February 05, 2008

Noah Webster

In Penny Arcade for 1/4/2008 ("Noah Webster, You're My Only Hope"), Tycho succumbs to Word Rage Syndrome, triggered by some rationalized spelling in an advertisement (click on the image for a larger version):

I expect that in some cozy coffee-house in heaven, Noah Webster and Benjamin Franklin are having a good laugh together over this. From Noah's Dissertations on the English Language: With Notes, Historical and Critical, to Which is Added, by Way of Appendix, an Essay on a Reformed Mode of Spelling, with Dr. Franklin's Arguments on That Subject (Boston. 1789), pp. 393-98:

The principal alterations, necessary to render our orthography sufficiently regular and easy, are these:

1. The omission of all superfluous or silent letters; as a in bread. Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt, bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend. Would this alteration produce any inconvenience, any embarrassment or expense? By no means. On the other hand, it would lessen the trouble of writing, and much more, of learning the language; it would reduce the true pronunciation to a certainty; and while it would assist foreigners and our own children in acquiring the language, it would render the pronunciation uniform, in different parts of the country, and almost prevent the possibility of changes.

2. A substitution of a character that has a certain definite sound, for one that is more vague and indeterminate. Thus by putting ee instead of ea or ie, the words mean, near, speak grieve, zeal, would become meen, neer, speek, greev, zeel. This alteration could not occasion a moments trouble; at the same time it would prevent a doubt respecting the pronunciation; whereas the ea and ie having different sounds, may give a learner much difficulty. Thus greef should be substituted for grief; kee for key; beleev for believe; laf for laugh; dawter for daughter; plow for plough; tuf for tough; proov for prove; blud for blood; and draft for draught. In this manner ch in Greek derivatives, should be changed into k; for the English ch has a soft sound, as in cherish; but k always a hard sound. Therefore character, chorus, cholic, architecture, should be written karacter, korus, kolic, arkitecture; and were they thus written, no person could mistake their true pronunciation.

3. Thus ch in French derivatives should be changed into sh; machine, chaise, chevalier, should be written masheen, shaze, shevaleer; and pique, tour, oblique, should be written peek, toor, obleek.

4. A trifling alteration in a character, or the addition of a point would distinguish different sounds, without the substitution of a new character. Thus a very small stroke across th would distinguish its two sounds. A point over a vowel, in this manner, a, or , or i might answer all the purposes of different letters. And for the dipthong ow, let the two letters be united by a small stroke, or both engraven on the same piece of metal, with the left hand line of the w united to the o.

These, with a few other inconsiderable alterations, would answer every purpose, and render the orthography sufficiently correct and regular.

[Hat tip: Ken Mallott]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 5, 2008 05:14 AM