Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/42

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WE little think when we read or write that the words we employ are not precisely the same as those which have been in use in our mother-tongue from time immemorial. We are born into the language, so to say, and the words of our vocabulary we regard as part and parcel of our rich heritage of American liberty. Yet even the words of our English speech, like many of the institutions and customs of our Anglo-Saxon civilization, have a long history back of them, showing traces here and there of the various stages of development they have passed through. The words we use to-day are not identical in form or meaning with those employed by our forebears of the generation of Chaucer or even of the generation of Shakespeare. The forms of our English words have undergone considerable change since that remote period in the development of our mother-tongue. English spelling is far different from what it was in Alfred's, or Chaucer's time.

Before the invention of printing, those who spoke and wrote the English language seem to have been at liberty to spell as they chose. Their mental composure was not disturbed by the annoying suspicion that their spelling was not according to the norm prescribed by the dictionary. In those good old days there was no acknowledged criterion such as the 'Century,' or 'Webster,' or 'Worcester'; and writers had no final appeal in the matter of orthography as present-day writers have. Since there was no standard authority on orthography to which all polite society had to conform, the authors of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were untrammeled by tradition and were free to spell as they pleased. Every writer was a law unto himself and followed the dictates of his own orthographical conscience, with no dictionary to molest or make him afraid. We find an allusion to this delightful sense of freedom in the comment which a well-known American humorist made upon Chaucer, that well of English undefiled from which so many modern writers have drunk copious draughts of inspiration. 'Chaucer,' said he quaintly, 'may have been a fine poet, but he was a —— poor speller.'

The diffusion of the art of printing and the consequent necessity for a uniform orthography gradually curtailed this liberty, and then the day of the dictionary dawned. The dictionary is a democratic