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"On Phonetic Spelling" from Atlantic Monthly

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Atlantic Monthly
On Phonetic Spelling
by Ellis Parker Butler

Regarding the efforts of the gentlemen of letters and dollar-marks who propose a reform of English spelling, Serena and I have decided that nothing will come of it. Serena points out to me that I have never been able to spell correctly in the old, incorrect way, and that it would be utterly impossible for me to spell correctly in the new, correct way; and she rightly considers me a typical American literary gentleman, with one hand holding the bridle of Pegasus and the rest of my body reclining in supreme faith against the proofreaders, editors, and compositors, whose duty it is to look after the spelling business.

My own opinion of the spelling profession is that it has nothing to do with genius, except to kill it. I know that Shakespeare was a promiscuous sort of speller, even as to his own name, and no one can deny that the immortal Avonite was a greater genius than Noah Webster. I think, and Serena agrees with me, that the reason America so long lagged behind Europe in the production of genius is that America, for many decades, was the slave of the spelling-book and the spelling school. No man who devotes the fiery days of his youth to learning to spell has time to be a genius. The period of Noah Webster's spelling-book was the period of dwarfed literature in our country, and now, just when we have mastered the spelling so that it is second nature to us to spell though with an ugh, there comes this group of anarchistic spellers who would "chop off the tails with their carving knives" and turn us brilliant writers into groping, plodding spellers of stupid lines.

Serena says, and I agree with her, that it is the jealousy of a few college professors who are trying to undermine the younger writers. They know that it is excusable to spell incorrectly now, but they want this new phonetic spelling brought into use so that there shall be no excuse for bad spelling, and that then, Serena says, self-made authors like me, who never could and never can spell, but who simply blaze with genius, will be academically laughed at and hooted out of the magazines to make room for a stupid, Dr. Johnson sort of literature that is spelled correctly. Serena looks upon the whole thing as a direct, personal stab at me. I look at it more philosophically.

To me it seems that the spelling-reformers are entirely on the wrong track. Their proposed changes are almost a revolution, and we Americans (Serena's father was a German, but she can forget her ie and ei all the better for that) do not like sudden changes. We like our revolutions to come about gradually. Automobiles, for example. Think how gradually the sixty-horse-power snorters have come to pass. If, in our horse age, the streets had suddenly been covered with "Red Satans" and "White Ghosts," going thirty miles an hour and smelling like an eighteenth-century literary debate, and killing people right and left, we Americans would have arisen and destroyed every vestige of automobile. But the automobile came gradually. First the bicycle, then the motor cycle, then the electric cab, growling and clanking like a sawmill in chains; then the light automobile, and so, by stages, to the present monsters. So slowly and progressively did the automobile increase in size and number that it seemed a matter of course. We take to being killed by the automobile quite naturally now, and I can imagine our ghosts bragging one to another of the size and power of the machines that unsphered us.

A people that will not revolt at automobile mania will not refuse spelling reform; but the reform must not be loud, organized effort. It must be brought to pass by Machiavellian craft, underground manipulation, and lowly stealth. Editors must be bribed, vocabulists seduced, and printers of advertising billboards tipped on the sly.

New words come into the language by the "slang" use of them. The spelling-reformers should truckle to our Bowery boys and newsboys, getting them to spell phonetically, and soon "smart" society would take it up as a fad, and the abridged spelling would get into society novels, and thence into real literature, -- such as Serena says I write. "Abridged," by the way, is a word for the reformers to cling to. Many people who would refuse "reformed" spelling would take kindly to "abridged" spelling. I only see one difficulty in the word. It would hardly do to call a Reformed Webster's Unabridged Dictionary the "Abridged Unabridged Webster."

You may have guessed that I am not in sympathy with the spelling reform movement. I think, and Serena thinks, that the objections to English spelling can be overcome in a better manner than by mutilating good old words, "cutting off their petticoats, all around about."

Of course, the silent letters in our words are objectionable. They are lazy letters, earning no increment, and are distasteful alike to the anarchist, socialist, and competitionist. The introduction of the factory system of utilizing all the hog but the squeal inevitably preordained the downfall of the silent letter. We want no idle class in America, whether tramp, aristocrat, or silent letter, but we do not kill the tramp and the aristocrat. We set them to work, or we would like to. My theory of spelling reform is to set the idle letters to work.

Take that prime offender, although. Altho does all the work, and ugh sits on the fence and whittles. I would put ugh to work. Ugh is a syllable in itself. Whole romances of Indian life have been written in which the stoic red man's conversation is simply "Ugh!" It is a grunt, or a gasp, or an asthmatic wheeze. I would have the ugh follow the pronounced altho as a third syllable. Doubtless the asthmatic islanders who concocted our English language actually pronounced it so. I have heard some orators -- at Sunday school reunions, and day school exercises -- pronounce the ugh in this country.

"My dear little friends," says the orator, "altho-ugh I am not much of a speaker; altho-ugh I may say I am no speaker; yet I will try to speak to you, although," etc.

I propose to have some millionaire endow my plan, and Serena and I will then form a society for the reforming of English pronunciation. I will not decapitate, de-tail, or de-limb a single word. I will not punch out the i of any chief, nor shall any one drag me from any programme, however dull. I will pronounce programme as it should be pronounced, -- programmy, -- and, as for chief, he shall be pronounced chy-ef.

The advantage of this plan is manifest. It is so manifest that I am afraid it will never be adopted.

Serena's plan -- Serena has an uncle who is a member of the Brick Layers' Local Union No. 12 -- is, perhaps, less intellectual, but more American, as is to be expected from one whose father was a German. Serena's plan is to ignore all words that contain superfluous letters. She would simply boycott them. Like Bunner's "Midge," who couldn't see why people should learn to spell such words as asthma, Serena would have people get along with such words as are already phonetically spelled. Why should people write although, when they can write notwithstanding that, and not have a silent letter in it? I have myself often written a phrase twelve words long to stand instead of a single word I did not know how to spell. In fact, I abandoned my Platonic friendship for Serena, and replaced it with ardent love, because I did know how to spell sweetheart, but could not remember whether she was my friend or freind. I am sure, too, that when it was all arranged between us, Serena was not anything so short and terse as kist, but lengthily, lingeringly kissed.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:12:52am USA Central
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