Keep it Simple

While researching spelling-bee star Samir Patel for my story “The Glorie of Defeet,” I came across references to a group that called themselves the Simplified Spelling Society. One segment of the group that picketed the Scripps bee sounded like an art mob with an anachronistic flair. “Spell Different Difrent,” read one sign. The Society’s Web site offers up questions like “Why do ‘they,’ ‘say,’ and ‘weigh’ rime?”

Last week, I caught up with Steve Bett, the editor of the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society and moderator of a discussion group on Foolswisdom. Bett is a retired professor living in Austin who joined the 99-year-old international organization in the late eighties believing, as most simplified spellers do, that literacy would improve drastically if we could make English spelling more consistent. I’m including some portions of the interview below.

KV: The spellings you’re talking about changing are words like “rough” (to “ruff”) and “debt” (to “det“) and “through” (to “thru”). Words like that, right?

SB: Right. The main thrust right now is to get rid of the letters that no one knows how to pronounce anyway. The issue is: Do you make spelling easy simply by memorizing sound signs, or do you make it hard and require that people memorize whole words? Half of the most common 8,000 words have oddities.

KV: What is your ultimate goal?

SB: To reduce irregularity in the writing system, which is always in the goal of different reforms. Most countries reform every 50 years or so. We’re not talking about anything radical. What we’re talking about is just making the code a little simpler. We would pretty much use the code that we already have and just clean it up so it’s consistent.

KV: Whom do you lobby when you’re trying to get this accomplished?

SB: Well, you’ve got to wait for an opening. There’s no opening right now. Around 1900, the opening was dictionary pronunciation guides, and that’s where most of the effort went. Then the “simplified spellers” thought they could make some inroads by picking about 300 words and respelling those in a way closer to how we pronounce them.

KV: And that’s still where the simplified spellers are, right? You’re still trying to reform about 300 words?

SB: Right, that’s where it ended. Even President Theodore Roosevelt went along with simplified spelling. Something like 20,000 educators signed up to say they would go along with spelling reform and petitioned the government to set up a spelling commission. Roosevelt issued a directive to adopt 300 reformed spellings, and the Government Printing Office director thought it was a great idea. But Roosevelt’s opposition jumped on this as a place where he was politically vulnerable and just roasted him on it. His rivals went on a big campaign and made it look like whole public was against him when really it was some senators and some editors at the Hearst papers. The movement stopped in its tracks right there. Spelling reform looked so unpopular that no politician would touch it.

KV: Do you all ever have conversations with the folks at the Oxford English Dictionary or at Webster’s?

SB: Well, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary was one of the members of the Simplified Spelling Society. The “Funk” of Funk & Wagnall was a member of the Simplified Spelling Society. There’s always been a close association there but the publishers are always reluctant to do anything too radical. They are in business to sell dictionaries so they can do what they want with the pronunciation guide but if they start changing words too much, you know, getting ahead of usage then their sales might drop off.

KV: There are distinguished writers who, at various points in time, discussed simplified spelling. Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw were advocates. Do any writers discuss spelling anymore or is it something batted around in the academic world?

SB: Well, it’s really gone out of favor in the academic world. Right around 1906, there was about 95 percent approval in the academic world, and now it’s just a non-issue. I mean it’s just not even on the radar.

KV: Simplified spellers make headlines every time they picket the Scripps bee. Have you ever picketed the spelling bee?

SB: I never bothered doing that. I think that the picketing does a good job in getting our name out there, and we notice a big surge in hits on the Internet site anytime a newspaper picks up an article on the picketing. If you believe that no publicity is bad publicity then you can go along with it.

KV: How does reform work? What’s the process?

SB: Well, there won’t be spelling police all over the place; that’s not how it works. The reform I’m most familiar with is the Dutch reform. They had a nongovernmental commission made up of linguists that try to find the worst examples of spelling in Dutch. Ultimately, the commission doesn’t suggest adjustments to more than about 5 percent of the words at one time. The commission gives their report, then the dictionaries pick it up, and the periodical publishers and editors pick it up, and the textbook people pick it up, etc.

KV: So it’s a law.

SB: Television programs highlight the changes. People can continue to spell the old way if they want to. But publishers usually go along with the new style guide.

KV: How long have you been a member of the spelling society?

SB: Since the late 1980’s.

KV: How many people are in the society right now?

SB: About a thousand.

KV: That’s a lot.

SB: Yeah, we’ve been focusing the last few years on recruiting. We got down to about 90 at one time.

KV: Have you seen anything change since you’ve been on board?

SB: People have died. That’s somewhat of a joke, but the members of the Society are usually quite elderly. So, I mean, you do have attrition there. But the previous members aren’t being replaced that fast. We’ve got to come up with ways to recruit some more members.

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