On this day 65 years ago, Members of Parliament in Great Britain tried to make English spelling more logical.
Students of the English language—both native speakers and not—know very well the inconsistencies of spelling and pronunciation that have driven some learners batty.
Why, for example, does a word like “wound” sound one way when it means “an injury” and another way when it’s the past tense of “to wind”?
Albrecht Classen of the Department of German Studies at the University of Arizona asked what should be an obvious question:
If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn’t the plural of booth be beeth? One goose, two geese. So—one moose, two meese? One mouse, two mice, means one house, two hice?
We tend to take it for granted, but in the land of Shakespeare, there was once a serious effort at reform. On this day in 1953, the British House of Commons voted, 65-53, to approve a bill to investigate the feasibility of introducing a simpler version of English to make reading easier for younger children. The children would switch to standard English as they got older.
The Simplified Spelling Bill was introduced by Labour MP Mont Follick. It was seconded by a Conservative MP, James Pitman, whose grandfather devised the Pitman shorthand system. During parliamentary debate that lasted four and a half hours, Pitman, who belonged to the Simplified Spelling Society, used large printed cards with words such as “out” and “ought” to display what he said were inconsistencies in the spelling and pronunciation of some English words.
“English is halfway between the alphabetic system of Spanish and picture-writing of Chinese, ” he declaimed.
According to a BBC report at the time, another MP objected that the bill would only confuse the less intelligent by making them learn two ways of spelling. But Mont Follick said they had no intention of forcing children to learn two different systems.
Mont Follick ended up withdrawing his bill after reaching a compromise with the government. The Ministry of Education backed a small-scale research project conducted under the aegis of the University of London.
The idea was put on the back burner until James Pitman devised the Initial Teaching Alphabet, a phonetics-based system made up of 44 characters. ITA was tested in a handful of schools in England during the early 1960s with mixed success for the children involved.
ITA largely fell into disuse, although James Pitman had some success in persuading schools in the USA and Australia to try out the system, the BBC noted.
Some of the MPs who took part in that debate 65 years ago might get a shock when they see how kids are writing today: I ❤ English, 👍. LOL!