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Teddy Roosevelt’s Bold (But Doomed) Battle to Change American Spelling

March 9, 2018 in History

By Greg Daugherty

1906 cartoon about Roosevelt's simplified spelling campaign sponsored by Carnegie from the Collier's Weekly. (Credit: Public Domain)

In August 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an order from his summer residence in Oyster Bay, New York, that would soon be the talk of Washington—and the world beyond.

Addressing himself to the government printer, Roosevelt decreed that all documents issued by the White House should now follow the spellings advocated by an organization known as the Simplified Spelling Board.

Launched the previous March and financed by the steel baron Andrew Carnegie, the board wanted to strip the American language of its antiquated British baggage and create a clean and modern version for the 20th century.

Carnegie, who’d immigrated to the United States as a teenager with little formal education, had high hopes for the project. “Mr. Carnegie has long been convinced that English might be made the world language of the future, and thus one of the influences leading to universal peace,” the New York Times reported. “He believes that the chief obstacle to its speedy adoption is to be found in its contradictory and difficult spelling.”

At the time, written German, which had been simplified in 1901, seemed poised to become the “world language of the future”—a development that neither Carnegie nor Roosevelt, both intensely competitive men, could possibly have welcomed.

1906 cartoon about Roosevelt’s simplified spelling campaign sponsored by Carnegie from the Collier’s Weekly. (Credit: Public Domain)

Carnegie recruited a long list of luminaries to the cause, including the writer Mark Twain, the philosopher William James, Melvil Dewey of Dewey Decimal System fame, and the presidents of Columbia and Stanford universities, among others. If Carnegie’s “universal peace” seemed like a grandiose goal, they could point to other, more basic benefits. Spelling would be easier to teach in schools, possibly shaving a year or more off the curriculum, educators said. Business correspondence would be faster and cheaper to handle. Publishers could save on typesetting, ink, and paper costs.

In a September 1906 speech, Twain argued that the reforms would also help new immigrants assimilate. Traditional spelling, he maintained, “keeps them back and damages their citizenship for years until they learn to spell the language, if they ever do learn.”

As a first step, the board published a list of suggested substitutes for 300 words whose spelling it considered archaic. For example, it proposed that “although” be shortened to “altho,” “fixed” become “fixt,” and “thorough” be traded in for “thoro.”

Roosevelt forwarded the …read more


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