Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
How Shall We Spell?
By William Dwight Whitney (1827–1894)
[Born in Northampton, Mass., 1827. Died in New Haven, Conn., 1894. Oriental and Linguistic Studies. Second Series. 1874.]

DO writers imagine that, the moment we adopt a new mode of spelling, all the literature written in the old is to pass in a twinkling out of existence and out of memory? Certainly there are agencies which might be made use of to avert so bewildering a catastrophe. A Society for the Preservation of English Etymologies might perhaps be organized, which should make a provident selection of old-style dictionaries and grammars, and store them away in a triply fire-proof library, for the young philologists of future times to be nursed upon until they could bear stronger food. It might even be found practicable, by ingenious and careful management, to procure the construction of a dictionary of the newfangled idiom in which the former spelling of every word should be set alongside its modern substitute, in order to render possible the historic comprehension of the latter. Thus, to take an extreme case or two, the new word sam (a as in far), by having the explanation “anciently, psalm” added to it, would be sufficiently insured against any such shocking suppositions on the part of the future student of English as that it pointed to Samuel instead of David as author of the sacred lyrics, or that it was a development out of the mystical letters “S. M.” placed in the singing-books at the head of so many of their number; him (hymn) would be, by like means, saved from confusion with the personal pronoun—and so on. We do not wish to show an unbecoming levity or disrespect, but it is very hard to answer with anything approaching to seriousness such arguments as those we are combating; “absurd” and “preposterous,” and such impolite epithets, fit there better than any others we can find in the English vocabulary. They are extreme examples of the fallacies to which learned men will sometimes resort in support of a favorite prejudice.
  Many, however, who have too much insight and caution to put their advocacy of the “historic” or Tibetan principle in English orthography upon the false ground of its indispensableness to etymologic science, will yet defend it as calculated to lead on the writer or speaker of our language to inquire into the history of the words he uses, thus favoring the development of an etymologizing tendency. He who now pronounces sam and him, they think, would be liable, if he also wrote those syllables phonetically, to just simply accept them as names of the things they designate, like pig and pen, without giving a thought to their derivation; whereas, if he knows that they are and must be spelt psalm and hymn, his natural curiosity to discover the cause of so singular a phenomenon may plunge him into the Greek language, and make a philologist of him almost before he suspects what he is about. There is more show of reason in this argument; but whether more reason, admits of doubt. The anomalies of our orthography, unfortunately, are far from being calculated, in the gross, to guide the unlearned to etymological research. For one of them which is of value in the way of incitement and instruction, there are many which can only confuse and discourage. In the first place, there are not a few downright blunders among them. Thus, to cite a familiar instance or two, the g of sovereign (French souverain, Italian sovrano) has no business there, since the word has nothing whatever to do with reigning; island (from Anglo-Saxon ealand) is spelt with an s out of ignorant imitation of isle (Latin insula), with which it is wholly unconnected; in like manner, an l has stumbled into could, in order to assimilate it in look to its comrades in office, would and should; women is for an original wif-men, and its phonetic spelling would be also more truly historical. Again, another part, and not a small one, seem to the ordinary speller the merest confusion (and are often, in fact, nothing better), calculated to lead him to nothing but lamentation over his hard lot, that he is compelled to master them. Take a series of words like believer, receiver, weaver, fever, reever, and try how many of the community are even accessible to proof that their orthographic discordances are bottomed on anything tangible. There is in some persons, as we well know, an exquisite etymologic sensibility which can feel and relish a historical reminiscence wholly imperceptible to men of common mould; to which, for instance, the u of honour is a precious and never-to-be-relinquished token that the word is derived from the Latin honor not directly, but through the medium of the French honneur: and we look upon it with a kind of wondering awe, as we do upon the superhuman delicacy of organization of the “true princess” in Andersen’s story, who felt the pea so painfully through twenty mattresses and twenty eider-down beds; but it is so far beyond us that we cannot pretend to sympathize with it, or even to covet its possession. If we are to use a suggestive historic orthography, we should like to have our words remodelled a little in its favor: if we must retain and value the b of doubt (Latin dubitare), as sign of its descent, we crave also a p in count (French compter, Latin computare), and at least a b, if not an r also, in priest (Greek presbuteros); we are not content with but one silent letter in alms, as relic of the stately Greek word elemosun; we contemplate with only partial satisfaction the l of calm and walk, while we miss it in such and which (derivatives from so-like and who-like). Why, too, should we limit the suggestiveness of our terms to the latest stages of their history? Now that the modern school of linguistic science, with the aid of the Sanskrit and other distant and barbarous tongues, claims to have penetrated back to the very earliest roots out of which our language has grown, let us take due account of its results, and cunningly convert our English spelling into a complete course of philological training.  2
  We have, however, no intention of taking upon ourselves here the character of reformers or of proposers of reforms; only when this and the other principle are put forward as valuable, we cannot well help stepping aside a moment to see where we should be led to if, like true men, we attempted to carry out our principles. As regards the historic element in English orthography, we think it evident enough that its worth and interest do not at all lie in its instructing effect upon the general public who use the language, but rather in its tendency to call up pleasing associations in the minds of the learned, of those who are already more or less familiar with the sources from which our words come. It is much more an aristocratic luxury than a popular benefit. To the instrument which is in every one’s hands for constant use it adds a new kind of suggestiveness for those who know what it means, and gives them the satisfaction of feeling that, though they may not wield the instrument more successfully than others, there are peculiarities in its structure which they alone appreciate. Such a satisfaction is a selfish one, and improperly and wrongly obtained, if bought by a sacrifice of any measure of convenience or advantage to the great public of speakers and writers….  3
  “Possession is nine points of the law” and “partus sequitur ventrem” were the true proof-texts and scientific principles on which the master’s right reposed; and so also “whatever is, is right” constitutes the complete ethical code of him who is defending English spelling. Anything else is mere casuistry, a casting of dust in the eyes of the objector. The paramount consideration, which really decides every case, is that the existing orthography must be perpetuated; if for this and that word any other apparently supporting considerations of any kind soever can be found, they may be made the most of—yet without creating a precedent, or establishing a principle which is to be heeded in any other case, where it would make in favor of a change. The advocate of “historic” spelling insists as strongly upon retaining the l of could as that of would, and fights against a p in count not less vehemently than in favor of a b in doubt; the difference of receive and believe is no more sacred in his eyes than the sameness of cleave and cleave. Now, we have no quarrel with any one who plants himself squarely and openly upon the conservative ground, and declares that our English spelling is, with all its faults and inconsistencies, good enough for its purpose, that every item of it is consecrated by usage and enshrined in predilections, and therefore must and shall be maintained. What we cannot abide is that he who means this, and this only, should give himself the airs of one who is defending important principles, and keeping off from the fabric of English speech rude hands that would fain mar its beauty and usefulness. Orthographic purism is, of all kinds of purism, the lowest and the cheapest, as is verbal criticism of all kinds of criticism, and word faith of all kinds of orthodoxy. As Mephistopheles urges upon the Student, when persuading him to pin his belief upon the letter—
 “Von einem Wort lässt sich kein Iota rauben,”
‘every iota of the written word may be fought for’—and that, too, even by the tyro who has well conned his spelling-book, though his knowledge of his native speech end chiefly there. Many a man who could not put together a single paragraph of nervous, idiomatic English, nor ever had ideas enough to fill a paragraph of any kind, whose opinion on a matter of nice phraseology or even of disputed pronunciation would be of use to no living being, fancies himself entitled to add after his name “defender of the English language,” because he is always strict to write honour instead of honor, and travelled instead of traveled, and never misses an opportunity, public or private, to sneer at those who do otherwise….
  It is upon practical grounds that our final judgment of the value of English orthography must mainly rest. The written language is a universal possession, an instrument of communication for the whole immense community of English speakers, and anything which impairs its convenience and manageableness as an instrument is such a defect as demands active measures for removal. Now, no one can question that the practical use of our tongue is rendered more difficult by the anomalies of its written form. We do not, indeed, easily realize how much of the learning-time of each rising generation is taken up with mastering orthographical intricacies; how much harder it is for us to learn to read at all, and to read and write readily and correctly, than it would be if we wrote as we speak. We accomplished the task so long ago, most of us, that we have forgotten its severity, and decline to see any reason why others should ask to be relieved from it. Teachers, however, know what it is, as do those who for want of a sufficiently severe early drilling, or from defect of native capacity, continue all their lives to be inaccurate spellers. Such may fairly plead that their orthographical sins are to be imputed, in great part, not to themselves, but to the community, which has established and sustains an institution so unnecessarily cumbrous. We may see yet more clearly the nature of the burden it imposes by considering what it is to foreigners. Our language, from the simplicity of its grammatical structure, would be one of the easiest in the world to learn if it were not loaded with its anomalous orthography. As the matter stands, a stranger may acquire the spoken tongue by training of the mouth and ear, or the written by help of grammar and dictionary, and in either case the other tongue will be nearly as strange to him as if it belonged to an unknown race. It is doubtless within bounds to say that the difficulty of his task is thus doubled. And this item must count for not a little in determining the currency which the English shall win as a world-language—a destiny for which it seems more decidedly marked out than any other cultivated speech. In view of what we expect and wish it to become, we have hardly the right to hand it down to posterity with such a millstone about its neck as its present orthography.  5
  It is, moreover, to be noted that a phonetic spelling, far from contributing, as its enemies claim, to the alteration and decay of the language, would exercise an appreciable conserving influence, and make for uniformity and fixedness of pronunciation. So loose and indefinite is now the tie between writing and utterance, that existing differences of utterance hide themselves under cover of an orthography which fits them all equally well, while others spring up unchecked. No small part of the conservative force expends itself upon the visible form alone; whereas, if the visible and audible form were more strictly accordant, it would have its effect upon the latter also. The establishment of a phonetic orthography would imply the establishment and maintenance of a single authoritative and intelligible standard of pronunciation, the removal of the more marked differences of usage between the cultivated speakers of different localities, and the reduction of those of less account; and it would hold in check—though nothing can wholly restrain—those slow and insidious changes which creep unawares into the utterance of every tongue.  6
  One more thing is worthy of at least a brief reference—namely, that a consistent spelling would awaken and educate the phonetic sense of the community. As things are now, the English speaker comes to the study of a foreign written language, and to the examination of phonetic questions generally, at a disadvantage when compared with those to whom other tongues are native. He has been accustomed to regard it as only natural and proper that any given sound should be written in a variety of different ways, that any given sign should possess a number of different values; and it requires a special education to give him an inkling of the truth that every letter of our alphabet had originally, and still preserves in the main, outside of his own language, a single unvarying sound. His ideas of the relations of the vowels are hopelessly awry; he sees nothing strange in the designation of the vowel-sounds of pin and pine, or of pat and pate, or of pun and pure, as corresponding short and long, although we might as well assert that dog and cat, or that horse and cow, or that sun and moon, are corresponding male and female. And he reads off his Latin and Greek in tones that would have driven frantic any Roman or Athenian who suspected it to be his own tongue that was so murdered, with unsuspecting complacency, even flattering himself that he appreciates their rhythm and melody. It is not the least telling of the indications he furnishes of a sense for the fitness of things debauched by a vicious training, that he is capable of regarding a historical spelling as preferable to a phonetic—that is to say, of thinking it better to write our words as we imagine that some one else pronounced them a long time ago than as we pronounce them ourselves. A thoroughly consistent spelling would be a far more valuable means of philological education than such a one as we now follow, were the latter twice as full as it is of etymological suggestiveness.  7
  We are, then, clearly of opinion that a phonetic orthography is, of itself, in all respects desirable, and that there is no good reason against introducing it save the inconvenience of so great a change. Every theoretical and practical consideration makes in its favor. At the same time, our hope of a reform is exceedingly faint. No reform is possible until the community at large—or at least, the greater body of the learned and highly educated—shall see clearly that the advantage to be gained by it is worth the trouble it will entail; and whether and when they will be brought to do so is very doubtful. At present the public mind is in a most unnaturally sensitive condition upon the subject; it will listen to no suggestion of a change from any quarter, in any word or class of words. The great need now is to enlighten it, to show that its action is the result of a blind prejudice alone, and really founded on none of the reasons which are usually alleged in its support, that there is nothing sacred in the written word; that language is speech, not spelling; and that practical convenience is the only true test of the value of an orthographic system. Until this work is accomplished, all reformers will be likely to meet the fate of Noah Webster, one of the best-abused men of his generation, and for one of the most creditable of his deeds, the attempt to amend in a few particulars our English spelling—an attempt for which (however fragmentary it may have been, and ill-judged in some of its parts) we ourselves feel inclined to forgive him many of his false etymologies and defective definitions. We have read in the story-books that a certain Prince Nosey was condemned by a malevolent fairy to wear a portentously long nose until he should himself be convinced that it was too long, which salutary but unpalatable truth was kept indefinitely concealed from him by the flattery of his courtiers. The English-speaking people are in somewhat the same case; and though fairy days are now over, and we can no longer hope that our superfluous nasal inches will drop off the moment we recognize their superfluity, we know that at any rate we shall not lose them sooner, because we shall not sooner be willing to set about the work of ridding ourselves of them. Of course our words would look very oddly to us now in a phonetic dress; but that is merely because we are used to them in another. So our friends the ladies, if they should suddenly appear before our sight in the head-gear which they are going to wear five years hence, would shock us and provoke the cut direct; yet we shall by that time be looking back to the bonnets of this season as the height of absurdity. If once brought to the adoption of a consistent orthography, we should soon begin to regard with aversion our present ideographs and historiographs, and wonder that we could ever have preferred, or even tolerated them. It is easy now to raise a general laugh against the man who writes news “nuz”; but so the Englishman can count upon an admiring and sympathizing audience among his own countrymen when he turns against the Frenchman that crushing question, “What can you think of a man who calls a hat a shappo?”—and the appeal is really to the same narrow prejudice and vulgar ignorance in the one case as in the other.  8

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