Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By James Hadley (18211872)
[Born in Fairfield, Herkimer Co., N. Y., 1821. Died at New Haven, Conn.. 1872. Essays Philological and Critical. 1873.]
IT cannot be denied that the English language is shockingly spelled. The original difficulty lay in the mixture of different languages, Saxon and Norman French, out of which came English; the confusion of different systems, varying and conflicting analogies, is everywhere to be seen in our orthography.
Besides, the French, which makes one element of English, does itself enjoy, next to the English and perhaps the Gaelic, the honor of being the worst spelt language of Europe. Franklin used to say that what we call false spelling of the vulgar was really true spelling. I do not know that I should say that, for vulgar spelling is sometimes most ingeniously absurd. But I certainly feel a good deal of hesitation about saying in regard to any man that he spells badly: I say that he does not spell like most of us; he spells singularly, peculiarly; but I do not see, on the whole, that he spells worse than the spelling-books and newspapers.
It is very unfortunate that Johnsons Dictionary should have come to be such a standard of spelling. For the consequence has been that the processes which were going on beforegradual progressive processes, to root out anomalies and bring in greater regularity, processes which went on naturally and almost without noticewere at once arrested, and the system which had before been somewhat flexible became at once a cast-iron affair. That such processes were going on, to the great advantage of the system, will be plain enough to any one who takes a book printed in the Elizabethan agesay one of the earlier translations of the Bibleand compares it with the books printed in the first part of the last century. That such processes were arrested by the appearance of Johnsons Dictionary is evident from the outcry which is raised against any spelling that departs from the prescription of that autocratic lexicographer. No philologist needs to be reminded that Johnson had little fitness for the work of legislation in orthography. This would be evident enough from his famous dictum that it is absurd to regulate your spelling by your pronunciation, for pronunciation changes all the time, and your standard is therefore variable and fluctuating. He did not see that this is one of the strongest reasons for regulating spelling by pronunciation; for if pronunciation changes all the time while spelling remains fixed, the two will diverge more and more widely from each other, until they cease to have any relation, and we shall write in hieroglyphics. Most evidently the proper aim and object, the ideal of alphabetic writing, is to furnish an exact reflection of the spoken language, a faithful representation of what we hear in daily utterance. In its most advanced perfection, every elementary sound will be represented by a special character, and each character will be used in every case to represent the same sound. There is no great objection, however, to a combination of characters used to represent a sound different from eitheras, for instance, ch in church, provided always that it is used with perfect consistency. The reform recently attempted has taken high ground, avoiding such combinations of characters, and representing the same sound always by the same alphabetic sign. Perhaps this is the best course, though I have always felt that the introduction of new letters, which this plan requires, might operate pretty strongly to prevent its adoption.
The objections commonly urged against a new system of phonography have in my view very little weight. It is often said that, if this plan were adopted, all books printed hitherto would be useless. It is certain that people would not read them quite so readily as now; but only for this reason, that they would spend less time in acquiring the power. It would be really as easy as ever for people to learn the old system, or rather, far easier; for then it would be necessary only that they should learn to read, to recognize the words when they see them; and not to learn what is far harder, to spell, to reproduce the words when you do not see them. Another objection, which has considerable influence, is that a new system would obscure the etymology of words, which is now shown in many cases by the spelling. But as regards this, the etymology of words is of little practical value except to scholars, who could always get it out of books of lexicography; it is not worth while for their benefit to impose a heavy burden upon the world at large. But our common spelling is often an untrustworthy guide to etymology. Take the word sovereign: the people who first spelt it so supposed no doubt that it had something to do with reign; but it most certainly has not. It comes from Latin super, through Italian sovrano, etc. But I will go further, and say that the wants of the philologist require a different system. What is important for him is that he should know the condition of a language at any given period of the past, that he may be able to trace it through its successive changes to its latest form. Now in doing this he must depend mainly on the spelling, the writing; if this be maintained invariable from age to age amid all mutations of spoken words, the philologist is deprived of his most serviceable guide. I would give a good deal to get a Fonetic Nuz of Chaucers time, that I might know how far some important phenomena of the modern languageas for instance the change of to , of to , and of to aihad established themselves five centuries ago.
You will see from what I have said that I recognize fully the evils of our present orthography (as men sarcastically term it), and that I sympathize in the objects of a phonographic revolution. But in regard to the feasibility of such a revolution I am far from being sanguine; a political revolution, I suspect, would be a much easier undertaking. Yet I have no desire to damp the ardor of those who are more sanguine than myself; on the contrary, I wish them all success in their work, being sure at least of thisthat, whatever imperfections may belong to their systems, they cannot be so bad as ordinary good spelling.