Saturday, May 2, 2015

On Spelling

WHAT fun our posterity will have with our ridiculous worship of spelling!

It has not lasted very long. There has not really been such a thing as spelling for much more than two hundred years in English, and there was no religion of it till perhaps a hundred years ago.  Even as it is, the two classes which have most tradition in them—the aristocrats and the workers on the land—care least about it.

I myself write as one emancipated. Time was when I trembled at the thought of a misspelt word, and a blunder of my own or the printer’s would keep me awake at night; but now that I have recognized it for the least part of scholarship, and indeed, hardly a part of scholarship at all, I care for it less than a doit—whatever that may be.

English of all languages ought to be most indifferent to spelling, for upon spelling the sense of its words and phrases hardly ever depends. It is not so with Latin, it is not even so with French, but it is so with English. Here and there you have an ambiguity as in “affect” and “effect,” but, by and large, it does not really count.

I suppose the passion for exact uniformity in spelling goes with all the modern attention to things anyone can do, things that demand no intelligence, things mechanical and of a pattern. It is fostered, of course, by the State educational machine and by the enormous extension of mere print, but its root must lie in the passion for mechanical simplicity and for things in which that man will most advance who is least able to think. It goes with the craze for measurement and with the enormous fatuity that only those things can be known which can be exactly measured, and with that other twin fatuity that when things are measured they are known. It goes with the habit of asking “how broad?”, “how high?”, “how old?”, “how long?”, instead of “what is its quality?”

Our fathers cared so little for the ridiculous thing that they did not even spell their own names the same way throughout their lives, and as for common words they seem to have had an instinct which I cannot but applaud for ennobling them with repetitions of letters and flourishes, with the pretty trick of using “y” for an “i” and doubling consonants. In general, they were all for festooning and decorating, which is a very honest and noble taste. When they said of a man “I esteem hym ne moore than a pygge,” one knows what they meant and one feels their contempt vibrating. Put into the present stereotyped form, it would far less affect, or effect, us.

And talking of “stereotyped,” there, if you like, is an example of modern spelling! What do you suppose King Henry, the Eighth of that name would have made of it? But for the matter of that, how little any of those men who had made the English language (and I put Cramner at the head of them) would have tolerated our immense rubbish-heap of long words, not one in fifty of which we know the true meaning of? I suppose that in words ending in “logy” alone there are enough to equal all the vocabulary of the aforesaid Cramner. There must be hundreds upon hundreds; and by the custom of our time anyone may make up new words ending in “logy” at will with none to chasten him.

Spelling is the great breeder of hatred among the nations, and of divisions, misapprehensions, war—or as our fathers more splendidly put it (to a toll of drums) “Warres”; as also of “Dissencyons” and “Broils.” Here myself I confess to the weakness; to see “labour” spelt “labor” makes me see red. It makes all that is ancient in England see red; and the more openly we admit it the better for international and domestic peace.

Now that this word “labor” should be so abhorrent to the intimate taste of the English mind is a very good reply to the pedants who will defend spelling as a reminder of the origin of words. “Labor” is right. “Labour” is a twisted thing, coming round by way of a dead French usage. You may say, of course, if you like, that even so, it teaches you a little history and that at least such spelling reminds you that the gentry were French before they were English. But if you say this you lie; for it teaches people nothing of the sort, and such few people as hear this truth about the English gentry only fall into a passion and disbelieve it.

Again, who when he comes across a little word “ink” considers that imperial liquid which only the Basileus on his Constantinopolitan throne could use for his most awful signature? If there is one word the  spelling of which ought to teach every child the whole story of Europe and of the great Byzantine centre thereof, it is the little word “ink”—and it teaches nothing at all. Neither, for that matter, does Constantinopolitan, hard as it is to spell.

No, all that talk of spelling teaching one the past of words and things is nonsense. If there was any sense in it would should spell the Canon of the Cathedral after the same way in which we spell a gun. They are the same word; and yet I suppose there is not one man in twenty thousand who would not ridicule the spelling of the Piece with one “n” and of the Ecclesiastic with two. For my part, if I had to give the extra “n” to either I should give it to the cleric, as one of God’s creatures and a hierarch and therefore infinitely nobler than a piece of brute metal.

Spelling also panders to the vices of men, and more particularly to social pride. Many a man has lost his soul by putting a redundant “e” at the end of his name to borrow a false rank therefrom. I could quote you a case of at least one peer whise father actually had the name of his titular village misspelt on the map in order to make himself look mediaeval. So it is with the people who use two little f’s instead of one big F at the beginning of their surnames. They are ffools. In the same way men with foreign names, if those names are of a common sort, will respell then into English; but if they are of the nobler kind it is the other way about—they will turn them from plain English into something Frenchified so as to look as though they were descended, not from tripe-sellers, as they are indeed, but from great barons of the thirteenth century. Thus a man called Roach because one of his forebears had a fish-face, will call himself “de la Roche”; or a man called Lemon because his forebear was too yellow, will call himself “L’Hémon,” which is ridiculous. And such men often tell one of two lies: they either say they are descended from Huguenots or are from the Channel Islands.

And all this reminds me that one of the surest ways of insulting a man without risk is to misspell his name. The reason of this (the “psychology” of it, as people sat who like to show they can spell) is that every man thinks his name of importance to the whole world, and either known to the whole world or deserving to be known. It is a very fine example of vanity. For, after all, if the usurpers out of Carnarvonshire remained indifferent (as they did) to be spelt Tydder, Tydr, Tyddr, Tuder, or Tudor, why should we, below the rank of kings, make a fuss about it?

Spell, therefore, at your own sweet will. I not only give you leave of charter so to do, but will at call support you with argument. Only I warn you if one thing; if you do, you are in for lifelong war with the printers, and they are a powerful and close corporation. For now forty years have I attempted most firmly to fix and root the right phrase “an historian” into the noblest pages of English, but the bastard “a historian” is still fighting hard for his miserable life and may yet survive.

~Hilaire Belloc

Source. One Thing and Another: A Miscellany from His Uncollected Essays. (Editor Patrick Cahill. 1955)

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