Varieties of Pronunciation.

It is clear that as soon as spelling ceases to adapt itself to existing varieties of pronunciation - whether "colloquialisms," "vulgarisms," or "provincialisms" - it ceases to be phonetic.

Spelling apart from the sounds it represents has, properly speaking, no meaning, no existence whatever. A picture of a man at once suggests the idea "man" to any one, and the sounds represented by the letter-group man suggest the same idea to all English-speaking people, but the letters m, a, n only suggest sounds, not ideas. After a time, of course, we learn to associate ideas with letter-groups without thinking of the sounds, but this is necessarily a secondary process, although it may be carried so far that the connection between the letters and their sounds becomes to a great extent forgotten - till, in short, the spelling becomes unphonetic, as in the present English. The only way to cure these evils - which is the object of all spelling reform - is to restore spelling to its only legitimate function, that of symbolising sounds.

It follows necessarily that if two people have different pronunciations, their spellings must also be different. If A, who pronounces glæs (glass), gæl (girl), iidh (either), is to be compelled to write glaas, goel, aidh because B pronounces so, phonetic spelling becomes a mere mockery, and is really no more phonetic than the present system, which writes knight and wright because people pronounced so three hundred years ago, although half of the letters are absolutely unmeaning now.

As a matter of fact, these differences, which hardly ever cause the slightest difficulty even in the most rapid speech, and, indeed, generally pass quite unheeded, cannot possibly cause any difficulty to the reader, who has time to consider deliberately the meaning of any passage, if necessary. When divergences of pronunciation increase to such a degree as to make a faithful phonetic representation of them unintelligible, or nearly so, to those acquainted only with the standard form of speech, it is certain that the spoken pronunciation itself will prove still more difficult.

In fact, one of the worst features of a fixed orthography is that it loses all control of pronunciation, and thus indirectly proves the cause of such changes as have completely changed the character of English in the last few centuries. If those careless speakers of the seventeenth century who used to drop the initial consonants in such words as write and know had been obliged to omit them in writing as well as in speech, it is probable that the change would have been nipped in the bud, and people would have seen that uniformity of spelling is a delusion, unless based on a corresponding uniformity of pronunciation.

The history of h and r in modern times is an instructive instance of how pronunciation may be controlled by a changing spelling. It is certain that if English had been left to itself the sound h would have been as completely lost in the standard language as it has been in most of the dialects. But the distinction between house and 'ouse, although in itself a comparatively slight one, being easily marked in writing, such spellings as 'ouse came to be used in novels, &c. as an easy way of suggesting a vulgar speaker. The result was to produce a purely artificial reaction against the natural tendency to drop the h, its retention being now considered an almost infallible test of education and refinement. The weakening of r into a vowel, and its absorption into the vowel that precedes it, although really quite as injurious to the force and intelligibility of the language as the dropping of h, not being easily marked in writing, passes unheeded, and, indeed, few people realise the fact that they make no difference whatever between such words as father and farther. Indeed, if such a reformed spelling as Glossic is adopted, in which these artificial distinctions are still kept up, there is no reason why in the next half century r may not utterly disappear everywhere except initially; hear, for instance, becoming identical in sound with he.

If the high literary cultivation of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the consequent fixity of the orthography, not only failed to prevent, but positively encouraged the most sweeping changes in pronunciation, it is certain that the same effects will produce the same causes in the future. No one who has paid any attention to the tendencies of English pronunciation will deny that the following hypothetical changes of pronunciation in the next fifty or sixty years are all possible and some of them extremely probable (the pronunciations are given in the received spelling):-

been. (through bün).

Indeed, many of these changes are already in progress. I have myself heard take time pronounced in a way which made it sound not very unlike tike tarm, and this from speakers who, although not very refined, certainly belonged to the upper middle class.

The result of these and similar changes will be that in another century any fixed scheme of reform adopted now will be nearly as unphonetic as our present Nomic spelling. It must also be remembered that by that time England, America and Australia will be speaking mutually unintelligible languages, owing to their independent changes in pronunciation.

The only way to meet these evils is strictly to subordinate spelling to pronunciation. One very important result of this will be that instead of teaching spelling we shall have to teach pronunciation. Our maxim will be, "Take care of the pronunciation, and the spelling will take care of itself." If it is wrong to confound father and farther in spelling, it must be still more wrong to confound them in pronunciation. Then the question of restoring the consonantal pronunciation of r throughout will perhaps arise - certainly that of arresting further change will. School-inspectors will examine not in spelling but in pronunciation, elocution, and intelligent reading - subjects which are now absolutely ignored as branches of general education. When a firm control of pronunciation has thus been acquired, provincialisms and vulgarisms will at last be entirely eliminated, and one of the most important barriers between the different classes of society will thus be abolished.

It must, however, be remembered that these results are not to be attained by the adoption of any system indifferently that may be proposed. What is wanted is a simple, consistent, and above all elastic spelling, which, within certain practical limits, will adapt itself to every change of pronunciation. Changes of pronunciation cannot be controlled by any spelling based on the Nomic values of the letters. There is, for instance, no reason why oo should represent the sound of long u any more than that of long i, nor consequently why the uu of "boon" should not change through byyn (with the French u) into biin without any change of spelling being thought necessary, and consequently without any control of such possible changes being exercised.

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James Chandler 1998.