Mark Twain’s remarks about the irregularities and irrationality of spelling in the English language.
ADDRESS AT THE DINNER GIVEN TO MR. CARNEGIE AT THE DEDICATION OF THE NEW YORK ENGINEERS’ CLUB, DECEMBER 9, 1907
Mr. Clemens was introduced by the president of the club, who, quoting from the Mark Twain autobiography, recalled the day when the distinguished writer came to New York with $3 in small change in his pockets and a $10 bill sewed in his clothes.
It seems to me that I was around here in the neighborhood of the Public Library about fifty or sixty years ago. I don’t deny the circumstance, although I don’t see how you got it out of my autobiography, which was not to be printed until I am dead, unless I’m dead now. I had that $3 in change, and I remember well the $10 which was sewed in my coat. I have prospered since. Now I have plenty of money and a disposition to squander it, but I can’t. One of those trust companies is taking care of it.
Now, as this is probably the last time that I shall be out after nightfall this winter, I must say that I have come here with a mission, and I would make my errand of value.
Many compliments have been paid to Mr. Carnegie to-night. I was expecting them. They are very gratifying to me.
I have been a guest of honor myself, and I know what Mr. Carnegie is experiencing now. It is embarrassing to get compliments and compliments and only compliments, particularly when he knows as well as the rest of us that on the other side of him there are all sorts of things worthy of our condemnation.
Just look at Mr. Carnegie’s face. It is fairly scintillating with fictitious innocence. You would think, looking at him, that he had never committed a crime in his life. But no–look at his pestiferious simplified spelling. You can’t any of you imagine what a crime that has
been. Torquemada was nothing to Mr. Carnegie. That old fellow shed some blood in the Inquisition, but Mr. Carnegie has brought destruction to the entire race. I know he didn’t mean it to be a crime, but it was, just the same. He’s got us all so we can’t spell anything.
The trouble with him is that he attacked orthography at the wrong end. He meant well, but he, attacked the symptoms and not the cause of the disease. He ought to have gone to work on the alphabet. There’s not a vowel in it with a definite value, and not a consonant that you can hitch anything to. Look at the “h’s” distributed all around. There’s”gherkin.” What are you going to do with the “h” in that? What the devil’s the use of “h” in gherkin, I’d like to know. It’s one thing I admire the English for: they just don’t mind anything about them at all.
But look at the “pneumatics” and the “pneumonias” and the rest of them. A real reform would settle them once and for all, and wind up by giving us an alphabet that we wouldn’t have to spell with at all, instead of this present silly alphabet, which I fancy was invented by a drunken thief. Why, there isn’t a man who doesn’t have to throw out about fifteen hundred words a day when he writes his letters because he can’t spell them! It’s like trying to do a St. Vitus’s dance with wooden legs.
Now I’ll bet there isn’t a man here who can spell “pterodactyl,” not even the prisoner at the bar. I’d like to hear him try once–but not in public, for it’s too near Sunday, when all extravagant histrionic entertainments are barred. I’d like to hear him try in private, and when he got through trying to spell “pterodactyl” you wouldn’t know whether it was a fish or a beast or a bird, and whether it flew on its legs or walked with its wings. The hances are that he would give it tusks and make it lay eggs.
Let’s get Mr. Carnegie to reform the alphabet, and we’ll pray for him –if he’ll take the risk. If we had adequate, competent vowels, with a system of accents, giving to each vowel its own soul and value, so every shade of that vowel would be shown in its accent, there is not a word in any tongue that we could not spell accurately. That would be competent, adequate, simplified spelling, in contrast to the clipping, the hair punching, the carbuncles, and the cancers which go by the name of simplified spelling. If I ask you what b-o-w spells you can’t tell me unless you know which b-o-w I mean, and it is the same with r-o-w, b-o-r-e, and the whole family of words which were born out of lawful
wedlock and don’t know their own origin.
Now, if we had an alphabet that was adequate and competent, instead of inadequate and incompetent, things would be different. Spelling reform has only made it bald-headed and unsightly. There is the whole tribe of them, “row” and “read” and “lead”–a whole family who don’t know who they are. I ask you to pronounce s-o-w, and you ask me what kind of a one.
If we had a sane, determinate alphabet, instead of a hospital of comminuted eunuchs, you would know whether one referred to the act of a man casting the seed over the ploughed land or whether one wished to recall the lady hog and the future ham.
It’s a rotten alphabet. I appoint Mr. Carnegie to get after it, and leave simplified spelling alone.
Simplified spelling brought about sun-spots, the San Francisco earthquake, and the recent business depression, which we would never have had if spelling had been left all alone.
Now, I hope I have soothed Mr. Carnegie and made him more comfortable than he would have been had he received only compliment after compliment, and I wish to say to him that simplified spelling is all right, but, like chastity, you can carry it too far.