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27

ON THE ORTHOGRAPHY

OF THE

ENGLISH LANGUAGE.

ORTHOGRAPHY, as the word itself indicates, teaches us to write correctly: philologists have, therefore, very properly, made it the introductory part of grammatical inquiry; they have, however, given it a comprehensive meaning, making it to include Orthoepy; and explained it as that part of their work which “ treats of the nature and powers of letters, and the just method of spelling words.”

Approving this explanation, it is proposed to make the three parts of which it consists the distinct heads of our subject; and, as entertainingly, rather than learnedly, as possible, to consider, first, the nature of letters; secondly, their powers; and, lastly, the best method of spelling words.

But, previously to these considerations, it may not be altogether foreign from the subject, and certainly not uninteresting, briefly to inquire into the origin of letters. The origin of alphabetical writing has been by many attributed to human invention : if so, it is certainly the most transcendant that ever distinguished our nature, and will for ever place the ancients above all comparison with the moderns in the annals of inventive ingenuity; and, it were to be wished, that we knew our benefactor, that we might suitably honour and revere his memory; but we are left in the greatest uncertainty, and become bewildered among the numerous candidates for the distinction; for we are referred to Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Saturn, Cadmus, St. Iræneus, the Egyptians, Ethiopians, Chinese, &c. The historical books of the Sacred Scriptures are confessedly the most ancient and authentic source of information to which we can refer; and no evidence of written language is afforded by them before the giving of the law at Sinai, 1491 years before Christ; but, after that period and that event, there is mention of writing, when occasion of such mention occurs. In the 31st and 22nd sections of the historical book, emphatically called the Exodus, it is said, “ And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon Mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, written with the finger of God, and the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables ;" expressions which amount, at least, to presumptive evidence of the divine origin of alphabetical writing, of which opinion have been many great and learned men. Dr. Bryant has observed, “For my part, I believe that there was no writing antecedent to the law at Mount Sinai. Here the divine art was promulgated, of which other nations partook; the Tyrians and Sidonians first, as they were the nearest to the fountain-head: and when this discovery became more known, even then, I imagine, that its progress was very slow; and that, in many countries, whither it was carried, it was but partially received, and made use of to no purpose of consequence. The Romans carried their pretensions to letters pretty high, and the Helladian Greeks still higher ; yet the former marked their years by a nail driven into a post, and the latter, for some ages, simply wrote down the names of the Olympic victors from Corcbus, and registered the priestesses of Argos.”

“Why letters, when introduced, were so partially received, and employed to so little purpose, a two-fold reason may be given : first, the want of antecedent writings, to encourage people to proceed in the same track. The practice of writing, or, in other words, composing, depends upon previous reading and example. A second reason seems to have been the want of such materials as are necessary for expedition and free writing. The rind and leaves of trees, and shells from the sea, can lend but small assistance towards literature; and stones and slabs are not calculated to promote it much further. It is impossible for people to receive any great benefit from letters, where they are obliged to go to a shard or an oystershell for information, and where knowledge is consigned to a pantile. As to the high antiquity assigned to letters by Pliny, no credence can be given to that author, who from 720 years infers eternity, and speaks of those terms as synonymous. From writing upon leaves and shells, came the petalismus and ostracismus of the Greeks; from the bark of trees, the libri of the Latins.” Certain it is, that no earlier alphabet is known than that of the Phænicians, Samaritans, or Hebrews. The Jonians learned the use of letters from these people, between whom there was perpetual commercial intercourse ; indeed, it is admitted, that by far the greater number of existing alphabets was derived from this source. Ionia was a Greek province in Asia, near Phenicia. The Attick alphabet was derived from the improved Ionian, and, in all probability, from the latter resulted the Roman, which may be considered as our alphabet, the Saxon having been long laid aside: nor is this matter of regret; for, although the alphabet of our forefathers was better adapted to denote some of our peculiar sounds,* this disadvantage is compensated

Our alphabet is inferior to the Saxon, inasmuch as it has no distinct characters to express either of the sounds of th, as heard in thin and thus ; but resorts to the imperfect method of employing t and h to denote each of

by the uniformity of alphabets, thereby preserved among modern European nations.

But we turn from this digression to notice, first, the nature of letters.

Letters are evidently the first principles, or least parts of words: they are marks, or representatives of certain sounds, by a judicious combination of which, words, or signs of thought, are rendered visible; and, by a review of which, the ideas that they denote are revived in the mind through the medium of the eye. How much, therefore, are we indebted to alphabetical writing! It actually introduces a new sense, with all its capabilities, to the pleasures and uses of language, which are thereby greatly improved and multiplied; it gives a form and permanency to human opinion, inasmuch as it enables us to preserve and review our own sentiments without the renewed mental process of producing them ; a task often hopeless, seeing the circumstances and feelings which originated them cannot be commanded, and may never recur; while it affords, moreover, as with magic facility, in connection with the art of printing, the means of indefinite circulation to such sentiments. It has substituted the details of history for the vagaries of tradition; it is often both the author and preserver of valuable friendships, inasmuch as it is the delightful vehicle of sentiment and feeling to absent individuals. It is alike the messenger of commercial and political interest and speculation, and the interesting medium of communication between the learned and scientific of every clime and country. In fact, it is the means of instruction, and the source of pleasure to man in all the vicissitudes of his journey through life, filling the youthful mind with wonder, and the aged bosom with consolation; giving indescribable charms to the greatest seclusion, and life and information to the social circle: indeed, it is the powerful engine which it has pleased the Almighty to employ in the revelation of his merciful designs.

Letters, then, are evidently the signs of sounds; sounds are audible signs of words, as words are the representatives of ideas. If language was perfect, every idea would have its distinct and appropriate word; every letter, and every combination of letters, their characteristic sounds; and every sound its individual character: but ages have rolled away since perfection was witnessed by man, and a sublimer state of being must succeed before it is again experienced.

We know of no perfect alphabet. The English alphabet is both deficient and redundant. It is reduced to the necessity

the simple sounds. The Saxons employed the two simple characters þÐ, or the small letters $8, which were disused about the time of William the Conqueror.

of employing the same letter to denote several sounds, and continually denotes the same sound by different letters, which are fruitful causes of our orthographical difficulties.

That our alphabet is deficient, appears from our necessity of denoting several distinct sounds by each of the vowels; employing con binations of characters to express elementary sounds, as in th, sh, and ng,—the former of which has two sounds, and also expressing

complex sounds by single letters, ás in the soft sound of g.

On the other hand, that our list of letters is redundant is equally manifest. C is superfluous; its hard sound being represented by k, and its soft sound by 3. J is needless; its sound being the same as soft g, unless we prudently restricted the use of the latter consonant to denote its hard sound. J was not admitted to the Saxon alphabet, nor did they employ g. "Q, with its attendant u," says Murray, “is either complex, and resolvable into kw; or, unnecessary, because its sound is the same with k." We might also dismiss the x without loss; its sounds being referable to gs or ks.

In short, we have thirty-four simple sounds, and but twentysix letters wherewith to express them; some of which, to increase the difficulty, as we have already shown, are superfluous. Various causes have doubtless contributed to this imperfection; but none more than the employment of the alphabet of one language to express the sounds of another; notwithstanding the sounds of the second language have been ever so dissimilar.

Letters are divided into vowels and consonants; a distinction with which the school-boy is familiar, and yet one that has deservedly occupied the attention of the ablest critics and profoundest philosophers. A close examination of the various sounds uttered by the human voice will show the propriety of those simple distinctions, and the propriety of the terms by which those distinctions are denoted.

Mr. Walker's definition of a vowel is particularly descriptive of its nature :-"A vowel,” he remarks," is a simple sound, formed by a continual effusion of the breath, and a certain conformation of the mouth, without any alteration in the position, or any motion of the organs of speech from the moment the vowel sound commences till it ends." The vowels we should not think of enumerating, but to notice the supposed confused and anomalous nature of w and y. “ The vowels," says our popular grammar, "are, a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes w and y. W and y are consonants, when they begin a word or syllable ; but in every other situation they are vowels.” The truth of this remark may be questioned. The name and form of the first of these letters seem to give a clue

to its nature, and from it we may venture to guess at the nature of the other. Both these letters appear superfluous; their vowel sounds being expressed by u and i, and what are called their consonant sounds, seem to have been originally but these letters doubled, to which their sounds are now equiyalent. Walker's remarks on the organic formation of these letters confirm this opinion. “ W consonant," says he,* “ is formed by placing the organs in the position of oo, described under u, and closing the lips a little more, in order to propel the breath on the succeeding vowel which it articulates. Y consonant is formed by placing the organs in the position of e, (one of the sounds of i,) and squeezing the tongue against the roof of the mouth, which produces ee, which is equivalent to pasal y.” The characters w and y are therefore mere substitutes for uu and ii at the beginning of words and syllables, which extraordinary practice has helped to increase the perplexity of our orthography,

From the paucity and simple nature of vowels, it will be evident, that, although the consonants cannot be sounded alone, nor even their names repeated without the aid of vowels, still they give variety, copiousness, and harmony to words : they are the means of multiplying verbal signs to almost endless extent.

It is not our intention to dwell on the subdivision of consonants into mutes and semi-vowels; nor on that of vowels into simple and compound; the limits of this essay will not admit of it: but the peculiarity of the four letters, very properly called liquids, demands distinct mention. One of these peculiarities is the delightful and harmonious nature of their sounds, particularly that of l; and another, resulting therefrom, is the frequent use of them, without pain to the ear. It is remarkable, that, out of about 35,000 words of which our language is composed, there should be scarcely more than 2800 in which one of these letters does not occur.

Mathematicians have occasionally amused themselves with calculations of the number of combinations possible to be. formed from the comparatively few characters of which the alphabet is composed; and, to those who are unacquainted with the power of numbers, it may seem incredible, that the 26 letters will admit of' 403,291461,126605,635784,000000 changes of position; it will therefore cease to surprise, that, by varying the numbers, as well as the positions of these letters, the same alphabet should suffice for all the modern European languages, and all the new-coined words of the present day, were they 10,000 times more numerous than they

are.

* Principles of English Pronunciation, Nos. 58 and 59.

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