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Walter W. Skeat (1835-1912) and spelling reform

By Anatoly Liberman


Henry Bradley, while writing his paper (see the previous post), must have looked upon Skeat as his main opponent. This becomes immediately clear from the details. For instance, Skeat lamented the use of the letter c in scissors and Bradley defended it. He even noted, in the supplement to the paper devoted to Spelling Reform, that, all Skeat’s ardor and arguments notwithstanding, in his publications and personal letters he stuck to traditional spelling. This mild taunt was beside the point. Why should Skeat have adopted reformed or simplified spelling before it became the norm?

Skeat’s program paper was delivered in 1906. In modern times, the proposal for simplified spelling was first made in 1881, and the decade before the First World War witnessed an unprecedented and never to be repeated splash of interest in this matter. In the United States, some linguistic journals agreed to print papers with the words having the appearance favored by the reformers. George O. Curme, a distinguished American linguist, published a scholarly article in a leading German periodical using “new orthography” (1914). I needn’t remind anyone that this was the epoch of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, hence the numerous cartoons connecting him and the Reform. In 1910 George B. Shaw believed that England would move toward phonetic spelling in the foreseeable future. Foreign scholars, especially in Sweden and the Netherlands, clamored for action, and offered recipes. English, they pointed out, had become an international language and its written form was the greatest handicap to those who wished to learn it.

The most timid attempt at Spelling Reform

The most timid attempt at Spelling Reform

The war made all such problems irrelevant. Then came the Bolsheviks and the Nazis and another war. In later times, the Chomskyan revolution did a lot of harm to the “cause.” Chomsky’s emphasis on the historical logic of English spelling contributed to the loss of the little enthusiasm scholars might have for Spelling Reform. He taught that one has to distinguish between underlying forms and surface realizations. Archaic English spelling provided Chomsky and his closest ally Morris Halle with a treasure trove of “underlying forms” (for example, we spell take, and the underlying form has “long a,” that is, the vowel of Modern Engl. spa, father, etc., and it is exactly this vowel from which the modern diphthong developed). In that academic battle, Bradley won a decisive victory, a fact to be regretted.

Skeat’s paper runs to eighteen pages. His main point, so cleverly contested by Bradley, is predictable: letters should represent sounds, but English spelling fails to do so. Very funny from our perspective is his suggestion for explaining to boys (naturally!) the true value of English vowels. The English should give up their habit of Anglicizing Latin pronunciation, and, once the boys begin to read Latin approximately as they would read Italian, they will understand the nature of sound change, and it will be easier to explain the correlation between letters and sounds, a major prerequisite for the success of the Reform. Alas and alack, today this recommendation has little value: our “boys” no longer study Latin for six years.

Help from Abroad

Help from Abroad

One of the pioneers of Spelling Reform was the great philologist Henry Sweet, and Skeat supported his ideas. These are the spellings both of them advocated: hav, liv, abov; agreev, aproov, solv, freez, etc. (in the e-less category, only adz and ax gained a foothold, and only in American English); jepardy, bredth; acheev, beleev; cumfort, tuch, cuzin; flurish; batl, ketl, writn; lam, num; lookt, puld; honor, labor (once again the last words will not offend the American eye). Skeat referred to two great gains the Reform would have. The first strikes me as almost humorous, even though offered in dead earnest, the second as vital.

“The first is that those partial reforms would necessarily involve the disuse of a large number of useless letters. In this way more matter would be got into a page, and some labour in the compositions of the type would be saved; and as this would happen in every case, …it might very easily save every printer and publisher a considerable sum of money. It would not be surprising if the aggregate savings, in the course of a year, throughout the British Empire, were to amount to a considerable sum of money. [He projected the economy of thousands of pounds.]… The second is that the task of learning to read would be considerably simplified, and the time taken to achieve that task would be considerably shortened…. In this case there can be no doubt at all that the sums thus saved would be very considerable.”

He devoted several paragraphs to beating this willing horse.

Skeat summarized the situation quite convincingly: English words have turned into hieroglyphs that have to be learned mechanically. With this spelling we are not quite in China (figuratively speaking), because many words are still spelled phonetically, but we are halfway through (I am paraphrasing, not quoting Skeat). Close to the end of the paper he admitted that since 1881 absolutely no progress had been made in reforming English spelling. Publishers and journalists crushed every attempt to tamper with the existing system (“I speak it to our utter shame,” he added). But his explanation of the reasons for the failure is probably wrong. He ascribed the public’s near universal resistance to its ignorance of the most basic facts of linguistics. The obtuseness and ignorance of his countrymen was one of Skeat’s favorite subjects; he had no patience with human stupidity.

However, in this case, it was probably not only ignorance that killed the Reform. We should rather consider the natural wish of human beings to protect their riches, be it material possessions or spiritual property. Someone who has learned the spelling of the noun occurrence (very few have, as far as I can judge), has perhaps been whipped, rapped over the knuckles, or received bad grades for spelling it with -ance or with one r (or one c), will cling to the hard-obtained treasure like grim death. To waste years on such terrible words and give up their spelling? No! Besides, in England honor, labor, ax, and their likes had the stigma of being Americanisms. Who would fall so low as to imitate the Americans? Even after 1918 British periodicals carried blood curdling letters to the editor about the corrupting influence of Americanisms on pure English.

From this point of view, it is curious to read the concluding paragraph of Skeat’s paper.

“If, however, it should come to pass that a real Spelling Reform should previously be effected in America, it may quite possibly be a gain to us; because the history of our language is there more generally known. I lately met with the President of an American university, who said to me (I have no doubt with perfect truth) ‘In our universities English takes the first place’. This is one of those facts of which the ordinary Englishman is entirely ignorant; indeed, it is almost impossible for him to imagine how such a state of things can be possible. I recommend the contemplation of this astounding fact to your serious consideration.”

I am a great fan of Walter Skeat’s and often try to placate his irascible shadow. This time I hasten to reassure the great man that English no longer takes the first place in American universities; at all stages, we teach concepts and critical thinking, not facts. We despise memorization and encourage discussion, ideally group discussion following a PowerPoint presentation. One semester of the history of English is rarely required even of English majors, and for spelling we have spellcheckers. However, it is not good to finish even a grim comedy (that is, a drama in which the protagonists don’t die) on a gloomy note. Perhaps indeed, the stimulus to reform English spelling will come from America; we’ll see. The past is hard to reconstruct, but the future is even harder to predict.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credits: (1) Printed in 1911 in the American Transactions of the Philological Association (part of the article by Charles P.G. Scott “Bogus and his Crew”; Scott was the etymologist for The Century Dictionary). (2) A sample of what the Swedes suggested (the Anglic Fund, Uppsala). Both images courtesy of Anatoly Liberman.

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5 Responses to “Walter W. Skeat (1835-1912) and spelling reform”
  1. Masha Bell says:

    I agree that the main reason for modernising English spelling is to make learning to read and write easier. I advocate reform because i find it shameful that even fairly basic literacy acquisition in English takes three years, while many other orthographies make it manageable in one year or less (Seymour et al, 2003).

    English spelling inconsistencies incur considerable printing costs too. But not because of the many surplus letters, as Skeat and Shaw believed. – Publishers often have to reprint copy because of spelling errors.

    English spelling is undoubtedly very costly. The difficulties and slow speed of English literacy acquisition incur a vast variety of costs – http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-costs-englishspelling-literacy-is.html – especially with pupils at the lower end of the ability range. Sadly, most people are not aware of them. So Skeat was at least partly right to regard ignorance as a major obstacle to spelling reform.

    This ignorance takes many forms. Not only do most people not appreciate that a highly irregular spelling system makes literacy acquisition exceptionally slow and difficult. They do not realise that a language and its orthography are not the same thing. Many children have no difficulty learning to speak English but have severe problems with learning to read and write – only because English spelling is so chaotic, not because of any faults in the English language.

    The two biggest obstacles to reform, however, are probably indifference and powerlessness. People who manage to get to grips with English spelling are not seriously concerned about the vast numbers who don’t. The latter would welcome change but are powerless to help bring it about, because of their illiteracy.

  2. Luna says:

    I do agree that it would be wonderful for others to acquire English quicker and easier, however, one cannot forget that those learners would still have to figure out our horrific grammatical structures.
    And even if it were more cost effective to publishers to strip English down to its bare minimals, imagine the costs to replace signs, business cards, previously published books, currency, information and safety cards, packaging, etc. A similar situation happened to the US when proposed to convert to the metric system: it cost too much to be worth it.
    But why do we need to reform our language to begin with? It doesn’t seem like that important of an issue in the grand scheme of things.
    One of my reason for opposition is that it would make those who knew the previous, appropriate spellings feel uneducated and or lazy. Yes, it does take a long time to master English, but that mastery sets people apart: it can raise people from the slums or lower them to trash.
    It simply is not feasible to reform a long establish language all of a sudden. And what has been seen so far is just the beginning of the opposition to change.
    I may just seem like a Romantic, but to reform spelling would take the beauty and art from the words. It would also mean turning our backs on the history and origins of most of our words. Prime example: French! It is loaded with silent letters. But if they weren’t there, would the words seem as elegant as before?
    This leads me back to the question of “why reform”? No other language group seems to find a need to make that language more phonetic based, so why should we uproot and inconvenience ourselves.
    I do acknowledge that this is an idea with its benefits, but I do not believe that it would be in anyway practical to implement.

  3. [...] think some sort of closure is needed after we have heard the arguments for and against spelling reform by two outstanding scholars. Should we do something about English [...]

  4. Rihari Wilson says:

    In New Zealand,there has recently been some discussion of the spelling of the Gloster River. It was pointed out that Shakespeare used both “Gloster” and “Gloucester” and that today both forms are still used in different contexts. A 1598 printing has “Loues labors lost” on the title page.

    However, there are a problems with any strictly phonetic spelling: diachronic and synchronic. Pronunciation changes over time and varies geographically so that some compromise is essential.

  5. AnWulf says:

    First I want to than Masha Bell for her graet (great) blog. I almost forwent wrapping up my on blog on spelling.

    I might hav forwent that blog but for Luna’s comment. Heck, to fully answer his comments wuud take a full blog in itself … hwich I may doo. The titul (OE tītul) of that blog is to be: “Stupid Spelling: A Token of Snobbery”. Luna’s comment will fit nicely as a byspel of that snobbery.

    Furthermore, I doo not mean to belittl Luna, but his comments doo sho an amazing lack knowledg. I hav helpt many outlanders lern English. None of them hav found English grammar to be hard but they ar stumpt by its spelling.

    I hav lernt three other tungs … Russian, German, and Spanish and I can truthfully say that the grammar of each of them is mor ravel’d than English grammar. For byspel, Russian has three grammatical jenders and six declensions of nouns, pronouns, and adjectivs (18 endings altogether; six each for each gender). I can’t see how that is easier than the paltry few words of jender and the pronoun declensions of English? German? Three jenders and four declensions. Spanish? Twu jenders; three verbs basic verb shapes (withal the wonted odd ones that most tungs hav for to be and a few others); way more stem shifting verbs than English has strong verbs; and other things. Thankfully they all are mostly fonetic in their spelling so that was one less headake. A headake, by the way, that was enuff for me to put aside French for its crazy spelling … And pleaz don’t try to tell me that French is fonetic … I’v study’d it and it’s not.

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