Page images
PDF
EPUB

it is mute in such situations, is very great, to the ear tuned to the charms of correct pronunciation. Of the 1500 words which begin with this letter, it is silent only in fifteen : about 360 end with it, but, in this situation, it cannot be said to be sounded.

The liquids, l, m, and n, are delightful letters, particularly the first. Children are impressed with the sweetness of its sound, and pleased with the ease with which it is uttered; hence their immoderate use of it in their first lisping attempts at conversation. Although it will not be found that an undue proportion of our words begin or end with these liquids, yet they are greatly employed in commencing and terminating syllables; and, also, in the middle of words and syllables ; and, it must be recollected, that in the common termination ble, the final sound is that of l. Em, en, el, er, are ordinary combinations in the construction of words; and ly, as has been hinted, is the most common of our adverbial terminations. Mand n introduce a variety into our pronunciation, and may be called nasals.

X is a character which merely represents the sounds of two combinations of consonants, ks and g%, and needs no distinct remark. It is but little used. We have not more than a dozen words which begin with it, and about 100 which end with it.

The w is a peculiar letter, and unknown to many languages. Its sound, as we have already hinted, will be found the same as oo, and therefore it is merely a double vowel, and might be dispensed with; while y resembles the sound of double ee, and is equally unnecessary,

The former is much more used than the latter; more than 1000 of our words begin with it, but only eighty with y.

To enter more minutely into this subject, though curious and interesting to those who have a taste for orthoepical inquiries, would neither comport with our limits nor our design: all we attempt is, a mere outline. To several of the consonants it will be found that different and contradictory powers have been assigned, the precise origin of which it would be fruitless to seek. Right, consistency, and reason itself, must bow to the tyrannical force of custom, as, before the fearful inundation, all that is interesting or valuable is swept away.

Contemplating the easy effusion of the breath, the readiness by which it is converted into voice, and the simple modifications of that voice, by the few organs we possess, into articulate and intelligible sounds; and observing the varied noises and analogous organs of inferior animals, with their occasional displays of intelligence, and the perfection of their senses; we are almost surprised that they shonld remain dumb; until we recollect, that every species of creatures has a distinct sphere of usefulness assigned it by the great unerring Creator; another display of whose infinite perfections is supplied by the exquisite organs of speech, and the matchless harmony of their application.

It only remains that we briefly review the state of English orthography.

If letters were nicely descriptive of the sounds which they represent, there would be little or no difficulty in this department of grammar; but, it is deserving of observation, that our best writers on orthoepy, not only differ in their pronunciation of words, but in their schemes and modes of describing - the sounds in which they agree. There have been writers, aware of our orthographical difficulties, who have vainly invented and proposed new theories of spelling of various degrees of merit; but, as might have been expected, they are now only regarded as specimens of their good will, their ingenuity, or temerity. “Of these reformers," says Dr. Johnson, “ some have endeavoured to accommodate orthography better to the pronunciation, without considering that this is to measure by a shadow, to take that for a model or standard which is changing while they apply it. Others, less absurdly indeed, but with equal unlikelihood of success, have endeavoured to proportion the number of letters to that of sounds, that every sound may have its own character, and every character a single sound. Such would be the orthography of a new language, to be formed by a synod of grammarians, upon the principles of science; but who can hope to prevail on nations to change their practice, and make all their old books useless ?-or what advantage would a new orthography procure, equivalent to the confusion and perplexity of such an alteration."*

* One of the first who proposed a new system of orthography was Sir Thomas Smith, secretary of state to Queen Elizabeth. Subsequently, the celebrated Dr. Gill, master of St. Paul's school, invented a new method of spelling, of which he gave a full specimen, by publishing his work, entitled “The Nature and Properties of Bees,” agreeably to its rules, 1654. He was followed by Charles Butler, a man of considerable talents, although in this case uselessly employed. There prevailed a strong inclination during the reign of Charles I. to change or amend the orthography, thoughtless of the impracticability of the scheme, which might have occurred to any dispassionate and contemplative mind. The great Milton appears to have been somewhat influenced by the popular clamour, and endeavoured to improve his own orthography, as may be seen in the editions of his works published by himself. Bishop Wilkins, in his great work on a philosophical language, submitted a scheme, as a literary curio. sity, rather than as containing principles of practicability. A slight inspection of the shortest specimen of it will convince of this :- “ Yůr Fâdber

The state of our orthography would be somewhat exposed if we call to mind the difficulty frequently experienced, even by well-informed persons, in recollecting the spelling of a word, while in the act of writing, particularly if it be somewhat unusual, or of that class wherein the doubling

of a consonant, &c. is rather equivocal; while the imperfection of memory is one cause, the state of the orthography is a greater cause, and the mode of acquiring it, or rather the want of method in acquiring it, not without its share of the blame: generally speaking, children learn columns of words from spelling books, and, occasionally, they correct exercises of bad spelling; by which means, the unburdened memory cannot fail to be increasingly familiar with the orthography of individual words; and, as long as these exercises are perpetuated, improvement is made; but, having left the place of instruction, and ceased to be so exercised, and the mind becoming employed in busier or gayer scenes; having to write perhaps only letters of business, and reading with no view of preserving the early impressions of orthography; these impressions gradually weaken, and become at length effaced ; and our spelling not having been reduced to rules, and the few rules which have been formed not having been impressed on the youthful mind, when spelling was professedly taught, the mind has no principles to which to refer; and the dictionary is the only resource for the orthography of individual words, instead of fixed principles, deeply impressed, to which to refer for classes of words.

But we shall still better understand the state of our orthography, if we glance at some of the causes which have long been in active operation to produce that state. It should never be overlooked, in grammatical inquiries, that the great bulk of the language is still of Saxon origin.* The early Saxon writers had little acquaintance with each other, and, in their spelling, each followed his own taste and judgment; nor could it be otherwise, when no criterion of rectitude existed. They confounded some letters, using them indiscriminately, particularly the vowels and diphthongal combinations, for, it will always be found, that fewer liberties are taken with consonants than vowels, the letter being more pliable, and easily mistaken: indeed, there is scarcely a readier or surer criterion of a neglected education, than that afforded by the incorrect or ungraceful pronunciation of the unaccented letters. There is not a letter in the alphabet which the ignorance or carelessness of our progenitors did not lead them to misapply, espehủitsh art in héven, halloed bi dhyi nám, dhyi cingdým cym, dhy will bi dýn in erth az it iz in héven,” &c.

* See Philomathic Journal, Part II.

page

270.

*

cially I and n, which were doubled or not, at the caprice of the writer. Mand n were occasionally exchanged, and the latter often omitted. D and t were also frequently used indiscriminately. The enumeration of their varieties of practice in the use of the vowels would be endless.

In addition to these irregularities, they often omitted final letters, and placed a mark over the last letter to denote the omission. Further contractions of words were also common, and, where there were convertible letters, the diversity of practice was as great as it well could be. As a specimen of the want of uniformity in their spelling, there existed twentyone modes of spelling the word many,* from which we may fairly infer the state of their orthography; indeed, it could scarcely be otherwise; for, if the Saxons, after their settlement in Britain, acquired the use of letters, and their taste for literature, from the Roman remains, the same diversity of practice in their orthography must at first exist, as is now witnessed, in the specimens of endless variety furnished by the epistolary correspondence of the uneducated of our own times. Bearing this in mind, it may perhaps surprise us less, that anomalies, irregularities, and inconsistencies, should now exist, than that such uniformity of practice should prevail.

The various sounds of our vowels, already noticed, have greatly multiplied our difficulties ; a' difficulty which has increased with modern times; for there is reason to believe, that some of the vowel sounds were formerly denoted by diphthongal associations, and the sounds thus well expressed; but, in process of time, a character being withdrawn cr omitted, and the sound retained, inconsistency followed.

Nor must we omit to own, that, although the riches of our language have been increased by the introduction of numerous foreign words, yet has our orthography been thereby embarrassed, especially by words which have not been made to conforni to our established terminational rules, or which have retained their native spelling, but glided into our pronunciation : this is particularly the case with derivatives from the French language.

It must be acknowledged, we are not entirely without orthographical rules. Mr. Walker, in that admirable work, his Rhyming Dictionary, (the usefulness of which, it is to be feared, has been abridged by the inadequate title by which he distinguished it,) has favoured us with twelve aphorisms, which are very comprehensive, and will abundantly reward the labour of

* Mænezeo (many a multitude,) was written mænego, mænizeo, mænigo, mænigu, mænio, mæniu, mænýgeo, manegeo, manegu, manige, manizo, manigu, manegeo, manego, manegu, menigeo, menigo, menigu, menio, meniu.

[ocr errors]

him who will submit to commit them to memory. From these, Mr. Murray, with some few alterations and improvements, has formed the useful orthographical regulations published in his grammar.

Walker's fifth aphorism is particularly useful :-"Words ending with a single consonant, preceded by a single vowel, and with the accent on the last syllable, on assuming an additional syllable, beginning with a vowel, or y, double the consonant: as, abet, abetter ; begin, beginner; but, if a diphthong precede, or the accent be on the preceding syllable, the consonant remains single; as, toil, toiling; offer, offering:

Ignorance of this rule occasions such errors, as, cancelling, bigotted, ballotted, and worshipped: indeed, the participles of worship are rarely spelled with a single p, as this rule requires. Mr. Murray has, very properly, introduced in his English exercises the popular spelling as a violation of the rule, directing the pupil to correct it. We may, therefore, hope that greater uniformity will progressively prevail.

Amid the causes which have contributed to produce irregularities, we must not forget the gratification of the eye. We have glanced at it in the substitution of i for

y,
and it

appears in avoiding the occurrence of three ls together, in direct violation of the rule applying to other letters, which requires, that when less and ly are added to words ending with a double letter, such letters are to be retained; but, instead of writing fullly, &c., we omit an l; and, such is the force of habit, that the appearance of three ls would be an unpardonable deformity. Having, however, removed an l, we proceed to the same liberty before the terminations ness and full, where the same objection does not apply. Such is the nature of inno. vation, that, once commenced, we cannot predict when or where it will cease : thus, we write dulness, smalness, &c., with one l, except the four following words, which have escaped this strange encroachment,-illness, fullness, shrillness, and stillness.

It is a rule, that when these terminations are added to words ending with silent e, it is not cut off, unless the e be preceded by a vowel; as, duly, truly; yet we retain the e in blueness, rueful, and others, and reject it in the word wholly.

Another perplexity occurs in the compounds of move and prove, ten of which are written with the e, and nine without it even in Johnson.

Walker's twelfth aphorism states, “That words taken into composition often drop those letters which were superfluous in their simples; as, Christmas, handful; but, it is difficult to say whether the words which conform to the rule, or the excep

« PreviousContinue »