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Useful And Fantastic: Mark Twain - Social Reformer

...Twain, with his sharp eye for nonsense, was an energetic campaigner for spelling reform. Lacking modern knowledge of linguistics and cognitive psychology, he was a ‘spell-as-you-speak’ Pitman’s shorthand man, and like Shaw, wrote in a new shorthand himself, but he was very aware of the problems of both the old spelling and the new, and of the reactions of the public...

Val Yule, along with Twain and other celebrated figures, is an enthusiastic supporter of a more logical form of spelling.

This year is the hundredth since Mark Twain’s death and 175th since his birth. He is widely recognized as the greatest popular writer of the United States, with wit, wisdom, observation and satire yet to be surpassed.

Together with Benjamin Franklin he is notable for his seeking social justice and hitting stupidity. People loved to laugh at both of them, but have taken little notice of most of the reforms they sought, especially their fight for more sensible spelling. Mark Twain campained for spelling reform up to almost his last breth, regarding the unnecessary difficulties of present spelling as amongst the big social oppressions of his time.

Twain, with his sharp eye for nonsense, was an energetic campaigner for spelling reform. Lacking modern knowledge of linguistics and cognitive psychology, he was a ‘spell-as-you-speak’ Pitman’s shorthand man, and like Shaw, wrote in a new shorthand himself, but he was very aware of the problems of both the old spelling and the new, and of the reactions of the public.

*

“Simplified spelling brought about sunspots, the San Francisco earthquake and the recent business depression, which we never would have had if spelling had been left all alone.”

Mark Twain, in a speech to Associated Press in support of spelling reform, Sept 18. 1906, one of his last public orations.

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Among his most hilarious satires is a fable of ‘Spelling Reform in Ancient Egypt. It is shortened here.

The first time I was in Egypt a Simplified Spelling epidemic had broken out and the atmosphere was electrical with feeling engendered by the subject. This was four or five thousand years ago - I do not remember just how many thousand it was, for my memory for minor details has suffered some decay in the lapse of years. I am speaking of a former state of existence of mine, perhaps my earliest reincarnation; indeed I think it was the earliest.

The Simplifiers had risen in revolt against the hieroglyphics. An uncle of Cadmus had come to Egypt and was trying to introduce the Phoenician alphabet. He was challenged to show cause. The exhibition and discussion took place in the Temple of Astarte, and I was present. So also was the Simplified Committee, with Croesus as foreman of the Revolt - a simplified speller of acknowledged ability. The Simplifiers were few; the Opposition were multitudinous. Among the Simplifiers were many men of learning and distinction, but all ranks and conditions of men and all grades of intellect, erudition, and ignorance were represented in the Opposition.

As a rule the speeches on both sides were temperate and courteous, but now and then a speaker weakened his argument with personalities, the Revolters referring to the Opposition as “fossils”, and the Opposition referring to the Revolters as “those cads,” a smart epithet coined out of Uncle Cadmus.

Uncle Cadmus began with an object lesson, with chalk, on a couple of blackboards. On one of them he drew in outline a slender Egyptian in a short skirt, with slim legs and an eagle's head in place of a proper head, and he was carrying a couple of dinner pails, one in each hand. In front of this figure he drew a toothed line like an excerpt from a saw; in front of this he drew three skeleton birds of doubtful ornithological origin; in front of these he drew a partly constructed house, with lean Egyptians fetching materials in wheelbarrows to finish it with; next he put in some more unclassified birds; then a large king, with carpenter's shavings for whiskers and hair; next he put in another king jabbing at a mongrel lion with a javelin; he followed this with a picture of a tower, with armed Egyptians projecting out of the top of it and as crowded for room as the cork in a bottle; he drew the opposing army below, fierce of aspect but much out of drawing as regards to perspective. They were shooting arrows at the men in the tower, which was poor military judgement because they could have reached up and pulled them out by the scruff of the neck. He followed these pictures with line after line of birds and beasts and scraps of saw-teeth and bunches of men in the customary short frock, some of them doing things, the others waiting for the umpire to call game; and finally his great blackboard was full from top to bottom. Everybody recognized the invocation set forth by the symbols: it was the Lord's Prayer.

It had taken him forty-five minutes to set it down. Then he stepped to the other blackboard and dashed off "Our Father which art in heaven," and the rest of it, in graceful Italian script, spelling the words the best he knew how in those days, and finished it up in four minutes and a half.

He went to a fresh blackboard and wrote upon it in hieroglyphics-

“At this time the King possessed of cavalry 214,580 men and 222,631 horses for their use; of infantry 16,341 squadrons together with an emergency reserve of all arms, consisting of 84,946 men, 321 elephants, 37,264 transportation carts, and 28,954 camels and dromedaries.”

It filled the board and cost him twenty-six minutes of time and labor. Then he repeated it on another blackboard in Italian script and Arabic numerals and did it in two minutes and a quarter. Then he said:

"One of the objections to the hieroglyphics is that it takes the brightest pupil nine years to get the forms and their meanings by heart; it takes the average pupil sixteen years; it takes the rest of the nation all their days to accomplish it - it is a life sentence. This cost of time could be employed more usefully in other industries, and with better results."

"If you will renounce the hieroglyphics and adopt written words instead, a tremendous advantage will be gained. Not by you. You have spent your lives in mastering the hieroglyphics, and to you they are simple, and the effect pleasant to the eye, and even beautiful. You are well along in life; it would not be worth your while to acquire the new learning; you will naturally cling with affection to the pictured records which have become beautiful to you through habit and use, and which are associated in your mind with the moving legends and tales of our venerable past and the great deeds of our fathers, which they have placed before you indestructively engraved upon stone. But I appeal to you in behalf of the generations which are to follow you, century after century, age after age, cycle after cycle.

Lift this heavy burden from their backs. Do not send them toiling and moiling down to the twentieth century still bearing it, still oppressed by it. Let your sons and daughters adopt the written words and the alphabet, and go free. (Uncle Cadmus then gave a withering comparison of German and English spelling, and Twain’s ideas about an improved alphabet.)

Uncle Cadmus sat down, and the Opposition rose and combated his reasonings in the usual way. Those people said that they had always been used to the hieroglyphics; that the hieroglyphics had dear and sacred associations for them; that they loved to sit on a barrel under an umbrella in the brilliant sun of Egypt and spell out the owls and eagles and alligators and saw-teeth, and take an hour and a half to the Lord's Prayer, and weep with romantic emotion at the thought that they had at most but eight or ten years between themselves and the grave for the enjoyment of this ecstasy.

Twain wrote and spoke for reforms to spelling, as they were understood in his time. He advocated a simplified alphabet, like Shaw, and for the same reason – he could write more quickly.

‘ I am laboring with Carnegie's Simplified Committee, and with my heart in the work. . .Now then, let us look at this mighty question reasonably, rationally, sanely -- yes, and calmly, not excitedly.. What is the real function, the essential function, the supreme function, of language? Isn't it merely to convey ideas and emotions? Certainly. Then if we can do it with words of fonetic brevity and compactness, why keep the present cumbersome forms? But can we?

‘Mind, I myself am a Simplified Speller; I belong to that unhappy guild that is patiently and hopefully trying to reform our drunken old alphabet by reducing his whiskey. Well, it will improve him. When they get through and have reformed him all they can by their system he will be only HALF drunk. Above that condition their system can never lift him. There is no competent, and lasting, and real reform for him but to take away his whiskey entirely, and fill up his jug with Pitman's wholesome and undiseased alphabet. (Isaac Pitman’s Phonotypy)

The heart of our trouble is with our foolish alphabet. It doesn't know how to spell, and can't be taught. In this it is like all other alphabets except one – the phonographic. This is the only competent alphabet in the world. It can spell and correctly pronounce any word in our language. That admirable alphabet, that brilliant alphabet, that inspired alphabet, can be learned in an hour or two. In a week the student can learn to write it with some little facility, and to read it with considerable ease. I know, for I saw it tried in a public school in Nevada forty-five years ago, and was so impressed by the incident that it has remained in my memory ever since.

What should we gain? First of all, we could spell DEFINITELY-- and correctly - -any word you please, just by the SOUND of it. We can't do that with our present alphabet. For instance, take a simple, every-day word PHTHISIS. If we tried to spell it by the sound of it, we should make it TYSIS, and be laughed at by every educated person.

Secondly, we should gain in REDUCTION OF LABOR in writing . .’

Mark Twain found the present orthography could not keep up with his brain when he wanted to write. In this he was like Bernard Shaw, who wanted a new alphabet for the same reason.

‘My writing-gait is--well, I don't know what it is, but I will time myself and see. Result: it is twenty-four words per minute. I don't mean composing; I mean COPYING. There isn't any definite composing-gait.

Very well, my copying-gait is 1,440 words per hour--say 1,500. If I could use the phonographic character with facility I could do the 1,500 in twenty minutes. I could do nine hours' copying in three hours; I could do three years' copying in one year. Also, if I had a typewriting machine with the phonographic alphabet on it--oh, the miracles I could do!

I am not pretending to write those character well. I have never had a lesson, and I am copying the letters from the book. But I can accomplish my desire, at any rate, which is, to make the reader get a good and clear idea of the advantage it would be to us if we could discard our present alphabet and put this better one in its place --using it in books, newspapers, with the typewriter, and with the pen. . . One great drawback to Simplified Spelling is, that in print a simplified word looks so like the very nation! And when you bunch a whole squadron of the Simplified together the spectacle is very nearly unendurable. To see our letters put together in ways to which we are not accustomed offends the eye, and also takes the EXPRESSION out of the words.

La on, Makduf, and damd be he hoo furst krys hold, enuf!

( Perhaps it might have been better for the early reformers if they had not been so keen to change as much as possible- ‘Lay on, Macduff, and damd be he who first crys hold, enuf’ gets rid of the spelling traps for readers.)

‘ It doesn't thrill you as it used to do. The simplifications have sucked the thrill all out of it. But a written character with which we are NOT ACQUAINTED does not offend us--Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, and the others--they have an interesting look, and we see beauty in them, too. There is something pleasant and engaging about the mathematical signs when we do not understand them. We can't come across a printed page of shorthand without being impressed by it and wishing we could read it. Very well, what I am offering for acceptance and adopting is not shorthand, but longhand, written with the SHORTHAND ALPHABET UNREACHED. You can write three times as many words in a minute with it as you can write with our alphabet. And so, in a way, it IS properly shorthand. It has a pleasant look, too; a beguiling look, an inviting look. I will write something in it, in my rude and untaught way – ‘ And so he did.

(If Twain had had SMS Texting, he might have written three times as much. And word-processing is a boon. But I argue for changes to ordinary print which would have made him twice as fast.)

The essay by Mark Twain written in the autumn of 1899 shows his attitude to reforming spelling. It is similar in some ways to Bernard Shaw's opinions, but the difference is that Shaw always wrote in Pitman shorthand and was dissatisfied with it. He didn't like abbreviations and he believed the alphabet should be linear - most shorthands are not. Twain never really mastered a shorthand but he could see its utility.

(The original page elements of Twain’s preferred system are Copyright ©1998 BETA Interactive and therefore not shown here.)

I will insert the alphabet here as I find it in Burnz's PHONIC SHORTHAND. [Twain’s puts in in.] It is arranged on the basis of Isaac Pitman's PHONOGRAPHY. Isaac Pitman was the originator and father of scientific phonography. It is used throughout the globe. It was a memorable invention. He made it public seventy- three years ago. The firm of Isaac Pitman & Sons, New York, still exists, and they continue the master's work.

What should we gain?

First of all, we could spell DEFINITELY--and correctly--any word you please, just by the SOUND of it. We can't do that with our present alphabet. For instance, take a simple, every-day word PHTHISIS. If we tried to spell it by the sound of it, we should make it TYSIS, and be laughed at by every educated person.

Secondly, we should gain in REDUCTION OF LABOR in writing.

Simplified Spelling makes valuable reductions in the case of several hundred words, but the new spelling must be LEARNED. You can't spell them by the sound; you must get them out of the book.

But even if we knew the simplified form for every word in the language, the phonographic alphabet would still beat the Simplified Speller "hands down" in the important matter of economy of labor. I will illustrate:

PRESENT FORM: through, laugh, highland.

SIMPLIFIED FORM at the time: thru, laff, hyland.

PHONOGRAPHIC FORM: [Demonstrated by Twain]

To write the word "through," the pen has to make twenty-one strokes.

To write the word "thru," then pen has to make twelve strokes-- a good saving.

To write that same word with the phonographic alphabet, the pen has to make only THREE strokes.

To write the word "laugh," the pen has to make FOURTEEN strokes.

To write "laff," the pen has to make the SAME NUMBER of strokes--no labor is saved to the penman.

To write the same word with the phonographic alphabet, the pen has to make only THREE strokes.

To write the word "highland," the pen has to make twenty-two strokes.

To write "hyland," the pen has to make eighteen strokes.

To write that word with the phonographic alphabet, the pen has to make only FIVE strokes. [Twain demonstrates]

To write the words "phonographic alphabet," the pen has to make fifty-three strokes.

To write "fonografic alfabet," the pen has to make fifty strokes. To the penman, the saving in labor is insignificant.

To write that word (with vowels) with the phonographic alphabet, the pen has to make only SEVENTEEN strokes.

Without the vowels, only THIRTEEN strokes. [Twain demonstrates] The vowels are hardly necessary, this time.

We make five pen-strokes in writing an m. Thus: [Twain demonstrates] a stroke down; a stroke up; a second stroke down; a second stroke up; a final stroke down. Total, five. The phonographic alphabet accomplishes the m with a single stroke--a curve, like a parenthesis that has come home drunk and has fallen face down right at the front door where everybody that goes along will see him and say, Alas!

When our written m is not the end of a word, but is otherwise located, it has to be connected with the next letter, and that requires another pen-stroke, making six in all, before you get rid of that m. But never mind about the connecting strokes--let them go. Without counting them, the twenty-six letters of our alphabet consumed about eighty pen-strokes for their construction--about three pen-strokes per letter.

It is THREE TIMES THE NUMBER required by the phonographic alphabet. It requires but ONE stroke for each letter.

My writing-gait is--well, I don't know what it is, but I will time myself and see. Result: it is twenty-four words per minute. I don't mean composing; I mean COPYING. There isn't any definite composing-gait.

[Twain demonstrates] --MAN DOG HORSE. I think it is graceful and would look comely in print. And consider--once more, I beg--what a labor-saver it is! Ten pen-strokes with the one system to convey those three words above, and thirty-three by the other! [Figure 6] I mean, in SOME ways, not in all. I suppose I might go so far as to say in most ways, and be within the facts, but never mind; let it go at SOME. One of the ways in which it exercises this birthright is--as I think--continuing to use our laughable alphabet these seventy-three years while there was a rational one at hand, to be had for the taking.

It has taken five hundred years to simplify some of Chaucer's rotten spelling--if I may be allowed to use to frank a term as that--and it will take five hundred years more to get our exasperating new Simplified Corruptions accepted and running smoothly. And we sha'n't be any better off then than we are now; for in that day we shall still have the privilege the Simplifiers are exercising now: ANYBODY can change the spelling that wants to.

BUT YOU CAN'T CHANGE THE PHONOGRAPHIC SPELLING; THERE ISN'T ANY WAY. It will always follow the SOUND. If you want to change the spelling, you have to change the sound first.

Mind, I myself am a Simplified Speller; I belong to that unhappy guild that is patiently and hopefully trying to reform our drunken old alphabet by reducing his whiskey. Well, it will improve him. When they get through and have reformed him all they can by their system he will be only HALF drunk. Above that condition their system can never lift him. There is no competent, and lasting, and real reform for him but to take away his whiskey entirely, and fill up his jug with Pitman's wholesome and undiseased alphabet.

One great drawback to Simplified Spelling is, that in print a simplified word looks so like the very nation! and when you bunch a whole squadron of the Simplified together the spectacle is very nearly unendurable.

The da ma ov koars kum when the publik ma be expektd to get rekonsyled to the bezair asspekt of the Simplified Kombynashuns, but--if I may be allowed the expression--is it worth the wasted time?

(If the Simplified Spellers had tried just to get out the spelling traps for reading, it would have come out like this:
The day may of cors come when the public may be expected to get reconsiled to the bizaar aspect of the Simplified Combinations.

Twain went on to argue for his shorthand – as he would have argued for SMS textng today.

‘But a written character with which we are NOT ACQUAINTED does not offend us--Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, and the others--they have an interesting look, and we see beauty in them, too. And this is true of hieroglyphics, as well. There is something pleasant and engaging about the mathematical signs when we do not understand them. The mystery hidden in these things has a fascination for us: we can't come across a printed page of shorthand without being impressed by it and wishing we could read it.

Very well, what I am offering for acceptance and adopting is not shorthand, but longhand, written with the SHORTHAND ALPHABET UNREACHED. You can write three times as many words in a minute with it as you can write with our alphabet. And so, in a way, it IS properly a shorthand. It has a pleasant look, too; a beguiling look, an inviting look. I will write something in it, in my rude and untaught way: [He does.]

Even when I do it it comes out prettier than it does in Simplified Spelling. Yes, and in the Simplified it costs one hundred and twenty-three pen-strokes to write it, whereas in the phonographic it costs only twenty-nine.

Simplified Spelling makes valuable reductions in the case of several hundred words, but the new spelling must be LEARNED. You can't spell them by the sound; you must get them out of the book.

But even if we knew the simplified form for every word in the language, the phonographic alphabet would still beat the Simplified Speller "hands down" in the important matter of economy of labor.’

Twain did not foresee the word-processor, or the possibilities for spelling that we now have, but he recognized the barrier of spelling for what it is – a social oppression, as well as an encumbered tool for writers such as himself.

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