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Industrialization of written words
Apr 16, 2010

Using a $75,000 grant from American industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, Winnipeg built its first public library building on William Avenue, which was officially opened on October 11,1905, by Canadian Governor General Earl Grey. Speaking at the official opening, Earl Grey (notable as the founder of the Grey Cup) said that as the King’s representative in Canada, it was appropriate that he perform the ceremony, “for are not these public libraries known as king’s treasures in which the royal treasures hidden away in books are carefully preserved for all who wish to enrich themselves therewith ...

“Mr. Carnegie has brought kings, queens, poets, statesmen, prophets, travellers, historians, philosophers and philanthropists to take up their dwelling among you in Winnipeg ...”

Carnegie, then the world’s most successful steel baron, donated the funds for the construction of 2,500 libraries across the globe, including 124 in Canada and three in Winnipeg. While this great charitable undertaking is widely known today, his plan to reform the spelling of English words is relatively unknown.

I ran across his plan while reading the editorial page of the April 9, 1906, Manitoba Free Press, in order to research the 1906 Winnipeg Streetcar Strike (see Heritage Highlights, pages 4 to 7). Right beside the editorial on the settlement of the strike was a piece entitled Carnegie Spelling Reform. The writer said the Carnegie campaign differed from previous attempts at reforming the written English word in that it was funded by a millionaire — a billionaire by today’s standards. 

The reforms offered ways to simplify English word spellings, something Earl Grey, who so wholeheartedly endorsed Winnipeg’s new library in 1905,  could not at the time have imagined as another motive behind Carnegie’s philanthropy. Essentially, the King’s written English was Carnegie’s target, which at the time was the spelling used by the earl as well as throughout Canada. 

Canadian spellings have always differed in some ways to those in the United States, although many spellings are typically identical, which is the price paid for sharing a continent with a powerful neighbour whose culture dominates the world. When Carnegie was funding libraries, the United States was beginning its ascendency while the influence of the  British Empire was beginning a precipitous descent. Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier may have claimed the 20th century belonged to Canada, but the reality was that the century was firmly in the grasp of the Americans.

Symptomatic of America’s rise to power was the nation’s desire to shape the world in its own image. It is no surprise then that millionaire industrialists such as Carnegie felt they had the right to impose American know-how upon the world.

Through the years, Canadians have been constantly engaged in debates about how words should be spelled. Until the 1990s, the Canadian Press, the authority for spelling in the printed media, had preferred the American use of “or” instead of “our” in words such as honour or colour. But that changed when it became evident that Canadians continued to use “our” as one way to differentiate our word spellings from American. CP bowed to public pressure, although the dominance of American pop culture has ensured “or” will never disappear.

It was Sir John A. Macdonald, our nation’s first prime minister, who declared  “our” was to be used in “all official documents, in the Canadian Gazette, and in the Dominion Statutes.”

“In the matter of spelling,” wrote Macdonald’s famous biographer, Joseph Pope, “he adhered closely to the British usage and disliked excessively the utilitarian method of orthography in vogue in the United States.”

Carnegie, who brought mass production to the steel industry, disagreed with Macdonald and tried to use his money to bring the same type of utilitarianism to the English written word. 

Carnegie's reforms encompassed a whole range of words, many of which were already commonly accepted practice on both sides of the border. Fortunately, some were never accepted. For example, according to the Carnegie code: “Words spelled with -ed or -t, the preceding single consonant being doubled before -ed (-pped, -ssed) and left single before -t (-pt, -st) Rule: Choose -t; in all, cases: dipt, dript, dropt, slept, blest, prest, distrest, blusht, husht, washt.” 

The only word one would readily recognize today is “slept.” To everyone’s confusion, distressed would have been spelled distrest, dripped as dript, and pressed as prest.

Carnegie also advocated dropping the “ue” from words we still spell as pedagogue, demagogue, catalogue, decalogue, etc.

Of course, the changes also touted by Carnegie included changing “re” to “er” in words such as theatre (theater), centre (center), metre (meter). While Americans have adopted this usage, it is not the Canadian spelling. It’s easier and makes a lot more sense to use “re,” especially when writing words such as centred as opposed to centered, which looks like it should be pronounced differently from how it is spelled.

The Free Press editorial writer called the changes being advocated “simply annoying. ... That the spelling of the English language is far too complicated is admitted ... but changes cannot be introduced by wholesale. They can gain general acceptance only gradually ... it is doubted whether Mr. Carnegie or any member of  the Board will live to see any appreciable general result of their efforts.”

In Canada, the written English language has evolved, although some usages continue from the time of Macdonald, which is simply a means of retaining some of those aspects which differentiate us from our neighbours to the south. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with continuing to use the spelling centre instead of center or colour instead of color — after all, it’s part of our national heritage.

Carnegie’s libraries have had a lasting legacy, but his dream of simplified written English has not.