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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 65.djvu/43

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PREFERENCE IN ENGLISH SPELLING.

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