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What Is Language Reform?

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

Every modern language has undergone both hybridization and reform to become the agreed-upon means of communication for a certain group of people. When language reform occurs, it is often the result of a ruling power attempting to make a language easier to learn and more expressive of life. Language also is reformed — more incrementally and largely unnoticed — by dictionary publishers and several other media outlets, which aim to set the standard of communication in the modern age.

In just the last century, most major languages have undergone official language reform, often through crusades for more streamlined and simplified spellings. In China, the Mandarin dialect was chosen as the official language to be taught in all of the nation's schools. In countries like Greece, Germany, Somalia, Japan and Turkey, the invariable motivation behind every effort was to make language simpler and broader, in terms of how many people were using it. The United States took the helm of English reforms in 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt spearheaded a Simplified Spelling Board, which eventually led to a Handbook of Simplified Spelling in 1920.

Dictionary publishers are key to any language reform.
Dictionary publishers are key to any language reform.

The book devotes two-thirds of its effort to explaining the history and principles of English language reform. The final one-third is a style guide and dictionary. Making its way to every schoolhouse, library and dictionary publisher, this in turn led to several revisions in official standards for the English language.

The precursor to this official political act, however, was academic. It was the professor-laden American Philological Association that actually made several recommendations in 1875, eventually leading to a Spelling Reform Association. Many major recommendations of the group were criticized, however, by the official federal effort just three decades later. Though "catalog" made the cut, the following words were obviously rejected: ar, definit, gard, giv, hav, infinit, liv, tho, thru and wisht.

Great Britain's politicians and academics also have been involved in language reform efforts throughout modern history. In 1908, just two years after the American Handbook was formulated, the Simplified Spelling Society was born. Prominent editors, publishers, professors, and writers like H.G. Wells made suggestions that brought more official style guides and dictionaries of English further in agreement on a range of topics.

Sometimes language reform suggestions are successful, and other times they fail. The National Education Association was successful in 1916 when it recommended the addition of a "t" to end of several past-tense words ending in "-ed." According to the Handbook of Simplified Spelling, this language reform led to the change of some 900 English words. Many of the other recommendations, however, have yet to gain acceptance as of 2011, illustrated by the recommendations for styles that allowed for words like "steppd," "linotipe" and "hoodwinkt."

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    • Dictionary publishers are key to any language reform.
      By: Ackley Road Photos
      Dictionary publishers are key to any language reform.