Saturday, December 4, 2010

Speaking Of Mark Twain...

Mark Twain on the Rotten English Alphabet

Mark Twain had little respect for what he called our "foolish" and "drunken old alphabet," or for the "rotten spelling" that it encouraged. Nonetheless, Twain was hardly convinced that the efforts of spelling reformers would ever succeed. It was the alphabet itself that needed to be torn up and rebuilt from scratch.

In the early years of the 20th century, one of the more prominent advocates of spelling reform was the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. He funded the efforts of the Simplified Spelling Board and the National Education Association, which had gained headlines recommending these twelve "reformed" spellings:

1. "bizness" for business
2. "enuf" for enough
3. "fether' for feather
4. "mesure' for measure
5. "plesure" for pleasure
6. "red" for read (past tense of "to read")
7. "ruf" for rough
8. "trauf" for trough
9. "thru" for through
10. "tuf" for tough
11. "tung" for tongue
12. "yung" for young

An additional 300 new spellings soon followed.

At first the initiative met with modest support (President Theodore Roosevelt ordered all government printing offices to use the new spellings and a few newspapers followed suit), but Mark Twain remained skeptical.

Twain's Response to Carnegie and the Spelling Reformers

In December 1907, at a meeting honoring Carnegie in New York City, Twain gave a speech in which he explained why a piecemeal approach to spelling reform was doomed to fail:

There's not a vowel in [the alphabet] with a definite value, and not a consonant that you can hitch anything to. Look at the "h's" distributed all around. There's "gherkin." What are you going to do with the "h" in that? What the devil's the use of "h" in gherkin, I'd like to know. It's one thing I admire the English for: they just don't mind anything about them at all.

But look at the "pneumatics" and the "pneumonias" and the rest of them. A real reform would settle them once and for all, and wind up by giving us an alphabet that we wouldn't have to spell with at all, instead of this present silly alphabet, which I fancy was invented by a drunken thief. Why, there isn't a man who doesn't have to throw out about fifteen hundred words a day when he writes his letters because he can't spell them! It's like trying to do a St. Vitus's dance with wooden legs. . . .

If we had adequate, competent vowels, with a system of accents, giving to each vowel its own soul and value, so every shade of that vowel would be shown in its accent, there is not a word in any tongue that we could not spell accurately. That would be competent, adequate, simplified spelling, in contrast to the clipping, the hair punching, the carbuncles, and the cancers which go by the name of simplified spelling. If I ask you what b-o-w spells you can't tell me unless you know which b-o-w I mean, and it is the same with r-o-w, b-o-r-e, and the whole family of words which were born out of lawful wedlock and don't know their own origin.

Now, if we had an alphabet that was adequate and competent, instead of inadequate and incompetent, things would be different. Spelling reform has only made it bald-headed and unsightly. There is the whole tribe of them, "row" and "read" and "lead"--a whole family who don't know who they are. I ask you to pronounce s-o-w, and you ask me what kind of a one.

If we had a sane, determinate alphabet, instead of a hospital of comminuted eunuchs, you would know whether one referred to the act of a man casting the seed over the ploughed land or whether one wished to recall the lady hog and the future ham.

It's a rotten alphabet. I appoint Mr. Carnegie to get after it, and leave simplified spelling alone. Simplified spelling brought about sun-spots, the San Francisco earthquake, and the recent business depression, which we would never have had if spelling had been left all alone.

Now, I hope I have soothed Mr. Carnegie and made him more comfortable than he would have been had he received only compliment after compliment, and I wish to say to him that simplified spelling is all right, but, like chastity, you can carry it too far.

("The Alphabet and Simplified Spelling," December 9, 1907)

Postscript on the Spelling Reform Movement

Eventually, after donating more than $280,000 to the doomed cause of spelling reform, Carnegie gave up. In 1915 he told the editor of The Times of London, "Amended spellings can only be submitted for general acceptance. It is the people who decide what is to be adopted or rejected."

And a century later, of course, the 26 letters in that "rotten alphabet" remain unchanged.


  1. but many of his spellings have caught on with the facebook and twitter crowd!

  2. LOL I have ben using that spelling for years .... i support it!! but you really dont wanna get me P.S. i love Mark Twain!