N9. On other pages: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 5.
[Bob Brown: see Journals, Newsletters, Personal View, Pamflet 13.]

Newsletter August 1995 part 4.

...and what did they do?

Bob Brown has been dusting off the minutes of those first meetings.


The inaugural meeting of what became the Simplified Spelling Society took place in the York Room of the Holborn Restaurant on Thursday September 10, 1908. Beside the five eminent gentlemen mentioned in the first half of this article, a number of others were present. They were Professor H Stanley Jevons, E P Gaston, J J Monro. There were also two American guests, a 'Visiting Committee' of the American Simplified Spelling Board of New York - founded two years earlier - comprising Professor James W Bright of Baltimore and Dr Charles P G Scott of New York. Skeat took the chair, and Archer agreed to act as secretary.

Skeat then made an opening speech "mentioning the difficulties that had been encountered in former years by the scholars who had urged a simplification of English spelling. It was now proposed to make a renewed effort ... by means of [founding] a Society which should cooperate with the Simplified Spelling Board of New York, but should adapt to English conditions its constitution and its methods of propaganda."

The Americans responded that and they felt the cause would be much advanced by having a similar organization in Britain, recognizing that methods would have to be somewhat different. Israel Gollancz then threw in a couple of notes of dissent, first quizzing the visitors on their credentials. The response is not recorded, but it obviously satisfied him because he went on to urge that the proposed society "should not tie itself down in its style and title to a policy of simplification, but should adopt a name importing a dispassionate interest in the problems of spelling, rather than a settled conviction as to the need for reform." He proposed that it should be named "The English Spelling Society," and was supported in this by Mr Monro. Furnivall, with support from others, seems to have vigorously opposed this idea.

Skeat then formally invited those present to form a Simplified Spelling Society. An amendment by Gollancz to have his way with the name was defeated, so "all those present except Professor Gollancz" formed the initial committee. Professor Jevons seems to have had a draft constitution already prepared, which was read and voted in by those present.

This initial set of "Constitution and Rules of the Simplified Spelling Society" were unexceptional, merely establishing a membership organization which anyone could join on paying an annual subscription of at least one shilling, with the usual officers and committee. The objectives are the only interesting part: "to recommend simpler spellings of English words than those now in use, to further the general use of such simpler spellings by every means in its power, and to cooperate with the Simplified Spelling Board of the United States of America, founded and incorporated in New York."

The group then appointed Skeat as President, and five Vice-Presidents: Mr Andrew Carnegie, Dr Furnivall, Sir J A H Murray, Dr Henry Bradley, and the visiting Professor Bright. A second meeting was arranged for a month later.

Taking shape.

The second meeting brought together Skeat, Furnivall, Archer, Monro, and the two American visitors, and concerned itself mostly with fine-tuning the rules that had been agreed earlier, and discussing a long list of worthies who should be approached and invited to join the society/committee. The final list of nominations, in addition to those present, was: Dr Henry Bradley, W A Craigie, Prof. W P Ker, Prof. H Stanley Jevons, Sir J H Murray, AW Pollard, A S Napier, J S Westlake and Professor Joseph Wright. The meeting also agreed in principle to the formation of a joint "committee of experts" with the American organization to "consider and report upon the scientific basis for the simplification of English spelling."

The Carnegie connection.

Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie
The third meeting on October 2, 1908, brought together Skeat, Furnivall, Archer, Jevons and Westlake of the Committee, and Dr Scott of the Simplified Spelling Board as a visitor. Scott came bearing two letters from Andrew Carnegie - the Scottish/American iron and steel tycoon turned philanthropist - written from Skibo Castle, Dornoch, Sutherland. They were both read to the meeting, and are worth quoting fully. The first was addressed to Archer.
I enclose a check [note spelling] for £1,000 sterling [equivalent to at least £25,000 today] according to my promise to Mr Scott, with a copy of a letter to him. I make no further promises, because everything depends on results. Frankly, we expect some work to be done in the old home.

Mr Scott would tell you that the great state of Iowa has adopted the 600 words as proposed by the Board, and these are used in every state institution from the state university to the public schools. This is progress.

I congratulate you upon the eminent men with whom you are surrounded, and shall watch anxiously your doings. I hope you will send me copies of all documents produced so that I may keep in touch. We are marching rapidly on the other side and the dear old home is either to join the procession and march, or be left behind.
The second letter to Scott, copied to Archer, dealt with a sensitive point:
I am glad to hear that the Britons are going to form a Society, but I do not wish to be considered as going to furnish all the funds needed, being satisfied that nothing would retard the progress of the cause more than the knowledge that it was the work of an alien. I can only be one of the subscribers. Please make this point clear.

If there had been but one organization, then my fund given in America might have been drawn upon to some extent without injuring the cause, but a separate British society supported by an alien would never do.
Although not explicitly stated in the record, a clear motivation for this series of meetings emerges. From the beginning Scott and Bright either already had the promise of funds from Carnegie, or were sure of their ability to persuade him. With a generous initial 'subscription' in the bank and an American organization gaining momentum, Skeat and Furnivall felt that it should indeed be possible to overcome the earlier 'difficulties' with the reform movement - this was a golden opportunity to renew the effort.

Clearly the funds had been expected, because Archer immediately submitted a budget for the first year's operations which summed neatly to £1,000. The main (recurring) items in this were £65 to rent offices, a £200 salary for Archer, the same for an Assistant Secretary (effectively office manager), and £80 for a typist. Redecorating and furnishing the intended office (at 44 Great Russell Street) was expected to cost £60, and the balance of the Carnegie subscription, plus others that would be collected, was intended to be spent on printing, postage, etc. The budget was approved.

The rest of the meeting concerned itself with firming up the committee based on those who had agreed to serve, and discussing further names who might be invited. These included Dr Gilbert Murray - the famous classical scholar and internationalist - who in fact joined the group in 1909, becoming President on the death of Skeat in 1912, which position he held until after the Second World War.

Busy days.

The office must fairly have hummed with activity that autumn. By the next meeting on November 9, 1908, Archer was reporting that almost 2,000 prospectuses had been mailed to newspapers and a wide range of different persons and groups thought to be interested in spelling. The Society had received coverage in about 50 newspapers, and already had 33 life members, and about 40 ordinary members. The extensive mailing campaign - with addressees numbered in thousands - continued through the winter, enclosing early pamphlets and article reprints with the prospectuses as they became available. No precise membership records are available to us now, but the Minute Book records that by 1914 over 1,500 renewal reminders and appeals were being sent out each year.

Andrew Carnegie continued to provide extensive funds for the Society, despite worrying about the radical nature of its proposals. Along with his £1,000 sent in early 1915, for example, he writes: I shall support no mode of Simplified Spelling that does not advance step by step. I am satisfied that anything like a complete new system is impossible [to implement]. We are making great progress here by taking up twelve words at a time." Funds from him dried up after his death in August 1919, but his place was taken as major benefactor by Sir George Hunter, who donated £2,500 in 1920, for example. But that merits another article.

[Nicholas Kerr, see Newsletters.]

The Vicar writes ...

by Nicholas Kerr.

Some people think I can't spell. Others complain that I prefer to spell words in the way favored across the Atlantic, rather than the british way. Why? Just to be different? (There's nothing wrong with being different; going to church makes me different.) No, and it's not just to wind people up either. It's more considered than that.

I used to teach modern languages. For a time I earned my living teaching Belgians english and Americans french. Then I taught boys in Leicester french and german. One of the obstacles to learning any language is the relationship between the way words sound to the ears, and the way they appear to the eyes. Dutch, german and italian are very straightforward: even though one letter may represent a very different sound in each language, the relationship of letters to sounds is regular and predictable. French is another matter: how, for instance, can you tell whether the ending -ent of a word is silent, as in ils donnent (they give), or pronounced, as in le froment (the wheat)l Occasionally you find two words like couvent (either sit on [eggs] or convent) which are spelt identically but pronounced differently according to meaning!

Compared to english, however, french is as simple as a game of snap. Consider the words daughter and laughter. They only differ by one letter, but they don't rhyme. And if you add s to laughter, the new word sounds like the first, not the second. Take some simple words like word, work, worm. You get these under your hat, then along comes worn which, for no obvious reason, does its own thing. It may sound as though I've hurt myself when I say brown cow, but I sound surprised when I get to grown and mow. How is anyone supposed to know?

It is as plain as day to me that there is a problem, though I'm continually surprised how many people deny it. In any case, even if it's easy to identify the problem, the solution is far from simple. 1 don't think the american dictionary makers went far enough in the last century or so, but they have at least made an attempt to tidy things up by removing unnecessary letters, such as the u in -our endings (flavour becomes flavor). They've also dispensed with the doubling of letters in certain cases, such canceling and traveling (where the emphasis falls on the first syllable), while keeping it in others like rebelling and compelling. And even in England the spelling of words is open to change. We no longer spell governour with a u; nor do we write a k at the end of publick or musick, and where are the forms shew and shewn (as in "all tickets must be shewn") which used to delight me on my way to and from school forty years ago? Even phantasy is now spelt with an f, so why not fotograf and telefone?

I belong to The Simplified Spelling Society, which was founded in the early years of this century to promote the idea of the reform of english spelling. It has members throughout the english-speaking world, and is one of a number of similar societies. The Society hasn't a single scheme of its own, but members are continually proposing new methods. Among these have been two versions of Nue Speling, in 1910 and 1990, and most recently Cut Spelng - A handbook to the simplification of written English by the omission of redundant letters.

n9pt4b (14K)
A sample of the Shaw Alphabet.
Perhaps the most notable thing the Society has done was to be involved [indirectly Ed.] with the production of a completely new alphabet, specially designed to write english faithfully. This was financed by a bequest of the writer G B Shaw. It is marvellously clear and simple, but so different from our Roman alphabet that it will probably never catch on. On the whole, people don't seem to be able to handle the simple, they prefer things to be complicated. Have a happy summer!

Nicholas Kerr is Vicar of the anglican parish of The Holy Redeemer, Lamorbey in Sidcup, Kent. He is a member of the Committee of the SSS. This personal statement is reprinted from the august issue of Holy Redeemer's Parish News.

Back to the top.
On other pages: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 5.