether, werewer, wherewher, etc. (though the adjective mere retains its final letter).
  3. Doubled s or l at the ends of at least some syllables is reduced to single s or l, so we find shallshal, stillstil, stressstres, etc.
  4. The endings of regular preterites and past participles are respelled in a way that corresponds to the pronunciation: calledcald, employedemployd, endeavoredendeavord, prevailedprevaild, but attachedattacht, developeddevelopt, establishedestablisht, fixedfixt, markedmarkt, promisedpromist, etc.
  5. Various other substitutions are made:
    • the vowel sound in bet is always spelled e (not, for example, ea as in head);
    • the vowel sound in but is always spelled u (not, for example, ou as in touch);
    • the vowel sound in boat is always spelled o  (or oe  before a consonant letter);
    • the vowel sound in bought  is always spelled au ;
    • f  replaces gh and ph when they are pronounced f ;
    • r  replaces wr and rh when they are pronounced r ;

    hence broughtbraut, thoughtthaut, emphasisemfasis, enoughenuf, followingfolloing, followsfolloes, headhed, rhythmrythm, spreadspred, writerriter, writtenritten, etc.

Such reforms are sensible enough. They might make learning to read and spell easier (though of course learning the new system if you can already read and spell would not be a trivial task). One can imagine a world in which they were adopted by publishers as the standard way to spell English in America, or worldwide. But it did not happen. By the 1920s, after Andrew Carnegie’s grants to the Simplified Spelling Board had ended, the efforts of the reformers flagged. Publishers discontinued experimentation and went back to the miserably irregular standard spelling that English has now. Curme did likewise in his later publications.

British and American spelling conventions today (standardized mainly by the dictionary-makers Samuel Johnson in Britain and Noah Webster in America) differ in only minor ways. It would have been quite reasonable for American publishers when Webster was alive to develop a new, simplified standard to replace the horrible orthography that English has today. It might even have been internationally acceptable. But while many educated people back then were interested in that idea, very few are now, despite the fact that English is now effectively (if somewhat undeservedly) the chief international communication medium of planet Earth.

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