Item of the Day: Dissertations on the English Language (1789)

Full Title: Dissertations on the English Language: with Notes, Historical and Critical. To which is added, by way of Appendix, an Essay on a Reformed Mode of Spelling, with Dr. Franklin’s Arguments on that Subject. By Noah Webster, Jun. Esquire. Boston: Printed for the author, by Isaiah Thomas and Company, MDCCLXXXIX.

APPENDIX.

 

 

 

An ESSAY

On the NECESSITY, ADVANTAGES and PRACTICABILITY

of REFORMING the MODE of SPELLING, and of RENDERING the ORTHOGRAPHY of WORDS

CORRESPONDENT to the PRONUNCIATION.

 

IT has been observed by all writers on the English language, that the orthography or spelling of words is very irregular; the same letters often representing different sounds, and the same sounds often expressed by different letters. For this irregularity, two principal causes may be assigned:

1. THE changes to which the pronunciation of a language is liable, from the progress of science and civilization.

2. THE mixture of different languages, occasioned by revolutions in England, or by a predilection of the learned, for words of foreign growth and ancient origin. To the first cause, may be ascribed the difference between the spelling and pronunciation of Saxon words. The northern nations of Europe originally spoke much in gutturals. This is evident from the number of aspirates and guttural letters, which still remain in the orthography of words derived from those nations; and from the modern pronunciation of the collateral branches of the Teutonic, the Dutch, Scotch and German. Thus k before n was once pronounced; as in knave, know; the gh in might, though, daughter, and other similar words; the g in reign, feign, &c.

BUT as savages proceed in forming languages, they lose the guttural sounds, in some measure, and adopt the use of labials, and the more open vowels. The ease of speaking facilitates this progress, and the pronunciation of words is softened, in proportion to a national refinement of manners. This will account for the difference between the ancient and modern languages of France, Spain and Italy; and for the difference between the soft pronunciation of the present languages of those countries, and the more harsh and guttural pronunciation of the northern inhabitants of Europe.

IN this progress, the English have lost the sounds of most of the guttural letters. The k before k in know, the g in reign, and in many other words, are become mute in practice; and the gh is softened into the sound of f, as in laugh, or is silent, as in brought. . . .

BUT such is the state of our language. The pronunciation of the words which are strictly English, has been gradually changing for ages, and since the revival of science in Europe, the langage has received a vast accession of words from other languages, many of which retain an orthography very ill suited to exhibit the true pronunciation.

THE question now occurs; ought the Americans to retain these faults which produce innumerable inconveniencies [sic] in the acquisition and use of the language, or ought they at once to reform these abuses, and introduce order and regularity into the orthography of the AMERICAN TONGUE?

Let us consider this subject with some attention.

SEVERAL attempts were formerly made in England to rectify the orthography of the language. But I apprehend their schemes failed of success, rather on account of their intrinsic difficulties, than on account of any necessary impracticability [sic] of a reform. It was proposed, in most of these schemes, not merely to throw out superfluous and silent letters, but to introduce a number of new characters. Any attempt on such a plan must undoubtedly prove unsuccessful. It is not to be expected that an orthography, perfectly regular and simple, such as would be formed by a “Synod of Grammarians on principles of science,” will ever be substituted for that confused mode of spelling which is now established. But is is apprehended that great improvements may be made, and an orthography almost regular, or such as shall obviate most of the present difficulties which occur in learning our language, may be introduced and established with little trouble and opposition.

The principal alterations, necessary to render our orthography sufficiently regular and easy, are these:

1. THE omission of all superfluous or silent letters; as a in bread. Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt, bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend. Would this alteration produce any inconvenience, any embarrassment or expense? By no means. On the other hand, it would lessent he trouble of writing, and much more, of learning the language; it would reduce the true pronunciation to a certainty; and while it would assist foreigners and our own children in acquiring the language, it would render the pronunciation uniform, in different parts of the country, and almost prevent the possibility of change.

2. A SUBSTITUTE of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate. Thus putting ee instead of ea or ie, the words mean, near, speak, grieve, zeal, would become meen, neer, speek, greev, zeel. This alteration could not occasion a moments trouble; at the same time it would prevent a doubt respecting the pronunciation; whereas the ea and the ie having different sounds, may give a learner much difficulty. Thus greef should be substituted for grief; kee for key; beleev for believe; laf for laugh; dawter for daughter; plow for plough; tuf for tough; proov for prove; blud for blood; and draft for draught. In this manner ch in Greek derivatives, should be changed to k; for the English ch has a soft sound, as in cherish; but k always a hard sound. Therefore character, chorus, cholic, architecture, should be written karacter, kours, kolic, arkitecture; and were they thus written, no person could mistake their true pronunciation. . . .

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Filed under 1780's, Education, Grammar, Language, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, United States

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