Thursday, October 2, 2014

Zamenhof and Spelling Reform

Surprisingly lukewarm on
phonetic spelling
First, I should note that the spelling reform movement referenced in the title was for the English language, not Esperanto. A spelling reform in Esperanto would be a vocabulary reform, since all the words are phonetic. If you know how to pronounce Esperanto and you see an unfamiliar word, you will know how to pronounce it, even if its meaning is wholly obscure. (Specialized terminology would be a good example of this. Anything you might call a “whatchamacallit,” someone else has a real name for.)

Zamenhof had been asked to give his opinion of the Simplified Spelling movement, which at the beginning of the twentieth century had some really high powered support. Wikipedia notes that the funding for the Simplified Spelling Board came from Andrew Carnegie, and supporters included the president of Columbia University, Mark Twain, and even Melvil Dewey. But the most prominent supporter was the Theodore Roosevelt, who put the power of the presidency behind it.

The Evening Star of Washington, D.C. offered Zamehof’s opinion in their October 2, 1906 edition.
Not Enthused Over Spelling Reform.
Special Cablegram to The Star.
Berlin, October 1.—Dr. Zamenhof, the Warsaw physician, who invented Esperanto, the universal language, is not enthusiastic over President Roosevelt’s incursion in to the realism of the grammarians.

He admitted in an interview that from an Esperantist point of view the revised spelling was not without merit, as it would hasten the adoption of a universal language.

He thought, however, that any drastic attack on English spelling was predoomed to failure in consequence of the difficulty of a language which had so many words of dissimilar pronunciation and similar appearance.
It wasn’t wholly out of left field to ask Zamenhof about spelling reform. Some of the early American Esperanto speakers were also advocates of spelling reform. In 1907, the North American Review was advocating both.

The Simplified Spelling Board came to an end after Carnegie stopped funding it. While they weren’t as successful as they had hoped, and while Roosevelt came in for a lot of mockery for supporting them, a check on the Google Ngram viewer shows that some of their proposals were accepted (such as dropping the “oe” in some words). On the other hand, some of their proposed changes were already accepted. They proposed that words end in -or instead of -our, but the spellings color and flavor were well established in the 1840s. Most of their -ough suggestions have been discarded (though it is amazing how long people have been advocating for the spellings tho and thru), and plow for plough seems to have been well established a few years before they began.

It’s clear that like many of the preceding reform movements, the Simplified Spelling Board’s proposal was a failure. At their best, they acknowledged changes that were already happening. Zamenhof’s lack of enthusiasm probably had no effect on it; nobody left off supporting spelling reform because of Zamenhof’s statements. Had he vigorously endorsed it, history wouldn’t have been any different.
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