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An essay by Brander Matthews

As To "American Spelling"

Title:     As To "American Spelling"
Author: Brander Matthews [More Titles by Matthews]

When the author of "The Cathedral" was accosted by the wandering Englishmen within the lofty aisles of Chartres, he cracked a joke,

"Whereat they stared, then laughed, and we were friends,
The seas, the wars, the centuries interposed,
Abolished in the truce of common speech
And mutual comfort of the mother-tongue."

In this common speech other Englishmen are not always ready to acknowledge the full rights of Lowell's countryman. They would put us off with but a younger brother's portion of the mother-tongue, seeming somehow to think that they are more closely related to the common parent than we are. But Orlando, the younger son of Sir Rowland du Bois, was no villain; and though we have broken with the father-land, the mother-tongue is none the less our heritage. Indeed we need not care whether the division per stirpes or per capita, our share is not the less in either case.

Beneath the impotent protests which certain British newspapers are prone to make every now and again against the "American language" as a whole, and against the stray Americanism which has happened last to invade England, there is a tacit assumption that we Americans are outer barbarians, mere strangers, wickedly tampering with something which belongs to the British exclusively. And the outcry against the "American language" is not as shrill nor as piteous as the shriek of horror with which certain of the journals of London greet "American spelling," a hideous monster, which they feared was ready to devour them as soon as the international copyright bill should become law. In the midst of every discussion of the effect of the copyright act in Great Britain, the bugbear of "American spelling" reared its grisly head. The London Times declared that English publishers would never put any books into type in the United States because the people of England would never tolerate the peculiarities of orthography which prevailed in American printing-offices. The St. James's Gazette promptly retorted that "already newspapers in London are habitually using the ugliest forms of American spelling, and those silly eccentricities do not make the slightest difference in their circulation." The Times and the St. James's Gazette might differ as to the effect of the copyright act on the profits of the printers of England, but they agreed heartily as to the total depravity of "American spelling." I think that any disinterested foreigner who might chance to hear these violent outcries would suppose that English orthography was as the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not; he would be justified in believing that the system of spelling now in use in Great Britain was hallowed by the Established Church, and in some way mysteriously connected with the State religion. Indeed, no other explanation would suffice to account for the vigor, the violence, and the persistency of the protests.

Just what the British newspapers are afraid of it is not easy to say and it is difficult to declare just what they mean when they talk of "American spelling." Probably they do not refer to the improvements in orthography suggested by the first great American--Benjamin Franklin. Possibly they do refer to the modifications in the accepted spelling proposed by another American, Noah Webster--not so great, and yet not to be named slightingly by any one who knows how fertile his labors have been for the good of the whole country. Noah Webster, so his biographer, Mr. Scudder, tells us, "was one of the first to carry a spirit of democracy into letters.... Throughout his work one may detect a confidence in the common-sense of the people which was as firm as Franklin's." But the innovations of Webster were hesitating and often inconsistent; and the most of them have been abandoned by later editors of Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language.

What, then, do British writers mean when they animadvert upon "American spelling?" So far as I have been able to discover, the British journalists object to certain minor labor-saving improvements of American orthography, such as the dropping of the k from almanack, the omission of one g from waggon, and the like; and they protest with double force, with all the strength that in them lies, against the substitution of a single l for a double l in such words as traveller, against the omission of the u from such words as honour, against the substitution of an s for a c in such words as defence, and against the transposing of the final two letters of such words as theatre. The objection to "American spelling" may lie deeper than I have here suggested, and it may have a wider application; but I have done my best to state it fully and fairly as I have deduced it from a painful perusal of many columns of exacerbated British writing.

Now if I have succeeded in stating honestly the extent of the British journalistic objections to "American spelling," the unprejudiced reader may be moved to ask: "Is this all? Are these few and slight and unimportant changes the cause of this mighty commotion?" One may agree with Sainte-Beuve in thinking that "orthography is the beginning of literature," without discovering in these modifications from the Johnsonian canon any cause for extreme disgust. And since I have quoted Sainte-Beuve once, I venture to cite him again, and to take from the same letter of March 15, 1867, his suggestion that "if we write more correctly, let it be to express especially honest feelings and just thoughts."

Feelings may be honest though they are violent, but irritation is not the best frame of mind for just thinking. The tenacity with which some of the newspapers of London are wont to defend the accepted British orthography is perhaps due rather to feeling than to thought. Lowell told us that esthetic hatred burned nowadays with as fierce a flame as ever once theological hatred; and any American who chances to note the force and the fervor and the frequency of the objurgations against "American spelling" in the columns of the Saturday Review, for example, and of the Athenæum, may find himself wondering as to the date of the papal bull which declared the infallibility of contemporary British orthography, and as to the place where the council of the Church was held at which it was made an article of faith.

The Saturday Review and the Athenæum, highly pitched as their voices are, yet are scarcely shriller in their cry to arms against the possible invasion of the sanctity of British orthography by "American spelling" than is the London Times, the solid representative of British thought, the mighty organ-voice of British feeling. Yet the Times is not without orthographic eccentricities of its own, as Matthew Arnold took occasion to point out. In his essay on the "Literary Influence of Academies," he asserts that "every one has noticed the way in which the Times chooses to spell the word diocese; it always spells it diocess, deriving it, I suppose, from Zeus and census.... Imagine an educated Frenchman indulging himself in an orthographical antic of this sort!"

When we read what is written in the Times and the Saturday Review and the Athenæum, sometimes in set articles on the subject, and even more often in casual and subsidiary slurs in the course of book-reviews, we wonder at the vehemence of the feeling displayed. If we did not know that ancient abuses are often defended with more vigor and with louder shouts than inheritances of less doubtful worth, we might suppose that the present spelling of the English language was in a condition perfectedly satisfactory alike to scholar and to student. Such, however, is not the case. The leading philologists of Great Britain and of the United States have repeatedly denounced English spelling as it now is on both sides of the Atlantic. Professor Max Müller at Oxford is no less emphatic than Professor Whitney at Yale. There is now living no scholar of any repute who any longer defends the orthodox and ordinary orthography of the English language.

The fact is that a little learning is quite as dangerous a thing now as it was in Pope's day. Those who are volubly denouncing "American spelling" in the columns of British journals are not students of the history of English speech; they are not scholars in English; in so far as they know anything of the language, they are but amateur philologists. As a well-known writer on spelling reform once neatly remarked, "The men who get their etymology by inspiration are like the poor in that we have them always with us." Although few of them are as ignorant and dense as the unknown unfortunate who first tortured the obviously jocular Welsh rabbit into a pedantic and impossible Welsh rarebit, still the most of their writing serves no good purpose; to quote the apt illustration of a Western humorist, "It has as little influence as the p in pneumonia." Nor do we discover in these specimens of British journalism that abundant urbanity which etymology might lead us to look for in the writing of inhabitants of so large a city as London.

Any one who takes the trouble to inform himself on the subject will soon discover that it is only the half-educated man who defends the contemporary orthography of the English language, and who denounces the alleged "American spelling" of center and honor. The uneducated reader may wonder perchance what the g is doing in sovereign; the half-educated reader discerns in the g a connecting link between the English sovereign and the Latin regno; the well-educated reader knows that there is no philological connection whatever between regno and sovereign.

The most of those who write with ease in British journals, deploring the prevalence of "American spelling," have never carried their education so far as to acquire that foundation of wisdom which prevents a man from expressing an opinion on subjects as to which he is ignorant. The object of education, it has been said, is to make a man know what he knows, and also to know how much he does not know. Despite the close sympathy between the intellectual pursuits, a student of optics is not qualified to express an opinion in esthetics; and on the other hand, a critic of art may easily be ignorant of science. Now literature is one of the arts, and philology is a science. Though men of letters have to use words as the tools of their trade, orthography is none the less a branch of philology, and philology does not come by nature. Literature may even exist without writing, and therefore without spelling. Homer, the trouvères, and the minnesingers practised their art perhaps without the aid of letters. Writing, indeed, has no necessary connection with literature, still less has orthography. A literary critic is rarely a scientific student of language; he has no need to be; but being ignorant, it is the part of modesty for him not to expose his ignorance. To boast of it is unseemly.

Far be it from me to appear as the defender of the "American spelling" which the British journalists denounce. This "American spelling" is less absurd than the British spelling only in so far as it has varied therefrom. Even in these variations there is abundant absurdity. Once upon a time most words that now are spelled with a final c had an added k. Even now both British and American usage retains this k in hammock, although both British and Americans have dropped the needless letter from havoc; while the British retain the k at the end of almanack and the Americans have dropped it. Dr. Johnson was a reactionary in orthography as in politics; and in his dictionary he wilfully put a final k to words like optick, without being generally followed by the publick--as he would have spelled it. Music was then musick, although, even as late as Aubrey's time, it had been musique. In our own day we are witnessing the very gradual substitution of the logical technic for the form originally imported from France--technique. As yet, so far as I have observed, no attempts have been made to modify the foreign spelling of clique and oblique.

I am inclined to think that technic is replacing technique more rapidly--or should I say less slowly?--in the United States than in Great Britain. We Americans like to assimilate our words and to make them our own, while the British have rather a fondness for foreign phrases. A London journalist recently held up to public obloquy as an "ignorant Americanism" the word program, although he would have found it set down in Professor Skeat's Etymological Dictionary. "Programme was taken from the French," so a recent writer reminds us, "and in violation of analogy, seeing that, when it was imported into English, we had already anagram, cryptogram, diogram, epigram, etc." The logical form program is not common even in America, and British writers seem to prefer the French form, as British speakers still give a French pronunciation to charade, which in America has long since been accepted frankly as an English word. So we find Mr. Andrew Lang, in his Angling Sketches, referring to the asphalte: surely in our language the word is either asphaltum or asphalt.

Here, if the excursus may be permitted, I should like to note also that the American willingness to acknowledge the English language as good enough for the ordinary purposes of speech shows itself in our acceptance of certain words of foreign origin as now fully naturalized, and therefore so to be treated. The Americans are inclined to consider that formula, for example, and criterion and memorandum and cherub and bureau are now good English words, forming their plurals by the addition of an s. Our first cousins, once removed, across the Atlantic seem to be still in doubt; and therefore we find them making the plurals of these words in accordance with the rules of the various languages from which the several words were derived. So in British books we meet the Latin plurals, formulæ and memoranda; the Greek plural, criteria; the Hebrew plural, cherubim; and the French plural, bureaux. Oddly enough, the writers who use these foreign plurals are unwilling to admit that the word thus modified is a foreign word, for more often than not they print it without italics, although frankly foreign words are carefully italicized. Possibly it is idle to look for any logic in anything which has to do with modern English orthography on either side of the ocean.

Perhaps, however, there is less even than ordinary logic in the British journalist's objection to the so-called "American spelling" of meter; for why should any one insist on metre while unhesitatingly accepting its compound diameter? Mr. John Bellows, in the preface to his inestimable French-English and English-French pocket dictionary, one of the very best books of reference ever published, informs us that "the Act of Parliament legalizing the use of the metric system in this country [England] gives the words meter, liter, gram, etc., spelled on the American plan." Perhaps now that the sanction of law has been given to this spelling, the final er will drive out the re which has usurped its place. In one of the last papers that he wrote, Lowell declared that "center is no Americanism; it entered the language in that shape, and kept it at least as late as Defoe." "In the sixteenth and in the first half of the seventeenth century," says Professor Lounsbury, "while both ways of writing these words existed side by side, the termination er is far more common than that in re. The first complete edition of Shakespeare's plays was published in 1623. In that work sepulcher occurs thirteen times; it is spelled eleven times with er. Scepter occurs thirty-seven times; it is not once spelled with re, but always with er. Center occurs twelve times, and in nine instances out of the twelve it ends in er." So we see that this so-called "American spelling" is fully warranted by the history of the English language. It is amusing to note how often a wider and a deeper study of English will reveal that what is suddenly denounced in Great Britain as the very latest Americanism, whether this be a variation in speech or in spelling, is shown to be really a survival of a previous usage of our language, and authorized by a host of precedents.

Of course it is idle to kick against the pricks of progress, and no doubt in due season Great Britain and her colonial dependencies will be content again to spell words that end in er as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and Spenser spelled them. But when we get so far towards the orthographic millennium that we all spell sepulcher, the ghost of Thomas Campbell will groan within the grave at the havoc then wrought in the final line of "Hohenlinden," which will cease to end with even the outward semblance of a rhyme to the eye. We all know that

"On Linden, when the sun was low,
All bloodless lay the untrodden snow,
And dark as winter was the flow
Of Iser, rolling rapidly,"

and those of us who have persevered may remember that with one exception every fourth line of Campbell's poem ends with a y--the words are rapidly, scenery, revelry, artillery, canopy, and chivalry--not rhymes of surpassing distinction, any of them, but perhaps passable to a reader who will humor the final syllable. The one exception is the final line of the poem--

"Shall be a soldier's sepulchre."

To no man's ear did sepulchre ever rhyme justly with chivalry and canopy and artillery, although Campbell may have so contorted his vision that he evoked the dim spook of a rhyme in his mind's eye. A rhyme to the eye is a sorry thing at best, and it is sorriest when it depends on an inaccurate and evanescent orthography.

Dr. Johnson was as illogical in his keeping in and leaving out of the u in words like honor and governor as he was in many other things; and the makers of later dictionaries have departed widely from his practice, those in Great Britain still halting half-way, while those in the United States have gone on to the bitter end. The illogic of the great lexicographer is shown in his omission of the u from exterior and posterior, and his retention of it in the kindred words interiour and anteriour; this, indeed, seems like wilful perversity, and justifies flood's merry jest about "Dr. Johnson's Contradictionary." The half-way measures of later British lexicographers are shown in their omission of the u from words which Dr. Johnson spelled emperour, governour, oratour, horrour, and dolour, while still retaining it in favour and honour and a few others.

The reason for his disgust generally given by the London man of letters who is annoyed by the "American spelling" of honor and favor is that these words are not derived directly from the Latin, but indirectly through the French; this is the plea put forward by the late Archbishop Trench. Even if this plea were pertinent, the application of this theory is not consistent in current British orthography, which prescribes the omission of the u from error and emperor, and its retention in colour and honour--although all four words are alike derived from the Latin through the French. And this plea fails absolutely to account for the u which the British insist on preserving in harbour and in neighbour, words not derived from the Latin at all, whether directly or indirectly through the French. An American may well ask, "If the u in honour teaches etymology, what does the u in harbour teach?" There is no doubt that the u in harbour teaches a false etymology; and there is no doubt also that the u in honour has been made to teach a false etymology, for Trench's derivation of this final our from the French eur is absurd, as the old French was our, and sometimes ur, sometimes even or. Pseudo-philology of this sort is no new thing. Professor Max Müller tells us that the Roman prigs used to spell cena (to show their knowledge of Greek), coena, as if the word were somehow connected with [Greek: koinê].

Thus we see that the u in honour suggests a false etymology; so does the ue in tongue, and the g in sovereign, and the c in scent, and the s in island, and the mp in comptroller, and the h in rhyme; and there are many more of our ordinary orthographies which are quite as misleading from a philological point of view. As Professor Hadley mildly put it, "our common spelling is often an untrustworthy guide to etymology." But why should we expect or desire spelling to be a guide to etymology? If it is to be a guide at all, we may fairly insist on its being trustworthy, and so we cannot help thinking scorn of those who insist on retaining a superfluous u in honour.

But why should orthography be made subservient to etymology? What have the two things in common? They exist for wholly different ends, to be attained by wholly different means. To bend either from its own work to the aid of the other is to impair the utility of both. This truth is recognized by all etymologists, and by all students of language, although it has not yet found acceptance among men of letters, who are rarely students of language in the scientific sense. "It may be observed," Mr. Sweet declares, "that it is mainly among the class of half-taught dabblers in philology that etymological spelling has found its supporters;" and he goes on to say that "all true philologists and philological bodies have uniformly denounced it as a monstrous absurdity both from a practical and a scientific point of view." I should never dare to apply to the late Archbishop Trench and the London journalists who echo his errors so harsh a phrase as Mr. Sweet's "half-taught dabblers in philology;" but when a fellow-Englishman uses it perhaps I may venture to quote it without reproach.

As I have said before, the alleged "American spelling" differs but very slightly from that which prevails in England. A wandering New-Yorker who rambles through London is able to collect now and again evidences of orthographic survivals which give him a sudden sense of being in an older country than his own. I have seen a man whose home was near Gramercy Park stop short in the middle of a little street in Mayfair, and point with ecstatic delight to the strip of paper across the glass door of a bar proclaiming that CYDER was sold within. I have seen the same man thrill with pure joy before the shop of a chymist in the window of which corn-plaisters were offered for sale. And this same New-Yorker was carried back across the years when he noted the extra g in the British waggon--an orthographic fifth wheel, if ever there was one; he smiled at the k which lingers at the end of the British almanack; he wondered why a British house should have storeys when an American house has stories; and he disliked intensely the wanton e wherewith British printers have recently disfigured form which in the latest London typographical vocabularies appears as forme. This e in form is a gratuitous addition, and therefore contrary to the trend of spelling reform, which aims at the suppression of all arbitrary and needless letters. Most of the American modifications of the Johnsonian orthography have been labor-saving devices, like the dropping of u in color and of one l in traveler, in an effort at simplification, and in accord with the irresistible tendency of mankind to cut across lots.

The so-called "American spelling" differs from the spelling which obtains in England only in so far as it has yielded a little more readily to the forces which make for progress, for uniformity, for logic, for common-sense. But just how fortuitous and chaotic the condition of English spelling is nowadays both in Great Britain and in the United States no man knows who has not taken the trouble to investigate for himself. In England, the reactionary orthography of Samuel Johnson is no longer accepted by all. In America, the revolutionary orthography of Noah Webster has been receded from even by his own inheritors. There is no standard, no authority, not even that of a powerful, resolute, and domineering personality.

Perhaps the attitude of philologists towards the present spelling of the English language, and their opinion of those who are up in arms in defence of it, have never been more tersely stated than in Professor Lounsbury's recent and most admirable Studies in Chaucer, a work which I should term eminently scholarly, if that phrase did not perhaps give a false impression of a book wherein the results of learning are set forth with the most adroit literary art, and with an uninsistent but omnipresent humor, which is a constant delight to the reader:

"There is certainly nothing more contemptible than our present spelling, unless it be the reasons usually given for clinging to it. The divorce which has unfortunately almost always existed between English letters and English scholarship makes nowhere a more pointed exhibition of itself than in the comments which men of real literary ability make upon proposals to change or modify the cast-iron framework in which our words are now clothed. On one side there is an absolute agreement of view on the part of those who are authorized by their knowledge of the subject to pronounce an opinion. These are well aware that the present orthography hides the history of the word instead of revealing it; that it is a stumbling-block in the way of derivation or of pronunciation instead of a guide to it; that it is not in any sense a growth or development, but a mechanical malformation, which owes its existence to the ignorance of early printers and the necessity of consulting the convenience of printing-offices. This consensus of scholars makes the slightest possible impression upon men of letters throughout the whole great Anglo-Saxon community. There is hardly one of them who is not calmly confident of the superiority of his opinion to that of the most famous special students who have spent years in examining the subject. There is hardly one of them who does not fancy he is manifesting a noble conservatism by holding fast to some spelling peculiarly absurd, and thereby maintaining a bulwark against the ruin of the tongue. There is hardly one of them who has any hesitation in discussing the question in its entirety, while every word he utters shows that he does not even understand its elementary principles. There would be something thoroughly comic in turning into a fierce international dispute the question of spelling honor without the u, were it not for the depression which every student of the language cannot well help feeling in contemplating the hopeless abysmal ignorance of the history of the tongue which any educated man must first possess in order to become excited over the subject at all." (Studies in Chaucer, vol. iii., pp. 265-7.)

Pronunciation is slowly but steadily changing. Sometimes it is going further and further away from the orthography; for example, either and neither are getting more and more to have in their first syllable the long i sound instead of the long e sound which they had once. Sometimes it is being modified to agree with the orthography; for example, the older pronunciations of again to rhyme with men, and of been to rhyme with pin, in which I was carefully trained as a boy, seem to me to be giving way before a pronunciation in exact accord with the spelling, again to rhyme with pain, and been to rhyme with seen. These two illustrations are from the necessarily circumscribed experience of a single observer, and the observation of others may not bear me out in my opinion; but though the illustrations fall to the ground, the main assertion, that pronunciation is changing, is indisputable.

No doubt the change is less rapid than it was before the invention of printing; far less rapid than it was before the days of the public-school and of the morning newspaper. There are variations of pronunciation in different parts of the United States and of Great Britain as there are variations of vocabulary; but in the future there will be a constantly increasing tendency for these variations to disappear. There are irresistible forces making for uniformity--forces which are crushing out Platt-Deutsch in Germany, Provençal in France, Romansch in Switzerland. There is a desire to see a standard set up to which all may strive to conform. In France a standard of pronunciation is found at the performances of the Comédie Française; and in Germany, what is almost a standard of vocabulary has been set in what is now known as Bühne-Deutsch.

In France the Academy was constituted chiefly to be a guardian of the language; and the Academy, properly conservative as it needs must be, is engaged in a slow reform of French orthography, yielding to the popular demand decorously and judiciously. By official action, also, the orthography of German has been simplified and made more logical and brought into closer relation with modern pronunciation. Even more thorough reforms have been carried through in Italy, in Spain, and in Holland. Yet neither French nor German, not Italian, Spanish, or Dutch, stood half as much in need of the broom of reform as English, for in no one of these languages were there so many dark corners which needed cleaning out; in no one of them the difference between orthography and pronunciation as wide; and in no one of them was the accepted spelling debased by numberless false etymologies. Sometimes it seems as though our orthography is altogether vile; that it is most intolerable and not to be endured; that it calls not for the broom of reform, but rather for the besom of destruction.

For any elaborate and far-reaching scheme of spelling reform, seemingly, the time has not yet come, although, for all we know, we may be approaching it all unwittingly, as few of us in 1860 foresaw the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. In the mean while, what is needed on both sides of the Atlantic, in the United States as well as in Great Britain, is a conviction that the existing orthography of English is not sacred, and that to tamper with it is not high-treason. What is needed is the consciousness that neither Samuel Johnson nor Noah Webster compiled his dictionary under direct inspiration. What is needed is an awakening to the fact that our spelling, so far from being immaculate at its best, is, at its best, hardly less absurd than the hap-hazard, rule-of-thumb, funnily phonetic spelling of Artemus Ward and of Josh Billings. What is needed is anything which will break up the lethargy of satisfaction with the accepted orthography, and help to open the eyes of readers and writers to the stupidity of the present system and tend to make them discontented with it.

So the few and slight divergences between the orthography obtaining in Great Britain and the orthography obtaining in the United States are not to be deplored. The cyder on the door of the London bar-room and the catalog in the pages of the New York Library Journal both subserve the useful purpose of making people alive to the possibilities of an amended orthography. Thus the so-called "American spelling" helps along a good cause--and so, also, do the British assaults upon it.


[The end]
Brander Matthews's essay: As To "american Spelling"