Employment of Letters.

This problem may also be stated thus - What values must be assigned to the letters that they may be most easily learnt, read, and written? The obvious requisites are unambiguity and consistency, and that system which combines them in the highest degree (as far as the radical defects of the Roman alphabet will allow), while observing the practical considerations stated in the previous section, is the best.

It is clear that the defects of our present orthography are mainly due to its disregard of these fundamental principles.

Ambiguity is shown in the use of one symbol for several distinct sounds, as in man, lane, ask, salt, or of different symbols for one sound, as in why, wine, eye, lie. This fault is a violation of the fundamental principle of all rational spelling, viz. that of representing every sound by an invariable symbol (which may, however, be either a single letter or a digraph).

An alphabet is inconsistent when it fails to construct and apply its symbols on definite and uniform principles. It is, for instance, self-evident that a rational alphabet will indicate diphthongs by the juxtaposition of their elements, as in the oi of oil, which is really composed of o and i. But in English this simple principle is not carried out with the other diphthongs. In out, for instance, there is not a trace of an o, nor does its second element in the slightest degree resemble the u of but. Again, au, which would be the proper symbol of the ou in out, does not denote a diphthong at all.

The practical effect of inconsistency is not only greatly to increase the number of arbitrary symbols, but also to make their acquisition more difficult, because of the conflicting associations of ideas thus engendered.

Before going any further it will be worth while to stop and consider what are the causes of the ambiguity, inconsistency and complexity of the present English spelling. When we have a definite idea of the cause, we shall be better able to devise a cure.

Up to the sixteenth century English spelling was mainly phonetic, like the present German. At that time the words man, lane, care, father, water, were all written with the same vowel because their vowels all had the same pronunciation, viz. that of the Italian a in father. Similarly wine was written with an i because its vowel really was the long sound of the i in win, wine being pronounced as ween is now, which last, again, had a pronunciation agreeing with its spelling. However, as literature developed, and the printing-press began to assert its authority, the spelling became more and more fixed, till at last it became entirely stationary, while the pronunciation went on changing without intermission, so that the ee of ween came to be the long sound of the i in win, while wine itself changed its long vowel into a diphthong, as in the present English. The a in man, &c. changed also in various ways without any corresponding change being made in the spelling. In short we may say that our present spelling does not represent the English we actually speak, but rather the language of the sixteenth century. In other words, the present confusion in our spelling is due to the abandonment of the original Roman values of the letters, chiefly in the long vowelsª.

The only way of curing these evils is evidently to return to the original Roman values of the letters. If the beginner has once learnt to pronounce a, e, i, o, u, as in glass, bet, bit, not, full, he simply has to remember that long vowels are doubled, as in biit = "beat," and fuul = "fool," and diphthongs formed by the juxtaposition of their elements, as in boi = "boy" and hai = "high," to be able to read at once the majority of the vowel symbols. Of the consonants, whose original values have been mostly preserved, little need be said at present.

Of course, the Roman alphabet requires to be supplemented, and this is a problem that requires much thought, in order to attain the maximum of consistency and simplicity, so that the new symbols may, if possible, suggest any relationship they may bear to other known ones. Thus æ as the symbol of the a in man at once suggests a sound intermediate between the true a in father and the e in bet, which the a in man really is. Further details must be reserved till we come to the analysis of the sounds of English, for, until we know what the elementary sounds really are, it is impossible to symbolise them intelligently.

ª For a general sketch of the changes of English pronunciation and spelling, see my "History of English Sounds" (Trübner).

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James Chandler 1998.