Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/273

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

other elements of speech. Most of our vowels are sounded a variety of different ways, the most common ways being inconsistent with the sounds agreed upon in other modern languages. Spelling reformers have been agitating this matter for fifty years, but we are apparently no more ready to reform our alphabet now than when they began. Some of them, accepting the existence of an unchangeable alphabet, have persistently advocated the adoption of a strictly phonetic system of spelling; but, if they have made any practical progress outside of the volumes of proceedings of educational and philological conventions, it has been limited to the few enthusiasts who were willing to acquire the reputation of being peculiar and ill balanced.

The movements in behalf of alphabetic reform and phonetic spelling have been made in complete disregard of the conservation of energy. The habits of the people must be recognized. A page of English printed in an amended alphabet is, to even intelligent persons, simply unreadable. It has to be slowly and painfully deciphered, like a page of Greek. It may, like Greek, be read if one will be patient enough, but the difficulties are crowded initially, and the man who is not a professional philologist exercises his right of choice and rejects what he finds bristling with difficulties. Let the page of English be printed now in ordinary type, but phonetically. The word 'physics,' for example, is spelled 'fizix.' This also, like Greek, may be deciphered, but the page will require a great waste of energy with no reward beyond the mastery of unnecessary difficulties. Let any business man conduct his correspondence for a single week in such style. His customers are immediately convinced that the object of language thus expressed is to conceal thought, and the pecuniary results may be readily inferred. Let a publisher put forth a new book in phonetic spelling. On neither side of the Atlantic would one reader in a hundred be found ready to buy it, or patient enough to read it if curiosity has prompted the purchase.

The recognition of these great obstacles to reform does not imply that whatever is, is right, or that reform is impossible. Let us assume that a cannon ball weighing half a ton is to be moved by a little child, using nothing stronger than cotton thread. It may be suspended by a steel chain from a support of known height, for example thirteen or fourteen feet, thus forming a big pendulum whose period is readily calculated to be about four seconds. Let the thread be attached to a hook on the side of the ball. A jerk from even a baby's hand is sufficient to snap it. But if a succession of gentle pulls be given at intervals of just four seconds, each too faint to break the thread, a few hours of such light work, patiently maintained, will be sufficient to make the pendulum swing through a perceptible arc. The advocates of alphabetic and phonetic reform have been jerking the thread, and they will continually fail to move the ball so long as they refuse to recognize its formidable inertia. People who are accustomed to bad habits,