Excerpt for INGLISH DREAMS: Andrew Carnegie's Seven Million Dollar Spelling Mistake and Spelling Reform in the Technological Age by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Inglish Dreams

Andrew Carnegie’s Seven Million Dollar Spelling Mistake and Spelling Reform in The Techno Age.


Copyright 2018 Dr. David Clyde Walters

Published by Dr. Walters at Smashwords




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Where would the human society be today had it not been for the several thousands of social reformers all over the world, who since the beginning of civilization have strived to make the world a better place? Social reformers advocate reforms and play a key role in the development of society and nation building. The human society is not perfect and the social norms and conditions that are ingrained into the structure of the society are often biased against certain sections of the society. People who are distressed by the malpractices and injustices in the society and strive to bring about a change are the social reformers.” Quoted from The Famous People website: https://www.thefamouspeople.com/social-reformers.php


This book is dedicated to social reformers and leaders such as Joan of Arc, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, William Willberforce, Viola Desmond, Sir Seretse Khama, Ruth Williams, Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King who tried to make the world a better place.


It is likewise dedicated to spelling reformers and change advocates such as Noah Webster, Benjamin Franklin, Melvil Dewey (decimal system), Theodore Roosevelt, John Wilkins, Alexander Ellis, Christopher Upward, Brigham Young, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Harry Lindgren, and Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in the world, who gave the equivalent of more than $7,200,000 to support the simplified spelling board and the spelling reform movement in the early Twentieth Century.


More importantly, it is dedicated to you and all readers who will take up this challenging cause and move it forward to make the world a better place for all.

Table of Contents


Background 4

The Dreams 6

The Flight 12

The Venue 21

The First Morning 27

The Conference Sessions 35

The Evening Address 54

The First Night 64

The Second Morning 89

My Closing Remarks 93

The Madrugada 111

Appendices 113

Background

“I have a dream.” On August 28, 1963 the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave a powerful and moving speech at the Lincoln memorial in Washington D. C. Copies of his speech can be found on the Internet and there are several videos on Youtube where you can watch the entire speech that lasts about 15 minutes. Dr. King reads most of the speech from notes, but he appears to deliver the last 5 minutes speaking directly from the heart without looking down at his notes. It is in these final 5 minutes or so that he repeats, a number of times, and in a variety of ways, the phrase, “I have a dream.”

If you have never listened to the speech, I would invite you to take a few minutes and listen to Dr. King’s address before you read the rest of this book. The story in this book deals with a world-wide issue of social injustice that is every bit as difficult and challenging as the civil rights movement – an issue that has yet to be resolved – an issue that will require as much energy, passion and determination as any noble cause the world has ever known.

The narrator of this story also has a dream. It is a dream that has been shared by a number of people for about a thousand years. Andrew Carnegie shared this dream and provided millions of dollars of funding in hopes of seeing it become a reality.

When I was a child, I used to dream about having lots of marbles or candy and then felt disappointed when I woke up and realized it was all just part of a dream. I even thought that maybe, if I held on very tightly to something in my dream, I might still have it in my hand, when I woke up in the morning. Unfortunately that never seemed to work.

Recently, I had another series of dreams; and like a child, I am holding on to them hoping that somehow they will come true; but of course that will depend upon you, the reader. The power to make these dreams a reality will be in your hands, after you have read this book.


The Dreams

One ordinary summer night, I dreamed that a very rich man came to visit me. He knocked on my front door but when I opened it, no one was there. I thought it was odd and wondered if I had just been hearing things, but when I closed the door and turned around, I jumped because a man was standing inside my house, waiting for me. I didn’t know if I should run or call for help; but he gave me a friendly smile and calmly offered his hand. He said he was sorry for giving me such a scare but that he had some very important things to discuss.

When I asked who he was, he said he would rather not give his name at this time, because it might cause me to disbelieve his entire message. He said I would soon learn who he was and why he had come to see me.

I found the whole thing very strange but he was such a pleasant gentleman and dressed in such an expensive suit, that I began to feel more curious than fearful; and so I asked him what he wanted to talk discuss with me. When he saw that he had somewhat gained my confidence, he asked if we could sit down. I invited him into the living room where we sat across the room from one another.

He first looked around my house as if he was interested in the architecture and décor. I later understood why, but at the time, it just made me suspicious. I wondered what he was really up to. Was he there to scope out my possessions? Then he turned directly to me and never lost eye contact as he spoke; first asking if I was an English teacher and smiling when I assured him that I was. He told me that a special language conference was being held in Canada in three months’ time and that he wanted me to attend it.

Next, he pulled a new credit card from his wallet and offered it to me, explaining that I could use it to cover all expenses related to my attendance at the conference - travel, meals, accommodation, registration and any other incidentals. He even said I could use it for entertainment during the event.

Then he asked me if I would go. I thanked him and said that I would check my schedule and think about it. He paused, but never took his eyes off me, which again made me nervous. Then he said, “I don’t think you understand. You must attend this conference because the things you will see and hear and especially the things you will do and say are about to change your life and the world around you forever.”

That made me even more uncomfortable, but also very curious at the same time. Then I suddenly woke up.


The dream was so vivid and real that I wanted it to continue, but now I was wide awake, the dream had vanished, and the gentleman was gone. I wished that I could go back in time or fall asleep again and be more positive, more interested in the conference. Jokingly, I wished that I had at least held on tightly to that credit card before I woke up.


Later that day, while the dream was still fresh on my mind I did an Interent search for English language conferences, just for the heck of it. I found a few. They all sounded good, but the most interesting conference sounded like the one in my dream and was actually scheduled to take place in three month’s time in Banff, Alberta Canada. I got the tingles and imagined hearing the theme music from The Twilight Zone. It was a conference on the history of writing and the progress of English spelling reform.

I had been an English teacher for quite a while but knew very little about spelling reform. And I was embarrassed to admit it, but, even though I had taught writing classes for several years, I didn’t know that much about the early history of writing. I did a little more research and found the subject more interesting than I would have imagined.

The first systems of writing, as you might guess, were to record numbers rather than words, obviously for trade and accounting purposes as people bought and sold goods. Later they devised symbols to represent the sounds of spoken words. Other languages are much older than English. Ours is relatively young but linguists divide the history of the development of English writing systems into Old English, Middle English and Modern English. My students think Shakespeare wrote in Old English but that is technically not correct. The Old English period started long before Shakespeare and even he would have had difficulty reading it.

The oldest English writing we have found dates back to about 1300 years ago and was first written in runes like the ones described by J R R Tolkien in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. None of my students would be able to read Old English runes unless they learned the system from someone other than myself. Middle English, written in Roman charaters like the ones we now recognize, is only about 1000 years old, but my students would still have a very hard time reading it because it looks so different from anything we write today. Shakespeare actually wrote in Modern English, which is only about 600 years old and continues to change all the time. So, while my students are wrong when they say that Shakespeare wrote in Old English, they are absolutely right to realize that writing changes over time. It actually changes more than we think. We only assume that the English language is stable and unchanging because our personal experience with language only spans a few decades. But in fact, the writing of Englsih has always changed and it will continue to change in the future.

So, even after just a little research, the language conference on spelling reform was beginning to sound quite interesting to me. I can’t say for sure if it was the visit from that stranger in my dream or a renewed interest in language, but the upcoming Canadian conference sounded intriging enough that I actually decided to register, by filling out the online form.

When I came to the checkout section of the online registration process, where it asked me to select a payment option, I chose Pay Pal, but secretly wished I had that credit card from the mysterious man in my dream.


A few minutes after I hit the submit button, I received a confirmation message from one of the conference organizers. At first, I thought it was probably just an auto-reply, but when I read the message, it seemed to be composed by a real person, just for me.


The message read:


Thank yu for registering for the language conference. We ar quite excited to meet yu and hav been waching and wating for yor personal registration. All of yor conference fees and expenses will be pade by a Carnegie legasy foundation, so yu will soon see a reverse credit appear on yor Pay Pal account. Please retain recetes for any other expenses yu may hav for a full reimbursement at the conference. We would also like to invite yu to be one of our guest speakers at the conclusion of the conference. If yu hav any questions pleze contact our offis.


Any questions? Yes, I had a lot of questions. First of all, why did the message have so many stupid spelling mistakes? Was this some kind of internet scam set up by someone living in another country, with a foreign language, offering a conference that didn’t even exist?

The more I thought about the whole thing, the stranger it seemed. Why would they be so excited to meet me? How would they know anything about me in the first place? Had they really been watching for my registration or did they just say that to everyone?

Wait a minute. Did they really want me to be a concluding speaker at the conference? Why me? And come on - were they actually going to credit my pay pal account and reimburse me for all of my expenses? Yeah, right. Of course not! This was probably just some trick to get my paypal information. Had I just fallen for it?

But wait a minute. If this was a scam coming from some other part of the world, why did I dream about it before I went online? This whole thing was somehow actually connected to my dream in some crazy way, or it was an unrelated hoax to get access to my Pay Pal account. My recent dream was either a remarkable premonition or just a very weird coincidence. I starred at the contact number at the end of the text message: “If yu hav any questions pleze contact our offis.”

I hesitated for a second, then started to dial, but hung up before anyone answered. I decided to just wait a bit and keep an eye on my Pay Pal account. I thought of my childhood dreams when I wished that I could hold on before everything vanished in the morning. I decided to just wait a few days to see what else might happen. Who knew? Maybe I would have another dream and another chance to ask that wealthy man a few questions. Or, maybe this was my dream coming true. My thoughts became confused. I really wanted to know if this conference was actually connected to my dream; but even if it was, I still couldn’t figure out why these people would want me to speak at their conference.

I waited three days before I finally made the phone call. When the line connected, the person on the other end acted even more excited on the phone than they had in the text message. She told me that when they didn’t get a live phonecall from me right away they began to worry that I was not going to come through. They thought that maybe I was not the person they were expecting, after all. They had been instructed, however, not to contact me, not to push, but to simply wait, allowing me enough time to think and respond at my own pace. They had been told that if I registered and showed up at the conference, everything would work out just fine; and that If I didn’t show up, there was a backup plan with someone else in mind to take my place.

When I asked what they wanted me to speak about at the end of the conference, the organizer explained that I didn’t need to prepare anything in advance. She told me that they just wanted me to come to the conference with an open mind. She explained that most people, especially teachers, have an initial negative reaction toward any kind of English spelling changes. It takes most people some time to get used to the idea of spelling reform. They were very interested in better understanding the reasons behind that natural hesitation. They wanted to learn what could be done to improve the presentation of spelling reform ideas so that they are more easily understood and accepted by the public. They wanted me to just relax, attend the sessions, visit with people, ask questions and then give a short talk at the end of the conference from the perspective of someone new to spelling reform.

She said I could say anything I wanted about the conference or language or spelling in general from the perspective of an English teacher who had just recently heard about the idea of spelling reform; and said that a summary of how I felt about spelling reform before and after the conference would be perfect.

That actually sounded reasonable; and when I saw that a credit had actually been applied to my pay pal account – an amount that was even more than I had paid, I decided to give this thing a fair chance.

The Flight

Three months later, I found myself heading for the conference. As I rolled my suitcase through the airport, I still felt a little unsure but I jokingly started thinking: “The force is with me, I am one with the force.” At my gate, the attendant smiled, and asked if I was Andrew Carnegie. I didn’t recognize that name right away, so I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or not. I must have looked a little puzzled as I told her my name and showed her my boarding pass. Then she was embarrassed for having made the mistake, explaining that there were only two names remaining of people who had not yet boarded on her list of expected passengers, and that she was just going down the list. She apologized and said the plane would depart as soon as everyone was on board.

Okay, that made some sense, but I still thought it was odd that the other final passenger’s name was Carnegie. It sounded familiar for some reason. I had read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie but I couldn’t place the name of, Andrew Carnegie. Then I recalled the text message I received after registering for the conference, mentioning something about that name. So, after I located seat 26B I stowed my carry-on in the overhead compartment, sat down in my seat, and I quickly Googled Andrew Carnegie, before we had to power down our devices or switch to airplane mode.

I chuckled when I read that Andrew Carnegie was a self-made, American billionaire who had funded several libraries and humanitarian foundations and had built Carnegie Hall in 1890 at a cost of 1.1 million, which would be more than 24 million in US dollars today. Wow. How could anyone confuse me with someone like that? Still, it made me feel good for a moment.

Shortly after take-off, I leaned back in my seat and tried to fall asleep. I was keyed up about the conference and the talk they expected me to give at the end, so I was thinking about that as I began to drift off.

I love that feeling when one’s thoughts begin to warp and ripple between the present reality and the world of dreams. At first I was thinking about the name of Carnegie and all the weird spelling in that reply to my conference registration. Then I started thinking about modern text messages such as: How r u today? Simple writing like that is easy enough to read and easier to write. That style of playful spelling is becoming quite common for texting, but is still not acceptable in formal writing communication. I thought the conference might be all about those funny little abreviations that are creeping into our language. Then my mind melted into chaos as Air Canada flight 1919 flew toward the Calgary International Airport.

Suddenly someone in the aisle tapped me on the shoulder, and said: “I’m glad yu decided to come, and thanks for taking my place.”

“Oh, I am so sorry,” I replied, I thought this was my seat, let me check my boarding pass.”

“No, I didn’t mean yor seat on the plane, I ment my place at the conference. Yu see, I won’t be able to giv my final speech, as originally planned, but I can help yu prepare a speech for me.”


I jumped awake and wondered if my mouth had been open and hoped that no one had heard me snore. Who was that guy? I looked beside me at a student who was just listening to his music. He seemed innocent enough and completely unaware of what had just happened to me. Then I wished I could go back to sleep and hear what that guy would have suggested for my speech. That was not going to happen, so I pulled a book from my bag and tried to read a few pages until my eyes began to crisscross again. After fighting to stay awake for a while longer, I finally surrendered, closed the book and lay my head back on the seat.

The prosecutor looked at me and asked if I was the leader of the rebellion or just another recruit. I said I didn’t know what he was talking about; but he cocked his head and smiled as if he knew very well that no one in the intergalactic council would believe me. Then suddenly the scene changed and someone else was at the witness stand answering the questions that the council members had just put to me. The witness explained that this movement shouldn’t even be called a rebellion because it has been going on for such a very long time.

“It was in practice at least a thousand years ago…” he said. “when a monk named Orm made some changes to the way language was recorded; and this conference was nothing more than the continuation of what Orm had started when he began writing words with Roman characters rather than using olde English runes.”

He continued his argument by saying that “writing systems would continue to change forever as long as people interact with one another, on this planet or any other. So, you see, Grand Council, it’s not a rebellion. It’s a natural, social, historical, process. In the past it changed more locally, on individual planets; now we can instantly communicate throughout the entire galaxy in mili-seconds and changes or the suppression of changes to our writing system effect a larger group of people. So, it would actually be more accurate to say that preventing the natural evolution of communication systems in the galaxy would be a worse kind of rebellion. I would call that ‘interstellar communication oppression.’ But, no matter what you call it, or how you personally feel about it, something must be done. The problem is not going away even if you choose to ignore it. Eventually everyone must take one side or the other in this war of evolving words.”

Again, I suddenly jerked awake and looked around. The galactic council had instantly vanished and in their place was a teen watching a sci-fi movie on his portable device, a mother trying to calm her baby, and a man across the aisle reading the Globe and Mail.

I guess I was having these strange dreams because I was still worried about what would happen at the conference. My friends and collegues had advised me not to go. They said that even if there was such a conference, it was probably some kind of underground meeting organized by weirdos trying to destroy the English language. I knew that was ridiculous. There was nothing secretive about the conference. It was advertised broadly on the internet and open to anyone; and the objective was to improve written English, not destroy it. The conference was to be held at Banff, Alberta in the beautiful Canadian Rocky Mountains; and it was designed for linguists, university professors, educational leaders, publishing firms, government officials, and anyone interested in writing – not weirdos. The only thing strange about the conference was that they wanted me to attend and also wanted me to speak. Why? I wasn’t an expert of any kind. I still didn’t understand why they had picked me out of all the other, more qualified attendees they could have chosen. Why were they willing to pay all my expenses and why did they care what I thought of the event? I had to admit that I was a little flattered but I was just an ordinary English teacher and I didn’t feel qualified to speak at a conference like this, especially about spelling reform. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I even liked the idea of spelling changes; so I didn’t know what I was going to say.

But, the organizers had assured me that this was precisely why they wanted me to give the closing remarks at the conference. They said they wanted an ordinary English teacher, with no bias toward spelling reform to attend the conference, listen to the presentations, and then give some honest and open feedback.

These weird dreams were probably the result of my nervous anxiety. Because I was so worried about speaking at the event, over the past few weeks I had done a little more research to avoid sounding like a complete idiot. As an English teacher, of course I was aware of some difficulties and inconsistencies in English spelling but like most people, brought up in English schools, I had accepted these anomalies as unavoidable - just part of the language that no one seriously questions or tries to change. I didn’t think English spelling was all that bad anyway, once it was learned. Like most people, I thought that the ability to spell properly was actually a sign of a well educated person, even though I still often have to ask how to spell certain words. Thank goodness for spell checkers and auto-correct. I use them all the time.

Over the years, as a teacher, I have probably given my students thousands of spelling tests and have even organized a few spelling bees. The we always admire the winners of spelling competitons; and whenever my students ask if spelling counts on an essay or exam, I always reply that ‘of course it counts.’ It counts on everything, both in and out of school. So, ya, I know that English spelling is difficult, but I have been taught and continue to believe that spelling is supposed to be tough or at least that’s the way it is, so everyone should just accept it and get used to it. I never dreamed that people could just change it, but after doing a little research I have learned that, historically, we have changed it…many times, actually.

So in preparation for speaking at this conference, as I continued to learn, I tried to be a little more open minded and willing to take a more critical look at some of the difficulties with English spelling.

In one article I read that, Mark Twain, a master of the English Language and a respected American author, had poked fun at some of the flaws in our spelling system. In Twain’s typical humorous style, he joked that,

“There's not a vowel in [the alphabet] 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…. 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…. 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. 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,… 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.”

I found Twain’s argument comical; and It allowed me to lighten up a bit and be willing to poke a little fun at the language myself.

I also found an article by George Bernard Shaw who dedicated a large portion of his will to English spelling reform. Shaw pointed out that our current English spelling system is so flawed that you can actually write the word ‘fish’ with the letters g-h-o-t-i. How? You might ask. Well the ‘gh’ in laugh makes the ‘f’ sound. The ‘o’ in women makes the same sound as the ‘i’ in fish and the ‘ti’ in motion makes the very same sound as the ‘sh’ in fish, so you should be able to spell fish with the letters f-i-s-h or with g-h-o-t-i and the letters could make the same sounds.

Of course that is silly and you could argue that those letters don’t always make those sounds, but as soon as you admit that, then you must agree with Twain and Shaw, that English letters have inconsistent sounds, making things very difficult for anyone trying to learn to read or write in English.

The Irish author and poet James Joyce, regarded as one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th Century, playfully alluded to the ghoti spelling problem in a line from his famous essay entitled ‘Finnigan’s Wake’ which reads: “Gee each owe tea eye smells fish.” And in the constructed Klingon language, ‘ghoti’ is actually the proper name for fish. Batman had to explain all of this crazy spelling nonsense to Robin in an episode entitled “An Egg Grows in Gotham” where Egghead used ‘Ghoti Œuf’ as the name for his caviar business, ghoti oeuf meaning fish eggs.

Of course ghoti is an extreme example of how English spelling and pronunciation do not match, but there are hundreds of other more common examples that our eyes and ears just seem to ignore without acknowleding the problem. Try to explain why laugh ends in u-g-h or why there is an h in rhyme or a k in knight, or a g in diaphragm. Soon you will begin to see what Twain, Shaw, James, and many other brilliant critics of English spelling were talking about.

Because English spelling is so tricky, in my office, I keep a copy of Websters’ Spell It Right Dictionary. It was compiled by Paul Heacock and lists the 25,000 most commonly misspelled English words. Can you imagine a language that has 25 thousand commonly misspelled words? Shakespeare only used about 12 thousand words in total in all his work; and yet there are 25,000 commonly misspelled words in the English language. Imagine that! In the introduction of this handy spelling dictionary, Mr. Heacock admits that American English is a “bizarre hodgepodge…with roots in standard English (or English English, if you will) and borrowings from French, German, Dutch, Hebrew, Arabic, Akan, Chinese, Spanish, and virtually every other language under the sun, it’s a minor miracle anyone ever spells anything correctly.” And so, I guess that is partly why I agreed to attend the conference and see what spelling reform was all about.


As the plane engines hummed toward Calgary, I tried to stay awake but I must have drifted off again, because the teen beside me suddenly turned into a third grader and it didn’t seem strange at all that I was sitting beside him in school. The teacher asked the class to spell the word, stuff. “That’s easy,” one boy replied, “s-t-u-f-f.” Then the teacher asked us to spell puff. “P-u-f-f,” came our quick reply. Next, the teacher asked the class to spell tough and of course we all spelled it t-u-f-f.

The teacher then laughed and proceeded to show us how smart she was by writing t-o-u-g-h on the board. She used this example to tell us that English is full of unphonetic words, that often don’t follow normal expectations. But, I noticed a tear running down the cheek of one little boy; and the teacher told us to close our books. She said that was enough spelling for the day. Then I saw the teacher comforting the child and telling him not to get upset, reassuring him that these were just “sight words” and that he should not try to sound them out because that would only confuse him. She said, if he kept trying, he would eventually begin to recognize these words just by looking at them.

The student looked up at her and asked why sometimes she told the students to ‘sound out’ the words and at other times she told them not to. “How do we know when they are sight words?” He asked. “And why are there were so many different ways to spell the same sound and so many different sounds for the same letters.”

The teacher just laughed and said, “Well, that’s English. That’s just how it is and we can’t really do anything about it.”

“Why not,” asked the boy, looking up at his teacher.

“Well that would break the rules, and we can’t break rules now can we?” She replied with a little hug around the crying boy’s shoulder.

“I guess not… well, maybe we can. You told us today that some of these sight words break the rules so why do we have to keep the rules if the sight words don’t even keep their own stupid rules?” he asked, wiping the tears from his eyes.

The teacher tried to think of an answer that would make sense to a 9-year-old boy. But, she knew that was impossible; so, she just told the little child not to say stupid and not to think too much about it, but to just memorize each word in the English language, one word at a time.

But, I wondered who actually did make English spelling rules and why there were so many exceptions; then I laughed and repeated the words of that innocent student, “Why do we have to keep the rules if the words don’t even keep their own stupid rules?”

After that, the sound of the words and the hum of the airplane engine got all mixed together and I couldn’t tell if we were in school or outer-space, awake or asleep. Zzzz.

I didn’t wake up again until we touched down in Alberta and I stumbled off the plane into the YYC, Calgary International airport.

An officer at Customs and Immigration asked for my passport, looked at it, and then asked if my trip to Canada was for business or pleasure. I hesitated on my answer and he looked up at me expecting to hear something. I still didn’t know what to say because I wasn’t making any money on the trip, other than the extra payment to my pay pal account. I wasn’t being paid by my school, but it wasn’t costing me anything either. I wasn’t on vacation, and speaking at a conference certainly wasn’t pleasure. All those thoughts flashed through my mind in an instant and I finally the words tumbled out that I was attending a conference, whereupon the officer impatiently informed me that conferences were usually considered business, and asked what the conference was about.

I could see that being vague would only make him more suspicious, so I decided I might as well just tell him everything, straight up, and let him decide when he had heard enough. I said that the conference was about changing English orthography. There would be presentations on proposed reform schemes and debates on the best timeline for implementation of orthographic changes.

He just stared at me as if that meant nothing to him, so I said: “They want to change the spelling of some English words.”

He stared again for just a moment, then the light came on and he replied, “Oh, you mean like taking the K out of knife? You’re not going to change that are you? I always kinda liked that word when I was a kid.”

“Well, maybe.” I said, “See, I think that’s what the whole conference is about. I believe that they will discuss which words could be changed, how to best change them, and how far and how fast they should go with spelling reform. Stuff like that. But that’s not all, they are probably also going to talk about how the changes will affect the education system, the benefits and challenges for learners of English as a Second Language, how the changes might impact the economy and the kind of jobs and opportunities spelling reform might create.

The officer had heard enough. He handed me my passport, smiled and told me that it would be okay if they decided to take the S out of Island, but asked me to please have them keep the K in knife. I smiled and said I would see what I could do.

The Venue

It was clouding over in Calgary as we took the Airporter to the town of Banff, almost two hours away; and it started to rain as I ran into the lobby of the Banff Springs Hotel. I had planned to go for a walk in the gorgeous mountain resort, but the rain kept me in my room, where I tossed my things on the desk, fell on the bed, exhausted from the long travel, closed my eyes, and began to review the strange events that had brought me here.

Arriving at the conference location made my upcoming speech seem more like a real and present danger. I couldn’t seem to stop wondering and worrying about it. I finally decided that I should just try to forget about it, be completely open minded, just take some notes on the presentations, and then give my honest impressions at the end. Still, I felt a little bit of a responsibility to be positive because they were paying all my expenses and I also believed that the outcome of this conference would largely determine whether the project would advance to the next stage, or if the whole spelling reform initiative would fizzle and die as it has so many times before.

I wanted to remain unbiased but I had to admit that, in a lot of ways, the timing for English spelling improvement seemed much better in this modern, digital age. People are already using shorter and simpler spelling in instant messaging, so it feels more like the world might actually be ready for some spelling changes to take place; at least, perhaps among the younger generation.

As I rested in my hotel room, listening to the rain outside, my mind drifted back to when I was a child. I remembered we used to say, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” so I wondered why we all get so upset when we see a “spelling mistake.” English is so difficult to spell that it is very common to ask each other how to spell certain words – even words that we commonly use in speech. For example, just yesterday my son asked me how to spell piece. I spelled it out p-i-e-c-e. He thanked me and then embarrassingly said that he always gets mixed up with the “i before e, except after c” rule. No kidding – so do a lot of us. We have so many rules and so many exceptions to those rules, that we should be more tolerant of a few spelling variations.

In North America we enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press but there seems to be no freedom when it comes to spelling. Canadians claim freedom of expression but it doesn’t seem to extend to spelling. They allow religious and sexual diversity but have very little tolerance for any form of spelling diversity.

But, I guess I have to admit that when I first heard of spelling reform, I didn’t care much for the idea either. I didn’t like some of the suggested spelling changes I had seen, but the more I studied and the closer I came to attending this conference, the better I had begun to feel about it. So, I decided that I would just keep listening to what people had to say and give this nu spelling business a fair chance. Some of the suggested changes I have seen actually make more sense than the current spelling conventions, like thru rather than through. Not just for children learning to write in schools but also for the millions of people learning English as a second language.

Why not write nite rather than night? When I acknowledge that worldwide there are far more speakers of English as a Second Language than those who speak it as a first language, I realize that English doesn’t really belong to native English speakers anymore anyway. It has become the international language of choice and so I guess it belongs to the whole world now. We are just lucky that English has been chosen as the preferred international language, rather than some other language that we would have to learn.

So, I guess it would be easier for me to change the spelling of a few words than it would be to learn a whole new language. I decided that perhaps I need to be a little more tolerant and understanding from a global perspective and grateful that we are talking about English rather than something much more difficult for me to learn. Insisting upon keeping confusing antiquities of the language no longer makes sense in a modern, global world.

Then just as my thoughts were getting a little fuzzy again, I heard a knock on the door of my room. I wasn’t expecting anyone, so I just walked over near the door and asked who it was, without opening the door. A muffled voice outside replied, “It’s Andrew, open the door.” That was weird. I know anyone named Andrew but if it was that rich gentleman with a credit card and ideas for my speech, I wanted to talk to him, so I opened the door, but no one was there. I looked both ways down the empty hall. Then I slowly turned around just in case he was already standing in my room, but no one was inside either.

The disappointment woke me up. Just another dream - or was it? I looked at the door of my hotel room. Maybe someone really had knocked while I was sleeping and I thought it was part of my dream, so I got up, walked to the door and asked if anyone was there. When no one answered, I opened the door and looked both ways just to make sure. Nothing. Perfectly normal. Very weird.

I guess I had fallen asleep again, this time on top of my bed, still in my street clothes. I was obviously over tired from my busy schedule lately, and keyed up about this conference. So I changed into PJs, and washed my face to get ready for some real sleep in a real bed.

Yet, as I looked in the mirror and started to brush my teeth, I couldn’t get some of the images from those crazy dreams out of my mind. What was that star wars council all about? And who was that guy that tapped my shoulder on the plane? Was it supposed to be Andrew Carnegie? Is that the same guy that visited me at home in my very first dream? Did he just now knock on my door again? And, why did he say he could help prepare my speech? Actually, that would be helpful, if I could just hang onto him a little longer in my dreams.

I was probably having these mixed up thoughts and dreams because I was over anxious from the international flight and all this language stuff. But, I was also a bit haunted by the thought that maybe my friends were right. Maybe this whole spelling reform thing was just too weird and I should not have come to the conference.

Then on the other hand, recently I had been teaching English as a Second Language and I knew very well that most of my students really did struggle with the difficulties of English spelling. We don’t write as we speak and we don’t speak as we write. But I was teaching my ESL students to spell the same way I had been taught and I could see how frustrating it was to them. I felt sorry for them but also felt sort of helpless, like there was nothing I could do about it. It was awkward when they asked me to explain why bird, herd and word all have the same middle sound, but are spelled with different vowels. They also asked why Wednesday includes the letter d but only has two syllables. I didn’t have a good explanation. I told them I was sorry and apologized that English spelling was so goofy. But, then I felt even more perplexed when they would ask me why nobody tries to fix the obvious problems with our language.

I have also been in elementary classrooms and have seen how English-speaking children also struggle with our spelling system. Maybe the people organizing the spelling reform conference needed to be supported and encouraged in their efforts to improve the language, rather than opposed for their good intentions.

As I continued to brush my teeth, all these random thoughts rattled through my brain. I wondered if spelling reform has failed in the past because people just like me were too afraid to start making even simple spelling changes, too afraid of criticism and ridicule. Perhaps we want someone to declare that spelling has been officially reformed before we dare to make any changes ourselves. Maybe we want consensus and approval before we dare take any chances. We want to see the authorized spelling variations printed in a dictionary before we begin to use them. I guess, secretly, I hoped this conference would lead to some official changes or legislation that would require everyone to make some needed spelling changes. If the changes were mandatory I could happily comply with the new rules without fear of public criticism and ridicule.

But, as I switched my tooth brush to the other side, I thought that perhaps spelling reform will only occur the other way around. Maybe, someone has to start making unauthorized changes without approval, and suffer some negative consequences to shake things up a bit. I guess that is what happened when Viola Desmond, a courageous, Canadian, businesswoman refused to move from her seat in an all-white section of the Roseland Theatre in Nova Scotia. Nine years later, Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks broke the rules and sat in the white section of a bus; taking a bold stand against social injustice in Alabama.

Another powerful example of someone willing to break social norms in order to bring about change was that of Sir Seretse Khama, a prince of the Bamangwato people of Bechuanaland, Africa and Ruth Williams from London, England. Their star-crossed love story was portrayed in a modern movie entitled A United Kingdom. They fell in love and married in 1947, shortly after Viola Desmond made her protest known in Canada and eight years before the Rosa Parks incident in the United States. At the time, in England, it was socially and politically unacceptable for a colored man to marry a white woman. So, when these brave people took personal action to change entrenched social norms, it angered a lot of people. But as more and more courageous individuals began to take action in different parts of the world, little by little, it started to inspire others, like the Reverend Martin Luther King, to take up their cause and eventually the movement gained enough momentum to turn public opinion completely around.

Wow, what if those first brave individuals hadn’t been courageous enough to get things started? What if they kept waiting for someone else to start the changes or for officials to say it was okay?

These examples show that social reform usually doesn’t happen without a fight; and sometimes it takes some very brave people to get the ball rolling. Unfortunatly, in some cases perhaps someone might need to break the law before certain unfair laws will be changed.

So, I looked at myself in the mirror, with my tooth brush sticking out one side of my mouth, and mumbled thru the toothpaste, “Are you brave enough to do something like that? Would you dare break some spelling rules before some official declares that it’s okay? Well, what about it? Do you have the courage, or are you hoping this conference will somehow bring about ‘authorized’ changes?”

I waited for an answer, as I looked at my own reflection in the mirror.


As I washed my face and climbed into bed, I kept thinking about it. I wondered if I had the guts to start making some of the spelling reform changes this organization was considering. Will people just think I am making stupid spelling mistakes? What if I am out there all by myself, appearing like an idiot who never learned to spell properly? What if people think I am some kind of nut, loser, weirdo, or rebel?

Rebel? Oh wow. Maybe my friends were right. Maybe that galactic council in my dream was right too. Maybe this is some kind of rebellion after all…. But then again, maybe it needs to be.

Those thoughts swirled around in my head, along with possible conference topics and what I would say at the end of this whole thing, as I starred at the ceiling in my comfortable bed. Before long though, I passed from these troubling thoughts into a deep, restful sleep.

The First Morning

This time, however, I didn’t wake up again until early the next day; and it took me a moment to realize where I was, so, I must have finally had a good, uninterrupted sleep. I rolled out of bed to prepare for the first exciting day of the conference, showered, dressed and took the elevator to the restaurant where I ordered eggs, which reminded me of a story I found, as I was doing some research on spelling reform, in preparation for this conference. It was written in Middle English from the 12th century about some merchant travelers that landed on the English shore and asked a farmer’s wife for eggs. The old story goes like this:

“And specyally he axyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coulde speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coulde speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she vnderstode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstood hym wel.”

This funny story is a little difficult to read the first time thru, because spelling conventions have changed considerably since the Middle English period. However, we smile as we begin to understand the words and experience the charm of language written in an earlier time. Of course, it also helps us catch the humorous punch line of the story if we know that eyern was the German word for eggs. As language evolves, it modernizes itself on the one hand, and on the other, leaves an important historical, linquistic record of how the language was previously spoken and written. This story of the eggs is actually written in a relatively modern version of Middle English. Older versions of Middle English, are even more difficult to read and show us just how much the language has changed over time, like this passage:

“Forrþrihht anan se time comm þatt ure Drihhtin wollde ben borenn i þiss middellærd forr all mannkinne nede he chæs himm sone kinnessmenn all swillke summ he wollde & whær he wollde borenn ben he chæs all att hiss wille.”

You might think I am just making that up, but I actually found it online. It is an account of the birth of Christ recorded by Orm, a monk who had the courage and foresight to break some spelling rules. No, he wasn’t trying to make English harder to read, he actually made it easier to read and more accessible to a much wider audience by having the audacity to start writing English in Roman characters rather than Olde English runes. If you can’t understand the passage very well the first time through perhaps you can sympathize somewhat with the millions of people trying to learn English right now. Because Orm wrote this in Latin characters, we can at least begin to sound out the words as they may have been pronounced in his day. Transcribed into modern English and current spelling conventions, the passage would read something more like this:

“Forthwith soon the time came that our Lord would be born in this middle-earth. For all mankind’s need, he chose him his kinsmen, all like as he would, and where he would born be, he chose all at his will.”

Simply changing the spelling and a little punctuation helps us better understand the passage. Orm transcribed the words into the more modern roman charaters that were beginning to be used by a wider audience, which is the same goal spelling reformers have for simplifying the spelling of English today. Modern English would be easier to read by a much wider global audience with even a few changes. After Orm began using Roman characters, others started to follow. Eventually fewer and fewer people continued writing words with the Olde English runes, because the new system was being adopted by many more people. The same thing would happen now if some English spelling changes were made. Some people would continue to use the old forms of spelling but as the new forms came into wider use, the older forms would eventually fall out of favor.

I was still waiting for my eggs to arrive so I googled English runes and found an image of an Undley Bracteate medallion imprinted with runes from the fifth century. The runes read from right to left ending at the image of a she wolf suckling human children. The web site said that the runes on this disc were some early examples of written English. I marveled at how much English has changed over time.

If the truth were told, most people are probably glad that the language has evolved and prefer current versions, for several obvious reasons. As we continue to improve the spelling of English, it should become even easier to read in the future and benefit an ever wider audience. Still, as I looked at the image, I wished I knew how to read the runes, but I was also glad that the monk had the courage to break some rules and start writing in Roman characters.

However, the web site also said that the old English runes followed very standard phonetic conventions. In other words, if you could read the rune, you would also know how to pronounce the sound the rune represented, which is certainly not the case with our current spelling system. So, what went wrong? When did English start breaking phonetic rules, and why? Well, evidently, as English was adopted by more and more people, words from many foreign languages were brought in and things got a little mixed up as English embraced words from so many other languages. And with no authoritative body to govern the language, it just evolved in a somewhat haphazard manner.

I also noticed that the Google Doodle for the day honored Zhou Youguang, a Chinese writer and linguist that began the work in 1955 of transcribing Chinese characters into roman letters called Pinyin, reaffirming the notion that all world languages and writing systems are capable of change - not just English.

The server suddenly arrived with my breakfast, sat it down, and rattled me out of my daydreams. But, just as I took the first bite, I looked up and saw a distinquished man, with a white beard, walk into the restaurant with a few friends. He wore a sharp, tailor-made suit that instantly communicateded wealth and success. He had the bearing of a man who was used to making confident decisions that resulted in making a lot of money; so rather than wait for the hostess to lead him to a table, he picked out the one he wanted and headed straight for it. His companions closely followed as if drawn by a powerful magnet. My heart stopped because this gentleman looked so much like the guy who had visited me at home and later had spoken to me on the airplane. I knew it was rude to stare, but it electrified me to suddenly see him again, and especially while I was awake. Or was I?


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