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Chapter 9: the new spelling-book

It is said that a certain literary household was rather taken by surprise the other day at the statement of a perhaps over-vehement brother author, to the effect that “only half-baked prigs” now use the full forms of verbal expressions-such as “I do not,” “Have we not,” and the like. All reasonable persons, according to this authority, say “don't” and “haven't,” and the press should follow the practice. To this anecdote the husband is said meekly to have remarked that he frequently used these phrases, although he had certainly lived long enough to be a thoroughly baked prig, if a prig at all. “Oh no,” said his sympathetic spouse, herself a writer, “you don't use those phrases; at least I do not think you do.” She thus, with feminine fidelity, established herself, without knowing it, in the same category of prigs with her husband. She too, [67] as soon as she spoke earnestly and seriously, said “I do not” instead of “I don't.” Probably most people would do the same, although doubtless the eminent author quoted must know his own habits best. My own observation has been that, in or out of the world of prigs, a more serious occasion usually brings with it the more ample and dignified phrase. Nobody used the contracted forms of speech more freely than Wendell Phillips, who was, indeed, often censured for it by the more formal and academical.

He did not hesitate to say don't and can't, but no one rolled out the full impressiveness of the uncontracted phrase with more power when the occasion came. In perhaps the noblest series of accumulated climaxes to be found in all his orations-his celebrated comparison between War and Slavery-when the wave breaks at last and is ending, “Tell me where is the battle-field that is not white — white as an angel's wing-compared with the blackness of that darkness which has brooded over the Carolinas for centuries?” --it is observable that he says “where is” ; it would have broken the whole force of the wave to say “where's.” Yet Phillips was not usually characterized as a prig, and had at least been [68] long enough under fire to have become a well-baked one. I should dispute entirely the accusation that at the most earnest and impressive moments of life men resort to “don't” and “isn't.” When, as the bugle sounded for General Humphreys' charge at Fredericksburg, that accomplished soldier turned to his staff and remarked, with uncovered head, as if inviting them to be seated round his table, “Gentlemen, I shall head this charge; I presume, of course, you will wish to ride with me,” would the efficacy of the call have been enhanced by his saying “I'll” and “you'll” ? Colonel McClellan, in his Life of Humphreys, tells the story, and reminds us that of the seven who thus rode with their chief, one of them being his own son, five were dismounted and four wounded before the charge was ended. The appeal, therefore, whatever its form, seems to have answered its purpose.

These matters may, however, be left to natural instinct, which will lead us correctly enough. As to the movement now going on in various quarters for the simplification of English spelling, it is one in which, if guided by competent scholars, all who wish well to their race may join. Why should English spelling alone remain unchanged in its chaos, when [69] French and German spelling are undergoing changes all the time? Nay, we could not keep it thus if we would, since the very London printers who are most exasperated against the omission of the u from valor would be still more displeased if they had to spell the mother-tongue as all good London printers were obliged to spell it a hundred years ago. Then they would have spelled “pie” pye and “lie” lye, and, on the other hand, they would have given “rhyme” as rime; they would have used the words stoick, classic, topick, comick, critick, publick, all with the final k. Dr. Johnson, in writing his celebrated story Rasselas, gave the name of Imlac to one of his characters purposely, that by ending it with a c he could make it as unlike as possible to an English word, which should always, he says, “have the Saxon k added to the c.” Boswell, the biographer of Johnson, tells this, and adds, in a note, “I hope the authority of the great master of our language will stop that curtailing innovation by which we see ‘critic,’ ‘public,’ etc., frequently written instead of critick, publick, etc.” This was about a hundred years ago, and now the curtailing innovation has not left one vestige of the precious “Saxon k” behind it, and you may vainly search [70] all recent London imprints for the word pye as the name of an eatable. Mrs. Stowe was the latest American author, so far as I know, who employed this last spelling (so an editor of the Atlantic Monthly told me), in her manuscript forty years ago.

How have these great changes been brought about? Sometimes by open protest, but more often by the silent acquiescence of sensible people in some obvious simplification of spelling. The revolution which is now banishing the i from words ending in or is the same in kind with that which dethroned the Anglo-Saxon k. It is only that, as it happens to have made more headway in this country, it is called an American innovation. The delightful English Roman Catholic author Digby wrote, fifty years ago, that the moderns had found out a new way to spell “honor,” but no new mode of practising it; and this furnishes a date for this particular reform, although it really dates back much earlier, being mentioned with approval in Pegge's “Anecdotes,” first published in 1803. In the books of a hundred years ago one might find, without question or misgiving, authour, errour, inferiour, humour, and honour. The last two still hold their own in English books, but not [71] in American; the others have given way in England also. The only word of the kind still retaining the u in most American books is the word Saviour, and this is obviously from a feeling of reverence, like that which leads many excellent persons to pronounce “God” Gawd, just as Kipling's soldiers pronounce it. In time we shall perhaps learn that true feeling and reverence are not impaired by a simple pronunciation or by a consistent spelling.


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