May 30, 2007 — -- If it's true that no event has really arrived until sign-wielding protestors set up shop outside it, than the Scripps National Spelling Bee is officially a big deal. Today spelling-reform-movement protesters pushed pavement alongside the premier spell-down.
These spelling-reform activists have joined forces with the American Literacy Council and the London-based Simplified Spelling Society. They claim writers like Chaucer and Mark Twain, thinkers like Charles Darwin and Andrew Carnegie, and Nobel laureates among their ranks. And, put plainly, they encourage the use of simpler spelling through the elimination of the rogue vowels and consonants they say clutter the English language.
Under their edict, "through" becomes "thru," "have" becomes "hav," "you" becomes "u."
"There are 4,000 common words you can't spell from the established rules," said Masha Bell, an English writer who traveled from across the pond to join the spelling-reform picket line outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, where the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee are taking place. She said her group's charge is to "make English spelling more consistent."
Toting a sign that read "Let's End the I in Friend," she explained the history of the spelling-reform cause. The silver-haired Bell traced inconsistencies in the English language back to the 15th century and William Tyndale, the first printer to translate the Bible into English.
Bell said that incorrect spellings and use of language in Tyndale's translation were taken as fact. People thought "it was in the Bible, so it was right."
When asked how, in a time of infinite communication options, how a group goes about changing a language, Bell was quick to underscore that the group's aims are to "change the spelling, not the language."
Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, described the history of the spelling-reform movement as "long, distinguished and totally ineffective."
Reformers take one of two approaches, he said. Either to create a new alphabet in which every written symbol stands for a sound or the path of the Simplified Spelling Society, which advocates for a new dictionary.
Either way, "we don't get any mechanisms for making this happen," Baron said. "Even if you think it's a good idea, how are you going to do it? There's no federal law you could put in place to get this going. There's no English language academy to oversee it."
Baron cites President Theodore Roosevelt's attempt at an executive order to simplify the spellings of 300 common words. Roosevelt, Baron said, "faced such violent opposition to his proposal that he had to drop the big stick and speak softly," retracting his order after a few months.
The Simplified Spellers use literacy statistics to forward their movement, but Baron said, "Spelling is disconnected from other literary activities. Good spellers aren't necessarily good writers, good writers aren't the best spellers. We don't know cognitively how spelling functions as a literacy ability. It doesn't seem to connect with reading and writing."
Niall Waldman, a self-proclaimed spelling reformist who traveled from Canada for the second time to join the protest group outside the Bee, carried a sign that read "Enuf is Enuf."
"Look at kids text messaging," Waldman said, "That's simplified spelling!"
Acknowledging that sentiment, Baron said the simplification of language "does happen naturally to some extent."
Citing "Nick at Nite," lite beer and various diet products, Baron said, "In fairly public displays, it's the phenomenon of advertising language or branding -- and people don't tend to object too strenuously to that.
While Waldman viewed the group's presence at the spelling bee as a way to bring attention to the cause and "not to decide how the change should take place," he thought the development of the English language might do well in the hands of the United Nations.
"Try to get the U.N. involved [so that] a fraction of the U.N. controls the way English is used," Waldman offered.
"Languages sort of works by fits and starts -- you can't make rules because people don't listen to them," he said.
As an English professor, "people want me to tell them what's right and what's wrong, but if I do, they tell me I'm wrong or they refuse to do what I say. It's a curious situation in America where we want to be correct about our language, but we don't want anyone to tell us what to do."