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THE PRESENT CONDITION OF THE SPELLING
By F. A. MARCH,
We hav always had spelling reformers. The mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Norman, which grew into use in the four centuries following the Norman conquest, was at first a despised and uncultivated dialect, almost exactly like our Pennsylvania Dutch. In those long generations of turmoil and strife everybody talkt according to his whim, and explaind himself with his sword. As soon as literature began to be produced in the new speech the authors began to worry at the scribes for their spelling. “ Adam Scrivener,” says Chaucer, “if ever it thee befalle
Boece or Troilus for to write newe,
But after my making thou write more true.” The mixture of French and Anglo-Saxon words, almost all of them mangled in the utterance, was enough to giv any scribe such disgust and contempt and distress, as no poor reader of the Phonetic News or printer of phonetic manuscript can nowadays fairly attain to. When printing was begun by Caxton, in 1474, it was with a force of Dutch printers, who set up the English manuscripts as best they could, after their
Dutch fashion, with many an objurgation of our gram. marless tung. But in the great printing-offices, rules, or habits equivalent to rules, soon began to grow up. More or less silent e's might be used to space out the lines, but aside from this we seldom find a word spelt in more than five or six different ways in a well-printed book of the time of Elizabeth, and the number of these variations gradu:illy diminisht. Some editions of the English Bible wer very carefully spelt, and finally Dr. Johnson gave the stamp of authority to the prevalent habits of the London printers, and we arrived at a standard orthography.
Not without protest, however. Dr. Johnson was no scholar and no reformer, but a literary man, an extreme conservativ and a violent Tory. There wer many attacks on him in England, but the printers took his side, so far as spelling is concernd, and since his day books ar not printed by the spelling of the author, but by the spelling of the printing-office. Things went somewhat differently in America. The old Tory's name did not recommend his book on this side the water. Our ancestors rejoiced in Horne Tooke's exposure of his ignorance, and some of them thought we had better hav an American language, as we wer to hav an American nation. Dr. Franklin and Noah Webster ar the best known proinoters of this movement. They favord thoro reform of the language on a phonetic basis. This was the dawn of scientific common-sense in the realm of language, but the printers proved too strong for them.
Webster's Dictionary has indeed in name superseded Johnson's as a popular guide; but except in the endings or and ic, the later editions of Webster hav for
gotten, or remember with faint praise, the reformd spellings by which he set such store. After the revolutionary ardor past, the literary class turnd with renewd affection and delight to the old country, the old home. Happy was he who grew up in a house where there were copies of Shakespeare and Milton, of Addison and Locke, Pope and Dryden, and Burke and Junius. An old folio of Ben Jonson, Spenser, Chaucer, Piers Plowman, or one of Gervase Markham's less stately quartos, with a grandfather's name on it, made a man feel as though he had blue blood in his veins. The very paper and binding, and the spelling, wer sweet and venerable to him. By and by arose Sir Walter Scott and Byron, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and all the host of that wonderful generation. The talk of an American language past away or retired to the backwoods. And whenever schemes of reformd spelling wer broacht, us they wer now and then, the literary class took them as a kind of personal insult, and overwhelmd the reformers with immeasurable reproach and inextinguishable laughter. Within the last fifty years, however, a complete revolution has taken place in the ideals and purposes of the scholarly class. The highest words of the old scholars wer culture and beauty. They sought to mold themselves into beautiful characters. They sought to dwell with beautiful objects. They wer fond of saying that beauty is its own excuse for being, that a thing of beauty is a joy forever.
The highest words of the new scholars ar progress and power; new truth they want, and new fruit every day in the improvement of the state of man. Culture turns from fiction to fact, from poetry to science. Linguistic study shares the spirit of the age It has turnd from dreaming over old love stories to the study of nations and of man as recorded in language. The philologist rivals the geologist in reading the records of the race in the fossils of language. He is a historian of the times before history. He gives us the pedigree of nations whose pame and place no modern man could guess. And he wishes to do something for his fellows, to bear his part in improving the condition of the race, and naturally in improving language. The foundation of the science of language is laid in the science of vocal sounds. Every student of the modern science studies phonology. The means of representing sounds by visible signs ar also part of his study, and the spelling of the English language, among other things. And so the spelling of the English language has become the opprobrium of English scholars. The greatest scholars wer naturally the first to speak out boldly. The greatest genius among grammarians, Jacob Grimm, but a few years ago congratulated the other Europeans that the English had not made the discovery that a whimsical, antiquated orthography stood in the way of the universal acceptance of the language. Now we could fill a volume with exposition and objurgation of the unapproachable badness of our spelling, from the pens of eminent Englishmen and Americans.
Bishop Thirlwall, the illustrious author of the 66 History of Greece,” says: –
“I look upon the establisht system of spelling (if an accidental custom may be so called) as a mass of anomalies, the growth of ignorance and chance, equally repugnant to good taste and to common-sense. But I am aware that the public cling to these anomalies with
a tenacity proportioned to their absurdity, and ar jealous of all encroachment on ground consecrated by prescription to the free play of blind caprice.”
Prof. Max Müller, among a hundred other good things of the same kind, speaks of “the unhistorical, unsystematic, unintelligible, unteachable, but by no means unamendable, spelling now current in England.”
Lord Lytton says:
“A more lying, roundabout, puzzle-headed delusion than that by which we confuse the clear instincts of truth in our accursed system of spelling was never concocted by the father of falsehood. ... How can a system of education flourish that begins by so monstrous a falsehood, which the sense of hearing suffices to contradict?”
Prof. Hadley says:
“It cannot be denied that the English language is shockingly spelled.”
Prof. Whitney says:
“ There ar few in our community deserving the name of scholar who do not confess that a historical spelling is in principle indefensible, that it has no support save in our customs and prejudices."
Dr. J. Hammond Trumbull says:
“ The popular mind seems awake as never before to appreciation of the difficulties, eccentricities, and absurdities of the present standard-English cacography.”
While this movement was going on among the scholars, another stream of influence took its rise among teachers. Few changes of the last century ar greater than those in the treatment of children. The methods of disciplin and of teaching, and the apparatus for them, ar all changed. The main apparatus used to be