History and Etymology.

One of the commonest arguments against phonetic spelling is that it would destroy the historical and etymological value of the present system. One writer protests against it as a "reckless wiping out of the whole history of the language," imagining, it appears, that as soon as a phonetic alphabet has once firmly established itself, the existing Nomic literature will at once disappear by magic, together with all the older documents of the language from Alfred to Chaucer. It need hardly be said that a few months' study of Chaucer, or, better still, of the Anglo-Saxon Gospels, or, best of all, of both of them, would give what a life spent in the mechanical employment of our Nomic orthography fails to give, namely, some of the materials on which a rudimentary knowledge of the history and etymology of the English language might be based.

As a matter of fact, our present spelling is in many particulars a far from trustworthy guide in etymology, and often, indeed, entirely falsifies history. Such spellings as island, author, delight, sovereign, require only to be mentioned, and there are hundreds of others involving equally gross blunders, many of which have actually corrupted the spoken language!

Even if we carried out - that is, if it were possible - the principle of etymological spelling consistently, by writing each word in its primitive Indo-Germanic form, writing, for instance, klaipawardha for lord, we should only be giving a portion of the materials of etymology. We should have to give in brackets or foot-notes to each word the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, together with the present English forms, the last in phonetic spelling, and, lastly, a brief abstract of the laws which govern the various changes in form and meaning. Even if we arbitrarily resolve not to trace our history further back than the sixteenth century we shall have to write each word twice over. It is absurd to say that the spelling knight, for instance, throws light on any word in the present English. Of course, the word meant is nait. But where do we find the existence of such a word even hinted at? All that the spelling knight tells us is that a word existed in a certain form in sixteenth-century English: it tells us nothing about its present form.

In short, historical spelling destroys the materials on which alone history itself can be based. This is the case in the English of the last few centuries. The word "name," as its spelling indicates, was in Chaucer's time pronounced naam, or something like it. It is now neim, although still written "name." Now there must clearly have been several intermediate stages between naam and neim - the one word certainly did not change straight into the other. If these changes had taken place in the period before Chaucer, we should have been able to trace their progress step by step in the changes of the spelling, which, as it is, not only fails to record these changes, but gives the false impression that the English language, in this word at least, has remained unchanged since the time of Chaucer. Hence the actual history of the English language since the invention of printing has to be investigated in a most laborious and uncertain way, quite independently of its written form, so far as the sounds are concerned. The investigations of Mr. Ellis have proved that "name" passed through the following stages: naam, naam, nææm (long of æ in "man"), naem, neem, neim. It is clear that if a consistent and etymological spelling had become fixed in the Indo-Germanic languages, there would have been no Grimm's law, no etymology, in short no philology at all possible.

The idea, too, that because etymology is an amusing and instructive pursuit, it should therefore be dragged into practical orthography, is about as reasonable as it would be to insist on every one having Macaulay's History of England permanently chained round his neck, because history is an improving study.

In conclusion, it may be observed that it is mainly among the class of half-taught dabblers in philology that etymological spelling has found its supporters. All true philologists and philological bodies have uniformly denounced it as a monstrous absurdity both from a practical and a scientific point of view.

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James Chandler 1998.