Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/272

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
268
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

Such being the early development of our 'system' of English spelling, it requires a peculiarly religious spirit to discover in it anything sacred or worthy of special protection. The only protection that can be reasonably asked is the protection of the individual from the trouble of changing his habits, and this collectively means the protection of society from the confusion and general inconvenience that would result from sudden change of any kind if this could be effected by radical reformers. No language exists in which the spelling is even approximately phonetic. Italian, Spanish and German are among the most nearly exemplary tongues; but any one who studies German in America and then goes to Germany to spend a year or two, gradually discovers a good many words of which he has to change his pronunciation. The contrast, however, between German and English is conspicuous. It would be a waste of time to dilate upon the inconsistencies, the foolish freaks and stupid absurdities of English spelling and pronunciation. The facts are quite generally admitted by all who possess even an elementary knowledge of linguistics. The practical question is merely that propounded thirty-five years ago by a famous criminal, 'What are you going to do about it?'

Let it be granted that printers of various grades of ignorance during the last three or four centuries have accustomed the English-speaking public to the most inconsistent spelling with which any civilized people is loaded. All of us have spent months and years of early life in the effort to learn this spelling, not because there is anything educative about it, but because of the unwritten law that inability to spell 'correctly' is a sign of illiteracy. During the childhood of the present writer this idea was emphasized to such an extent that in the spelling class common words were of little interest. He was trained to feel a certain pride in his ability to spell promptly and unerringly such test words as gauge, hough, sough, fuchsia, bdellium, phthisical, eleemosynary, metempsychosis, and tragododidascalicological. The spelling match each week was a source of excitement, perhaps comparable in a small way with such modern dissipation as bridge or football. All of us have gone through this mill with varying grades of success so that our eyes have become accustomed to the absurdities, and our associations are violated when we look upon improved forms. It is easier to recognize 'though' than 'tho'; 'through' than 'thru'; 'kissed' than 'kist'; 'rhyme' than 'rime'; 'thoroughly' than 'thoroly.' Most persons think the improved forms unsightly. This means nothing except that they are unfamiliar.

To reform our language to such an extent as to make it logical and consistent is scarcely conceivable. Attempts to do so have been made on paper, but practically they have resulted in nothing better than rainbow chasing. Our alphabet is radically bad, having a superfluity of symbols for certain simple sounds, and no single symbols for