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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 70/March 1907/Spelling Reform and the Conservation of Energy



THE basis of modern physical science is the conservation of energy. This doctrine, that the sum of the energy in our universe is constant while its modes of manifestation and transformation are indefinitely variable, has been established only within the last century, though vaguely foreshadowed many hundreds of years ago. Assuming the use of any machine for the transmission of energy, the amount of useful work done is less than the amount expended by the source because a part must be absorbed in the production and maintenance of motion in the machine itself, and in friction. With the development of heat and the radiation of this from the machine, energy that was initially available becomes transformed and ceases to be available. Such economic loss is physically a conservation.

The human brain is a machine for the transmission of energy, even though the work thus done may not be so readily measurable as that accomplished through the medium of a steam engine. The assimilation of food is the process by which energy from external sources is applied to the human machine and utilized through the medium of the brain. No physiologist has yet been able to analyze the mechanism of thought, but with the failure of the supply of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, which in suitable combination constitutes food, the power of thought vanishes with the paralysis of the brain. The function of the educator is to guide and help young human beings to use to the best advantage every part of the human machine, and especially that part whose function is to originate ideas, to convey them by the use of suitable symbols, and to apply them for the benefit of the race.

The use of words for the oral conveyance of ideas, or of what are intended to be such, has always been the favorite occupation of more than a single sex. Every speaker acquires his own habits of expression that become recognized among his associates. A certain amount of what we familiarly call mental energy is put by him into the expression of an idea. Another output of such energy is expended by the hearer in the effort to take in that idea. Success is usually only partial, as every practical teacher will sorrowfully admit. Clearness of thought must precede clearness of expression, and this in turn must precede clearness of apprehension. The man's style may not be ornate, it may not be conventionally elegant, but it is good in proportion to his success}} in conveying his ideas fully and accurately. In the process of transfer he has reduced the friction and the waste of inertia to the utmost. The least amount of work has been lost in the operation of two machines, the giving and the receiving, which form temporarily a connected system; and the active recipient's attention has been applied with good economy.

Men do not require to be highly civilized before the need is felt for the registration of ideas in addition to their oral transfer. Ideas are first symbolized, and the translation of such symbols into words soon suggests that words may be independently symbolized. The process continues until words are analyzed into their components, and these also are symbolized as letters. The art of spelling is thus born. But whatever the stage of symbolization, the written idea can never be more than an imperfect reproduction of the spoken idea, because symbols are arbitrary. The interpretation of a group of symbols is a synthetic process, and the opportunities for misunderstanding are fairly well proportioned to the complexity of the word machine employed.

The art of spelling is thus a development from early crude attempts to register spoken ideas and spoken words. The same word is often pronounced so differently by different speakers as to be scarcely recognizable. The English language when spoken by a highland Scotch or Welsh tongue to the ear of an American mountaineer fulfills quite well the dictum, commonly ascribed to Talleyrand, that the object of language is to conceal thought. From the very nature of the case spelling must vary as language varies. Orthodoxy may perhaps be as unchangeable as its representatives are prone to claim, but spelling has never been uniform, is not now uniform, and ought not to be more uniform than is the spoken language among the best educated scholars in great centers of population.

So long as literature was limited to manuscripts copied by professional scribes and seen only by the few who could read, and whose tastes prompted them to indulgence in such pleasure, spelling was as unsettled as forms of speech. The invention of printing not only produced a vast increase in the diffusion of reading matter, but tended to unify and give definiteness to the forms of symbolization. The railroad, the steamship, the telegraph and the printing press have been operated conjointly to bring all nations into closer communication than was ever foreshadowed by the optimistic dreams of our forefathers; but the adoption of a single language for the civilized world is still so far away in the future that no one gives the matter any serious consideration. Such unification is conceivable, but if ever approached it must be by gradual and almost imperceptible evolution, and not by prescription from any source, however scholarly and apparently authoritative. A new language, like Volapük, even though theoretically perfect, has not the ghost of a chance of adoption, because nobody is willing to assume the labor of learning it or to use what would not be a practical means of communication.

And so it is with spelling reform. Men have been free to spell in any way that seemed best adapted to the reproduction of what they wanted to convey. Variety in speech has been as natural as variety in personal character, in dress or in amusement. Inconsistencies in fashion will continue as long as men retain their personal liberty to select idioms, words and spellings that suit the individual fancy of the user. So long as a babel of different languages continues on earth will there be a corresponding babel of spellings. There is no remedy but self-interest. In making ourselves understood we are compelled to recognize the conservation of energy. The man who writes a sentence must consider not only his own thought-machine but also that of his reader. Personal liberty to spell as a writer may find easiest or think best is soon limited by the necessity to make himself easily intelligible. If his spelling is very different from what has gradually become the fashion, the blunderer is soon made aware that he is hard to understand, and self j interest teaches him to avoid interposing obstacles between himself and his constituency.

The printing-press has been the great unifier in the establishment of fashion in spelling. But such fashion is not in the least sacred. In the spelling of the English language the fashion has been set for the most part in the printing office by foremen, or by mere type-setters who were entirely innocent of any hostile designs against orthography, etymology or logic. Professor Lounsbury has shown that the type-setting of the earlier books in our language was done mostly by printers who had come to England from the continent. In the city of Strasburg may be seen to-day a statue erected to the memory of Gutenberg, whose first crude invention of type was long unknown in England. Type-setting was initially and most naturally a German art, and it would have been very remarkable if the conservative and self-satisfied Englishman had been found ready to adopt promptly any art that had its origin outside of England. The intruding German or Dutchman could not be expected to possess much English scholarship, and in the printing room nobody could direct him because no directions for spelling existed even among the authors themselves. The Anglo-Saxon language had grown naturally and healthily. The English language was not then known to have any separate existence or special individuality. It later received a large infusion of Norman-French, and the thought of consistency, of uniformity in spelling or in anything else, had not occurred to anybody. Chaucer was limited by no orthographic conventions, and if his spelling could be improved by the Dutch printer his readers probably recognized the possibility that there might be room for improvement. It was not his fault if the improvement was confided to incompetent hands. His spelling was more consistent than that of to-day.

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 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, whether relating to spelling or to anything else, need to be pulled gently, periodically and patiently. They are proof against argument, dictation, ridicule, legislation or physical force; but they will slowly yield if pulled in the right way and in the right succession.

However important may have been the influence of half-educated printers in the fastening of a hereditary spelling disease upon the users of the English language, the responsibility does not rest wholly upon them. Like other people, printers endeavor to adapt themselves to popular demands. The great classical schools of England have done much to infuse Latin and Greek into the language and to cultivate classical forms of spelling. Against the orthographic riot due to the early printers a reaction was inevitable. They gradually discarded many of the worst word forms that had been brought into use, but in the selection of surviving forms they had but small guidance from competent scholars. An approach toward uniformity was made, but it was under the domination of conservatism rather than reason or consistency, and popular habits were formed with no regard for simplicity or etymology. In the earlier English dictionaries by Bailey and Johnson very little was done to correct the prevailing inconsistencies. Johnson's great force of character made him a power among men. His knowledge of Latin was exceptional, but of etymology he knew little and cared less. As a lexicographer he was narrow, prejudiced and illogical. His dictionary was made the basis of Walker's dictionary, which in time attained wide currency on both sides of the Atlantic.

In all of these dictionaries it was apparently assumed that the function of the lexicographer is to record and define the words in current use, but not to search out or expose inconsistencies. The incongruities of our language make the dictionary more important as a reference book than it deserves to be. To this day multitudes of people accept without question what they find as allowed spelling in Webster or Worcester; and they resent any criticism upon what they consider to be established by the favorite standard.

What then are we to do about it?

The first and most important thing is to recognize the facts of human nature and the conservation of energy. This has been done by a small band of scholarly men, who have become incorporated during the year just ended as the Simplified Spelling Board, and to whom has been given the practical support of Andrew Carnegie and Theodore Roosevelt. This board recognizes the futility of trying to coerce the public, of trying to change the alphabet, of trying to secure immediate phonetic spelling, of advocating any radical changes, however desirable these may be theoretically. It has no intention of trying to set the pendulum into motion by breaking the thread. Its chief object is to attract the attention of the public to the history and present condition of English spelling; to convince the public that fashion in spelling is not sacred; that our language is and ought to be a developing language; that development should be guided as far as possible toward simplicity and directness. It advocates the gradual approach to simplicity by neglecting useless letters in words commonly employed. It does not claim for itself authority to standardize our language, but seeks to get rid of the excrescences which make our language unreasonably difficult. It wishes to secure the establishment and extension of good usage, to make it national and international. It does not expect to escape the criticism of those who have learned to love the faults of our tongue, but only asks to be treated with fairness and not to be condemned for what it has never advocated.

As a first step the board has issued a now famous list of three hundred words which are commonly spelled in two or more ways, and it recommends the simplest of these spellings in every case. Many of the simple forms have already gained such currency in America as to be called Americanisms by our British cousins. Fifty years ago very few of them were current here, but their adoption has been steady, especially among business men, and their increasing popularity is based upon the American fondness for directness. On examining this list the present writer has found himself already habituated to the use of more than half of the simplified forms, though the more complex forms were all taught him in childhood. He is not conscious of having ever attained a local reputation for oddity in spelling. The changes in practise have been made gradually and to a large extent unconsciously. The remaining half of the list may perhaps become assimilated in due time, but no sudden change can be made now. It would be too inconvenient and difficult. As an advocate of simplified spelling he is unwilling to subject himself to an implied obligation to reverse old habits at once; but his mental attitude is that of approval and sympathy with a reform that is based on strong common sense. Inertia must be allowed for, and the pull on the pendulum must be properly timed.

President Roosevelt, Mr. Carnegie and the Simplified Spelling Board have been the objects of widely varying criticism. The greatest good they have done has been to focus public attention upon abuses which are of small concern to great people, but of great concern to small people. The little folks at school have no prejudices about orthographic propriety, and no burdens should be piled upon them merely for the sake of maintaining old blunders. An English critic of American ways considers it spell 'Savior' without a u. Let the English do as they find best; ours is the American language. Our declaration of independence will involve no bloodshed.

The opposition of Congress, and the consequent necessity for the withdrawal of President Roosevelt's executive order in behalf of simplified spelling, given to the public printer at Washington, was not a surprising development. The sudden adoption of two or three hundred changes at one time was too strong a jerk on the big' congressional pendulum. But all these simplified forms will quite surely be incorporated in the great American dictionaries at an early day in their lists of alternative spellings. The public printer will thus be free to secure their gradual use in documents issued by the government. .Readers of periodicals in which the simplified forms have already been in use, such as The Literary Digest, find no difficulty in taking in ideas, even if such forms as 'tho,' 'thru' and 'prest' are occasionally encountered. These periodicals are quietly doing effective work by dispelling the novelty of the improvements. In deference to public prejudice such forms as 'thru' are perhaps best neglected for the present, while 'tho' is used, since consistency is of little importance in comparison with tact. The Simplified Spelling Board can only recommend; the public will do the adopting in response to gentle and well-timed persuasion, and reasonable respect will be manifested toward the conservation of energy.

In conclusion the following propositions are presented by way of summary:

1. Inability to spell conventionally is not necessarily or deservedly an index of illiteracy.

2. Conventional spelling is a mere fashion, worthy of no respect when it implies the sacrifice of economy. In judging economy we must consider ease in the transfer of ideas. That spelling is best which is most readily intelligible.

3. Nobody can be reasonably expected to adopt more than a few changes at a time. A writer occupies himself with ideas rather than verbal forms. The simplified forms must be applied chiefly in the printing office, where forms are all-important. Change of habit must result chiefly from the unconscious training received by the eye in reading such simplified forms already in print.

4. Children should be taught simplified spelling. They will additionally learn the old conventional forms outside of the school-room, and should be free to exercise their own preferences so long as they are consistent in the employment of either system.

5. The simplification of our spelling does not imply the adoption of a new alphabet, or indulgence in objectionable phonetic eccentricities. All improvements are initially unfamiliar, and those who advocate them may be temporarily considered unfashionable, but reason in fashion has a better chance to prevail in America than in England, or in any other country where our common but necessarily variant language is spoken and written.

6. For the improvement of spelling there is always the need of moderate and practical reformers. The same slow process of change that has been distinctly perceptible during the last half century may be expected to continue, but at a diminishing rate if nothing is done to accelerate it. All fashions tend toward fixity; and unless change is urged by those who are willing to appear at times a little odd, the old absurdities will for the most part continue indefinitely. The language is not going to change itself as a result of being proved inconsistent. No fashion is ever changed except by the exercise of personal initiative, but to secure change regard must be had for the difficulties experienced by the reader. The writer who adopts the simplified spelling has to be continually thinking of his spelling until new habits are formed, and his reader has to experience a succession of shocks that are at first irritating. The amount of friction in the complex thought machine is decidedly increased until it becomes worn smooth by such friction. Each advocate of improvement must use his own judgment as to the extent of his violation of conventional forms, but such violation must be perpetrated by him just so far as may be consistent with sane recognition of the conservation of energy.