Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/May 1904/A Question of Preference in English Spelling

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 65 May 1904 (1904)
A Question of Preference in English Spelling by Edwin W. Bowen
1418905Popular Science Monthly Volume 65 May 1904 — A Question of Preference in English Spelling1904Edwin W. Bowen




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 invention called into being by the rise of the great middle class of society, which desired to become familiar with the practises of polite circles. Lexicographers came forward to supply the desired information. Authors not to the manor born, and therefore unacquainted with courtly usage, when moved to write, felt that they must conform to the standards set up by the lexicographers, who claimed to give the received usage, the jus et norma scribendi. Before the epoch of dictionaries it appears not to have made the slightest difference whether a writer spelled the word recede, for example, according to the present accepted orthography, or whether he spelled it receed, receede, receade or recead, all of which forms are found in manuscripts of a few centuries ago. Some of these orthographic variations lingered into the eighteenth century, though English spelling had probably become stereotyped at least a century before this date. Yet the establishment of the spelling was naturally a gradual process, and some words vacillated a long time and never really became fixed. Of this more anon. Proper names showed considerable latitude of spelling. Men of the eminence of Spenser, rare Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, for example, are said to have had no fixed practise of spelling their names, but wrote them in a variety of ways.

The lack of a standard authority of orthography necessarily gave rise to much confusion and disorder in English spelling. This confusion is reflected even yet in the present chaotic and unphonetic spelling of our language. Few tongues are more unphonetic than the English. This fact is recognized and efforts have been made to bring our spelling into closer conformity with our pronunciation. Philological societies on both sides of the Atlantic have been trying for the last quarter of a century, at least, to reform English spelling; but only meager success has been achieved thus far.

The proposed reforms have been of two kinds, and they have varying aims. One, recommended by the extreme phonetists, is a reform which contemplates a revision and enlargement of our alphabet. This would result in a radical transformation of our written speech, and chiefly for this reason it has found few ardent advocates. It may be briefly described as a reform of the language. The other reform is less revolutionary and contemplates mainly a simplification of our present spelling, such as the omission of silent letters, the substitution of 'f' for 'ph' as in phonetics (fonetics) and of 't' for final 'd' as in equipped (equipt) and similar emendations. Of the two kinds of reform the latter has, manifestly, more to commend it to popular favor. This kind of reform may be termed a reform in the language.

The public concedes the unphonetic character of English orthography, but the conservatism of the Anglo-Saxon race is so binding that the people are slow to adopt even the slightest recommendations of the philological societies. A few American journals have had the courage to adopt certain emended spellings, such as thru (through), tho (though), catalog (catalogue) and the like, but the majority of our periodicals show by their practise very meager approval of spelling-reform. No publisher, so far as known to the writer, has ventured as yet to use the emended spelling in a book issued by his firm. Yet all admit the need of spelling-reform and believe that, if adopted, it would save the coming generation a vast deal of humdrum work in acquiring an accurate knowledge of English orthography.

We Americans, however, with our characteristic spirit of independence have made bold to break away from British tradition and custom in the writing of certain English words and have introduced a few minor reforms in our spelling. But the English people have not followed our lead in this matter, being content to allow our adopted American spelling, together with our distinctive pronunciation, serve as an earmark to distinguish American from British English. It is the practise of some reputable British journals to disparage our spelling, wherever it makes a departure from English traditions, and to refer to it by way of reproach as 'American spelling.' Some few years ago the St. James Gazette, intending to express its disapproval of our spelling, deprecatingly remarked that "already newspapers in London are habitually using the ugliest forms of American spelling and those silly eccentricities do not make the slightest difference in their circulation." Viewed in the light of subsequent events, perhaps this ought to be considered the forerunner of 'the American invasion.'

As every one knows who has visited the mother country, there is a perceptible difference not only in the spelling, but also in the pronunciation, between American English and British English. Of course the language is the same in America as in England; and yet there are some appreciable minor points of difference. For example, the Englishman gives the broad sound to the vowel a as in father, when it is followed by such a combination of consonants as in the words ask, fast, dance, can't, answer, after and the like. In America, on the other hand, while this pronunciation is heard in some circles, it is clearly not the ordinary pronunciation and is not general, as in England. There is also a noticeable difference in the pronunciation of long o, the Englishman giving the vowel a distinctive utterance quite unlike that ordinarily heard in America. The pronunciation of the word been is a shibboleth by which a man of British nationality may be almost unfailingly distinguished. The native Englishman pronounces the word so as to rhyme with seen, never bin. In addition to these points of pronunciation there are certain locutions which never fail to betray an Englishman. The English call an elevator a lift, overshoes galoshes, napkins serviettes, candy sweets. In England a baby-carriage is called a perambulator, which is generally abridged 'pram' merely; a lamp-post is known as lamp-pillar and a letter-box as a pillar-box. There no one would ask at a store for a wash-bowl and pitcher, however much he might need these useful household articles, but he would call at the shop for a jug and basin. An American in London must not say street car, but tram or road car; not engine (which is pronounced injin), but locomotive-engine; not engineer, but engine-driver. In England many ordinary household articles are known by names as different from those in our country as if the language there were altogether a foreign tongue. Small wonder, then, that a keen-witted American maid remarked, à propos of the difference between British English and American English, that London was a delightful place if you only knew the language.

Nowhere is the difference between American English and British English more marked and interesting than in the varying practise of spelling on both sides of the Atlantic. Let us note some of the chief points of variation.

Our British cousins assume an exasperating air of superiority when they mention the matter of our spelling and, as self-appointed conservators of the language, point out what they are pleased to style the offensive eccentricities of American spelling. The British journals ever and anon draw attention to our manner of writing such words as favor, honor, center, program, almanac, tire, curb, check and criticize and the like, which they spell favour, honour, centre, programme, almanack, tyre, kerb, cheque and criticise. Now, in the case of most of these words, we submit that the American spelling is nearer the historical spelling, simpler and more logical than the British method. As for the words typified by honor, our method is simpler and nearer to the ultimate etymology. These words, it hardly need be observed, are borrowed from the Latin through the French. The British maintain that for this reason the spelling ought to conform to the French fashion. But they overlook the fact that these words have not always been written in English according to the French manner of writing. Dr. Johnson, the eminent lexicographer of the eighteenth century, wrote honor beside honour, neighbor beside neighbour, harbor beside harbour and the like. Indeed, the great Cham allowed himself considerable latitude in the matter of English orthography. Moreover, the Norman-French forms of these words were written in a variety of ways, as our, eur, ur, and also or. Even on the historical ground, therefore, there is not lacking some authority for the American spelling. If the English were consistent, they would be forced by the logic of their argument to write uniformly govenour, errour, emperour, oratour, horrour and odolour as well as honour and favour. But practise shows their glaring lack of consistency, since they do not spell these words ordinarily with u. It ought not to be regarded as a reproach upon American spelling, because in our desire for simplicity and uniformity we have rejected the u in this entire class of words like honor, thus making the spelling more in keeping with the Latin derivation. We can at least lay claim to simplicity and consistency. If we are provincial, we can not be charged with arbitrariness in our spelling.

As for the writing of center, meter, meager and words of this kind, the American method has as much history and logic in its favor as the British spelling has. Analogy, too, if that may be cited as an argument, supports our spelling, for we all write perimeter, diameter, never otherwise, whether we be American or English. The word center, according to Lowell, who was no mean authority on matters pertaining to our speech, 'is no Americanism; it entered the language in that shape and kept it at least as late as Defoe.' "In the sixteenth and in the first half of the seventeenth century," declares Professor Lounsbury, in reference to the spelling of center and similar words, "while both ways of writing these words existed side by side, the termination er is far more common than re. The first complete edition of Shakespeare's plays was published in 1624. In that work sepulcher occurs thirteen times; it is spelled eleven times with er. Scepter occurs thirty-seven times; it is not once spelled with re, but always with er. Center occurs twelve times, and in nine instances out of the twelve it ends in er." John Bellows, in the preface to his excellent French-English and English-French pocket dictionary, states that "the Act of Parliament legalizing the use of the metric system in this country [England] gives the words meter, liter, gram, etc., spelt on the American plan." It is evident, then, that our way of writing these words is quite as logical and as much warranted by the history of our tongue as the British spelling.

The American orthography is clearly in advance of the British in the word almanac. This word is not rightly entitled to the final k, as the English spell it. This superfluous letter is a mere survival from a former way of writing, no longer in vogue. It has been rejected in music, public, optic and similar words which are written alike on both sides of the Atlantic. In Johnson's dictionary and also in our King James's version of the Scriptures the old spelling generally occurs. Indeed, Johnson appended the excrescent k to well-nigh all words of this class. Strange to say, there is one word of this class which preserves the k even in American English, and that is hammock. This is but an exception which goes to prove that even American English with its revised orthography is still far from being phonetic.

In regard to words ending in ize, usage in Great Britain has established the writing ise, as in civilise. However, new formations even there are usually made to terminate in ize, which is generally adopted in America. Yet American spelling sometimes exhibits ise, after the English fashion. The British writing is derived from the French, whereas the American harks back to the original Greek suffix. The British spelling of tyre, kerb, programme and cheque perhaps has as much to commend it as the American tire, curb, program and check. Usage in America varies in the case of program, the more conservative still clinging to programme. Tyre and kerb are but little employed here. These words are merely variant forms which British usage has adopted. The spelling cheque, in general use in Great Britain for our bank check, has resulted through the influence of the word exchequer with which it is connected.

The usual American spelling of wagon is held up to public obloquy by British journalists, who regard waggon as the orthodox orthography. Skeat, who gives both forms in his etymological dictionary, asserts that the doubling of the g is simply a device to show that the preceding vowel is short. In the early history of the language when the etymological spelling was in vogue, pedants had recourse to this method of changing the form of a word to make it phonetic, as they claimed. In point of fact, by their practise they made the language far less phonetic. Spenser and other early English authors write the word after the American fashion. Horace Greeley once made a departure from our American usage and wrote waggon, saying by way of apology, when his attention was called to it, that 'they used to build wagons heavier in the good old times when he learned to spell.'

It is not to be supposed for a moment, however, that our utilitarian disregard of tradition is so strong as to have eliminated all useless letters in our American spelling. There is many a word in which an epenthetic letter is still retained merely because the traditional spelling shows it. Sovereign, comptroller, island and rhyme may be cited as examples in point. Perhaps it ought to be added that the emended spelling rime for rhyme appears to be meeting with favor in certain philological circles.

There is one class of words which does not exhibit a uniform method of writing, either in Great Britain or in America. This class is typified by the words traveler, counselor, worshiper and the like. It will be readily seen that these words are all derivatives, formed from the primary by the addition of a suffix; and the writing vacillates between a single and a double consonant preceding the suffix. According to the well-known principle of English orthography, these words are not entitled to a double consonant, and therefore should never be written traveller, counsellor and worshipper. The rule is, if the final syllable of a word ending in a single consonant and preceded by a short vowel is accented, the final consonant, on the addition of a suffix beginning with a vowel, is doubled; but never otherwise. Thus we write offered, deviled and the like, but referred, transferred and jammed. Hence the orthodox spelling should be traveler, counselor, worshiper, unrivaled and the like. But practise shows that either spelling is regarded as correct on both sides of the Atlantic. These words are survivals from a former period in the history of the language when more latitude was allowed in English orthography and there was no hard and fast line drawn, no fixed standard. The proper historical spelling, it is interesting to note, is with one consonant, as in counselor derived ultimately from the Latin consiliarius. While either spelling is considered correct, British usage favors the double consonant (counsellor) and American the single (counselor). Here again as elsewhere American spelling inclines to simplification and would make these words conform to the general rule of English orthography as laid down above. Strange to say, British usage shows one exception in the word paralleled, which it has adopted (and not parallelled). Here we find another instance of the striking inconsistency of British orthography. It may be a shocking thing to say, but investigation will prove it true, that if those British critics who censure our spelling so severely, as offending their esthetic sense, were more familiar with the history of the language, they would, without doubt, have far less comment to make upon the so-called eccentricities of American spelling.

It remains to notice some apparent exceptions to the rule of English orthography stated above. Noteworthy among these are the words handicapped and kidnapped, which are written alike in British and American English. But they can be explained and are only apparent exceptions. A moment's reflection is sufficient to convince one that handicap and kidnap are not simple words, but in reality compounds in which the last element has not completely lost its identity in combination. Because of the consciousness of the independent words cap and nap in these compounds, they conform to the rule as a matter of fact and therefore double the final consonant, on the addition of a suffix beginning with a vowel. Hence, if they are ebe considered exceptions which prove the rule.

The few points we have drawn attention to in this imperfect little sketch are enough to show how unphonetic and illogical is our English spelling. Many of the eccentricities of our orthography, according to Skeat, have resulted from the futile attempts of pedants in the sixteenth century to make English spelling etymological and to make it conform to the classics, from which a vast multitude of words had been introduced into our speech. These conscious attempts at etymological spelling gave rise to endless confusion and disorder. But other causes, such as analogy and mere caprice, also contributed to this end. Thus we are to explain the writing of the word female, for example. This word, coming from the Latin femella through the French femelle into English, was originally written femelle and would probably have retained this form to the present time. But because of a fancied connection with the word male, the spelling was changed to female. In a similar manner is to be explained the spelling of numerous other words in our language which seem perfectly natural and logical on first blush.