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But when he has once learnt the meaning of the signs g, u, n, r, o, d, he can combine them so as to represent these words, or can interpret the words when he sees them in print, as rapidly as he can write down the sign for threehundred-and-twenty-seven, or recognise the meaning of 327, when he has once mastered the use of figures.
56. We saw in the preceding chapter that in pronouncing English words we make use of 16 distinct simple or elementary vowel-sounds and of 23 simple or elementary consonantal sounds. Thus there is a total of 39 simple sounds for which we require 39 separate signs. Diphthongs would be expressed by writing in juxtaposition the signs of those vowels of which they form blends. If we had a perfect alphabet, it would fulfil these two conditions:
1. Every simple or elementary sound would have a separate sign:
2. No such sound would have more than one sign.
And then, if we always used our perfect alphabet consistently and employed its proper sign for each of these sounds, it would be as easy a matter to spell a word when we had learnt our alphabet, as it is to write down a number when we have learnt the use of figures. Such a system of spelling would be phonetic, that is, spelling according to the sound. Our spelling is far from being phonetic. The chief cause of this is the imperfect nature of our alphabet. We saw that of the twenty-six letters which it contains, four are useless, c, j, q, and x, so our twenty-six letters are reduced to twenty-two, by means of which we have to express thirty-nine simple sounds. The alphabet is open to the twofold criticism that it is (1) Deficient, to the extent of nearly half the requisite number of letters, and (2) Redundant, in possessing four letters which are of no
The deficiency is best seen in the vowels, of which we enumerated sixteen: these are represented by five signs, so eleven signs are lacking under this head. Of the twentythree elementary consonantal sounds, six are without corresponding separate signs,-zh, sh, dh, th, wh, ng. This brings up the deficiency to seventeen. Diphthongs, as we said, we propose to indicate by placing together the letters representing the vowel-sounds of which they are composed. We saw that the available signs in our present alphabet are twenty-two in number. Add to these the seventeen signs which are wanting, and we obtain a perfect alphabet of thirty-nine letters with which to represent the thirty-nine simple sounds in our language.
57. A phonetic system would be of immense advantage in saving the time which we spend during our early life in learning how to spell. To master an alphabet of thirty-nine letters would of course take longer than to master an alphabet of twenty-six letters. But the alphabet once learnt, mistakes in spelling would be almost as rare as mistakes are now in writing down numbers. Spelling-books and dictation would be almost unnecessary. This is what we should gain by adopting the system. The drawback to the introduction of the system would be this, that our printed books would be out of date. To the generation which had learnt the new system, our existing literature would be unintelligible until it was reprinted according to the reformed method. This disadvantage would not however be very serious. All the books which are worth reading by the ordinary man might be printed in the revised version at a small cost, and the student who used our present libraries of English works for purposes of research would soon overcome the difficulties of our present spelling well enough to read existing books.
But the system stands no chance of being adopted because of two obstacles in the way. () People who have learnt our present mode of spelling will never consent to begin reading over again with a new ABC at middle-age. And (ii) a uniform pronunciation' must be adopted throughout the country before a phonetic system can be introduced. If a Lancashire man reverses the vowel sounds in put and butter and spells phonetically, the words put and butter would be written with their vowels reversed in the north and in the south of England. On the other hand, if these words are written in the same way throughout the country while the pronunciation varies in different parts, the spelling is no longer phonetic.
It is sometimes urged as an objection against a phonetic mode of spelling, that the etymology, or derivation, of many words would be obscured by its adoption; that the word city, for example, if spelt siti, would fail to suggest to our minds the Latin civitas and its train of ennobling associations. But this line of objection seems a little insincere and pedantic. To the student of English, reflexion and research would reveal the meaning of the word however it might be spelt, and as for the ordinary man, we may be quite sure that when he goes up to town in his omnibus he is thinking of the City in quite other connexions than its ennobling associations with the Latin civitas. It is urged again that a phonetic system would obscure words pronounced alike but written differently, such as chord, cord; pear, pair, pare; hair, hare, and so on. But this seems a somewhat childish objection. Box and post have various meanings, but the context shows us which is the right one, and if we can understand a man who uses the word hare in conversation, without his stopping to explain that he means an animal, no one but a person of painstaking stupidity would find any ambiguity in the word when he met with it in print.
As our alphabet is defective to the extent of seventeen out of the thirty-nine letters which it ought to contain, extra duty has to be performed by some of the twenty-two available letters. Thus to show that a vowel is long or short, various devices are employed, which are called orthographical expedients.
We know that a vowel is long
1, if a mute e comes at the end of the word, as gate, rote, site.
2, if an a is inserted after the vowel, as neat, coat.
3, if the vowel is doubled, as feed, cool.
The three processes are illustrated by the words mete, meat, meet.
We show that a vowel is short by doubling the consonant which follows it, as dinner, getting, rotten.
59. The deficiencies of the alphabet would inevitably make our spelling irregular and unscientific, but inconsistency runs riot in our orthography to an extent which is really impressive. We may illustrate this in two ways by showing (1) how the same sound is represented by a variety of letters:
(2) how the same letter or combination of letters stands for a variety of sounds.
As examples of (1), let us take the sound of a in fate. Other ways of representing this sound readily suggest themselves:-laid, rein, say, prey, gauge, gaol, break, eh.
Other ways of representing the sound of o in no:—coat, rote, soul, roe, yeoman, owe, though, sew, sow.
The sound of e in me :-beat, beet, mete, relief, deceit, key, quay, machine, people.
The consonants afford fewer examples of these eccentricities, but they afford some.
The f sound in fill is expressed also in philosophy, quaff, laugh.
The k sound in kit appears in cat, back, quay, ache.
The s in sin is represented in cinder, scent, schism.
In illustration of (2), we will take examples of single letters, vowel and consonant, and of combinations of letters, the sounds of which are not uniform.
The letter a illustrates the variety of uses to which a single sign may be put. It represents five distinct vowel-sounds in fat, fare, fate, father, fall, and is used in many words where it is not pronounced at all; e.g. it shows that the preceding vowel is long in boat, meat: it has the sound of o in what, and of e in many.
As examples from the consonants, take s, which is sonant in praise, surd in sing, stands for zħ in measure, for sh in mansion, and is silent in isle or aisle.
The letter g has one sound in gum, another in gem; followed by h its sound is sometimes that of ƒ, as in laugh, and sometimes it is not sounded at all, as in though.
Some combinations of letters are very uncertain in their pronunciation ough is a good instance of this. Though, through, cough, rough, plough, by no means exhaust the list of various sounds.
Of the English alphabet we may therefore say that it is (1) Defective, (2) Redundant, and (3) Inconsistent.
60. Why is English spelling so difficult?
Because the alphabet is defective, and its deficiencies are supplied by different devices in different words.
2. Because our spelling has been pretty well fixed for nearly three hundred years, since the translation of the Bible in James I.'s reign supplied a standard of orthography throughout the country, whilst the pronunciation has probably changed largely in the interval.
3. Because our words have come to us from
many sources, and we have kept the spelling which they had in the languages from which we took them but have given the words an English pronunciation. Thus we spell city with a c, not with an s, because it comes from civitas; philosophy with a ph and not with an f, chemistry with a ch and not with a k, because of their Greek origin; victuals has ac because of the Latin victus, from vivo; doubt has a b because of the Latin dubito: syntax from the Greek would be obscured in the guise of sintaks, and phlegm would be changed from its original beyond recognition if we wrote it flem.
61. Where did our English alphabet come from, and how did we get it?
Our alphabet came from the Latin alphabet, the Latin from the Greek, and the Greek from the Phoenician. During the Roman occupation of Britain, the Britons picked up the Latin alphabet, and the English learnt it from the Britons. Before their migration to this country the English had an alphabet which was in use among the Teutonic tribes, called Runic. Inscriptions containing these runes still exist on stones and crosses in Norway and Sweden, in the north of England and in parts of Scotland. When the English settlers adopted the Roman alphabet they preserved two of their own runes, the letters called wen and thorn. Wen or w was written p; thorn or th and dh was written þ and afterwards ð. The letters w and th took their place after the Norman Conquest. The word the would in Old English characters be written þe. Hence has arisen the notion that in Old English it was written ye or ye and so pronounced. People who devise programmes for fancy fairs, in what they conceive to be the Early English style, have the idea that the frequent use of ye for the and the addition of an e at the end of every word which ends in a consonant will convert 19th century Eng