While there are some languages, such as Spanish and Italian, whose spelling usually reflect the ways the words are spoken, this is not true in English. There are lots of ways people describe the spelling of written English, including: weird, strange, quirky, chaotic, torturous, and much more. While we may have trouble with spelling, there are some linguists who have pointed out that 80-90 percent of English spellings are predictable. It’s usually just 10-20 percent of the words that give us trouble.
With regard to the American dialect of English, the calls for spelling reform can be traced to Benjamin Franklin’s 1768 paper entitled A Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling. His plan didn’t work and English spelling continued to be difficult for students and others. Franklin, however, had been in correspondence with Noah Webster who picked up the torch for spelling reform.
Noah Webster championed the idea of a distinct American language: a language which would be distinct in spelling, pronunciation, and grammar. In 1806, Webster brought out his first dictionary in which he suggested a number of spelling changes. While some of his suggestions were adopted, many were ignored.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, there were a couple more notable attempts to change English spelling. The American Philological Reform Association focused its efforts on getting people to adopt a handful of new spellings:
In 1876, the American Philological Reform Association adopted 11 new spellings, and began promoting their use:
ar instead of areIn 1898, the (American) National Education Association began promoting a list of 12 spellings. In addition to tho, thru, and catalog, the Association recommended:
catalog instead of catalogue
definit instead of definite
gard instead of guard
giv instead of give
hav instead of have
infinit instead of infinite
liv instead of live
tho instead of though
thru instead of through
wisht instead of wished
altho instead of althoughThe movement for spelling reform in the United States continued in the twentieth century with the Simplified Spelling Board, created by the National Education Association in 1906. With a donation of more than $250,000 from Andrew Carnegie, this organization put forth a list of more than 300 words for spelling reform.
thruout instead of throughout
thoro instead of thorough
thoroly instead of thoroughly
thorofare instead of thoroughfare
program instead of programme
prolog instead of prologue
pedagog instead of pedagogue
decalog instead of decalogue
Another promoter of simplified spelling was President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1906, while Congress was in recess, Roosevelt ordered the Government Printing Office to use the spelling suggested by the Simplified Spelling Board. There was, however, some resistance to the President’s order and when Congress re-adjourned in the Fall, they set about to revoke this order by voting 142 to 24 that:
"no money appropriated in this act shall be used (for) printing documents ... unless same shall conform to the orthography ... in ... generally accepted dictionaries."The only simplified spellings which were actually used were in written items from the White House and even among these items, only twelve simplified spellings were actually used.
The Simplified Spelling Board continued to actively promote spelling change until about 1920. With the death of Carnegie, however, there was no more money for the effort. The National Education Association continued promoting the list of revised and simplified spellings until 1921.