Page images
PDF
EPUB

Here it may suffice briefly to indicate the nature of the

difficulty which has to be surmounted. The anon- There is first of all our anomalous alphabet. And alies of the it would be easy to shew that it has every fault that an English Alphabet. · alphabet can have. A perfect alphabet should, it may

well be argued, have a single and fixed character for every single indivisible elementary sound. It should have such compound characters for composite or diphthongal sounds as would indicate clearly the elements of which they are composed. It should also have similar characters for analogous or related sounds. Nothing is easier than to lay down these conditions, and to see that our alphabet violates every one of them. It is at the same time redundant and defective. It has not enough characters, and those which it has it does not make the best of: e.g.

(1) A single and indivisible consonant is sometimes expressed by a clumsy combination of two letters instead of one character, as thin, thine, should.

(2) There are often two or more ways of writing the same sound, as fancy, philosophy, and rough. Duty, neuter, lewd, and beauty. Nation, sure, shall, vicious.

(3) The same letter has many sounds, as father, fan, fate, fall.

(4) The alphabet disguises altogether the true elements of composite sounds; the sound of oil is not made up of o.and i, but of au and ee.

(5) It fails altogether to indicate the true relations between cognate sounds; the i in pine is called the long sound of the i in pin; but these sounds are not related; the true lengthening of pin is into peen not pine. So the p is related to the b in the same manner as the t to the d or the s to the %; but there is no such similarity of characters as to represent these relations.

[blocks in formation]

(6) It sometimes gives us a compound sound expressed by a single letter, as Reject, congeal.

(7) It more often gives a group of letters to represent a single indivisible sound—Daughter, though.

(8) The names of the letters are very misleading as . representations of their powers, as Gee for G. Aitch for H. Double you for W.

Such is only a part of the indictment against the Proposed English Alphabet. Shall we try to get up a society when. for reforming it? Well, I for one, should not. First, phabet. because the task is so formidable. To do it effectually we must have 38 characters instead of 26; we must cease to employ many of the letters we now use, and the whole aspect of the written language must be altered. And even when the written language had been truly conformed to the speech of the capital and of educated persons, it would remain untrue and non-phonetic in Yorkshire and Devonshire, and even in Scotland and Ireland, unless all provincialisms and dialectic varieties are to be obliterated; which is neither probable, nor in itself eminently desirable. Then the price we should pay for such a reform would be very heavy. We of this generation, who have been educated in the anomalous system, would learn the new one, I grant, without much difficulty; and for our lifetimes both the old and the new literature would be read. But to the next generation, educated on the more rational principle, our present spelling would be hopelessly unintelligible, and the whole of our past literature, everything that is not worth re-printing would become a foreign language, and would remain unread by our successors. It is not easy to see how such a result could be avoided; yet, if it occurred, the gain would be enormously counterbalanced by the loss.

Again, the difficulties of our present system may

A some

easily be exaggerated, and have been exaggerated. The syllables which are not spelt phonetically are, relatively to the whole language, not very numerous.

Our alphabet also is a historic one, and like the British constitution represents historic growth. Its very anomalies throw a great deal of light on the history and origin of words. No doubt the spelling is occasionally misleading too, on this point. If I lay down a rule, that whenever f is represented by ph, or k by ch, the word is Greek, or that whenever c represents s and commences a syllable the word is Latin; or that whenever w comes before ' h it is English, we may find exceptions to the rule; yet in nineteen cases out of twenty the rule is good; and thus the very inconsistencies of our alphabet often furnish a key to the meaning or history of a word.

Lastly, I would not advise spending much time on an effort for a sweeping legal reform in our alphabet, because there is little or no chance of its success. Consider what has happened in the matter of decimalizing our weights and measures. Our present arithmetical tables are far more clumsy and indefensible than our alphabet. They give a great deal more of trouble to teachers, and of mental entanglement to pupils. Moreover it would be a far easier process to reform them. Many proposals for adopting the French système métrique or at least for decimalizing and simplifying our present weights and measures have been made from time to time. But the English people and its parliament have steadily opposed all these projects, and we seem at this moment much farther from the adoption of a rational and simple system of compound arithmetic than we were twenty years ago. And we may conclude, in like manner, that though ingenious proposals will be made from

less enter. prise.

[blocks in formation]

time to time, for the amendment, on philosophical principles, of English spelling, those proposals have little chance of being carried out in our time. By the general consent of literary and learned people we may fairly hope that some improvements may be effected and the more grotesque anomalies removed. But the conservative instincts of the nation in matters like this are very strong; and I think it in the highest degree unlikely that for the sake of saving a little trouble to teachers, the nation will put itself to the inconvenience of adopting a new alphabet and making a break in the continuity of its own literary life.

So we may make up our minds that any effort to The obtain a complete and scientific reform in the English lang

lish language, alphabet, will probably be futile; and that any other than has to be a complete reform would hardly be worth contending for. taught. It may go a little way to reconcile some of us to this conclusion, if we reflect that after all the anomalies and difficulties do not seem so great to a little child as to us. He accepts the spelling you teach him, on your authority, and he is very little impressed by its want of philosophic precision. You spell the word mat, and as there are three distinct sounds represented by three distinct letters, which are tolerably uniform in their powers, the word satisfies you. And then you spell the word through, and you feel it to be unsatisfactory. The first word is spelt philosophically, the second is spelt unphilosophically. But to the child, though one is a little easier than the other, it is just as arbitrary. He receives them both on your authority. To him it is all alike mysterious. Neither his moral nor his phonetic sensibilities are wounded by unphilosophical spelling. You will have to tell him the one word twice over and the other only once. But when once thoroughly known, it is known for life, and he will

Modos of teaching reading.

not be troubled by its anomalous character. Nay, he will never know that there is any anomaly in it, until in the fulness of time he is old enough to become a member of the Philological Society or the Spelling Reform Association, and to have his critical faculty called into action under its auspices.

It is, then, the English language as it is, and not as it might be, nor even as it ought to be, that we have to take for better for worse, and to teach in the best way we can. How shall we set about it? There are, as is well known, three different methods :

(1) There is the method of teaching the Alphabet first, then proceeding to words of two letters, then to words of three, and so on in order. This is a method of synthesis.

(2) There is what is called the Look and say method, which begins by shewing children words, and requiring them to be recognised as a whole and pronounced, before calling attention to the letters of which they are composed. This is a method of analysis.

(3) There is the Phonic method which avoids the names of the letters at first altogether, and simply seeks to teach their powers. Groups of words are given in which the same sounds occur, and these words are decomposed into their elementary sounds, which children are taught to utter separately.

Now, in favour of the last method, it may be truly urged that the real composition of the utterances we call words, is better seen by rendering them into their elementary sounds, than by calling those elements by arbitrary names. That is quite true. But the objection to it is that the same letter has so many different sounds, that even if I learn to identify each with a sound and not a name, I shall be constantly making mistakes, e.g. you

« PreviousContinue »