30 November, 2008


In 1789, Noah Webster, still 39 years away from his seismic dictionary, published his Dissertations on the English Language, sort of a linguistic manifesto, at least in part, for the new nation. It advocates radical spelling reform, only a small part of which would actually be adopted by young Americans struggling for their own identity; of the advantages of reform proposed by Webster, this is perhaps the most amusing:
Such a reform would diminish the number of letters about one sixteenth or eighteenth. This would save a page in eighteen; and a saving of an eighteenth in the expense of books, is an advantage that should not be overlooked.
The Dissertations are dedicated to Benjamin Franklin—'Late President of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania', though not, at least for another year, Late—out of respect for his 'common sense' and for his industry in the collection of 'facts'. Furthermore, Webster progresses to include as an appendix a 1768 letter by Franklin on the subject of spelling reform. On Boxing Day 1789, Franklin wrote to Webster in Hartford, returning the compliment: 'It is an excellent work, and will be greatly useful in turning the thoughts of our countrymen to correct writing.' He shared and appreciated his friend's prescriptivist distaste for vulgar idiom, and wanted to contribute further follies to a future edition of the work. (Franklin's prose is not always so 'plain and elegantly neat' as Webster thinks. On occasion he strives after the style of his German contemporaries:
The general use of the French language has likewise a very advantageous effect on the profits of the bookselling branch of commerce, it being well known, that the more copies can be sold that are struck off from one composition of types, the profits increase in a much greater proportion than they do in making a greater number of pieces in any other kind of manufacture.)
He deplores the verbing of nouns: notice, advocate and progress all incur his censure as verbs. (Richard Bailey, in his 1996 book on Nineteenth-Century English, notes that progress had been standard as a verb in older English, but revived around this period in America, and subsequently seen as an Americanism. On verbing nouns in general, contrast this, from Thomas Gunter Browne's exquisite Hermes Unmasked (1795):
I suppose even that any object of any kind, or any word, may serve to make any part of speech of any sort.—Oh! that I had known this when I was a boy at Westminster!—Birds, beasts, and fishes will make excellent verbs, without the least alteration in sound or spelling.—A pig, a peer, or a pismire, will make as good a verb as the sublimest thing in nature.—The wooden post which stands before us, and which is usually the emblem of stability, will make a verb expressive of great celerity.)
Franklin further laments the loss in printing of capitalised common nouns, as well as the long s, about which, with a rather inappropriate analogy, he remarks:
Certainly the omitting this prominent letter makes a line appear more even, but renders it less immediately legible; as the paring of all men's noses might smooth and level their faces, but would render their physiognomies less distinguishable.
But of most linguistic interest is Franklin's remarks on the word improved.
When I left New-England in the year 1723, this word had never been used among us, as far as I know, but in the sense of ameliorated, or made better, except once in a very old book of Dr. Mather's entitled "Remarkable Providences." As that man wrote a very obscure hand, I remember that when I read that word in his book, used instead of the word employed, I conjectured that it was an error of the printer, who had mistaken a short l in the writing for an r, and a y with too short a tail for a v, whereby employed was converted into improved; but when I returned to Boston in 1733, I found this change had obtained favour, and was then become common; for I met with it often in perusing the newspapers, where it frequently made an appearance rather ridiculous. Such, for instance, as the advertisement of a country house to be sold, which had been many years improved as a tavern; and in the character of a deceased country gentleman, that he had been, for more than thirty years, improved as a justice of the peace.
Thus Mather: 'the Ministers of God have been improved in the Recording and Declaring the works of the Lord', and 'her Tongue was improved by a Daemon to express things which she her self knew nothing of'. Mather's work appeared in 1684; the OED finds this improved, both of persons and of places, in William Hubbard's 1677 Narrative of the Indian Wars in New England. Of a place: 'Near some River. . . whose Streams are principally improved for the driving of Saw-mills.' And of a person: 'Such of the Women as were gifted at knitting and sewing, were improved to make Stockings and Garments.'

In both cases, the OED quotes an 1865 Bostonian edition of the work (volume 2), number 4 of Woodward's Historical Series. This edition corresponds closely to the 1677 first edition, printed in London. (Another 1677 edition was printed in Boston, but this omits the section containing the two above quotations.) But intermediary editions offer a surprise. In an 1803 edition, printed not in Boston but in the idyllic Stockbridge, MA, we notice that improved, in the second quotation, has been emended to employed. Plenty of improveds still remain, but none both a) of a person, and b) interchangeable with employed. For instance, of a place, we still have 'Other places adjoining were soon after seized and improved for trading and fishing'. But of persons we have only:
yet seeing they themselves, as the westward Indians have so ill improved that which they had before
their labour was well improved, and followed with good success at the last
Here the sense is more clearly 'capitalised on': the positive connotation is stronger. In the case of the sewing women, improved has a different shade: 'put to work', rather than 'capitalised on'. In this instance, perhaps thought the 1803 editor, conceivably—one would love to imagine—under the influence of a Franklin, improved was a Bostonism too far. At any rate, the 1828 Webster dutifully lists 'Used; occupied; as improved land' as the third sense of improved.


Greg Afinogenov said...

The New York Times reports on spelling reform in Russia, April 4, 1918:

"PETROGRAD, JAN. 31. - Russian school children are rejoicing. Not only have the school teachers gone on strike, but the Bolshevik Government has adopted phonetic spelling, which will eliminate some of the difficulties of Russian orthography.

The National Commissioner [they mean "People's Commissar," I think] of Education, with a view to raising the general standard of education, has issued a decree that, from Jan. 1, the new simplified spelling is to be taught in the schools. The reformed spelling consists in the elimination from the Russian alphabet of three letters--yatt, phita, and the simple form of e.

The pronunciation of these letters is identical, respectively, with a, f, and the double form of e, and the correct use of the respective letters has always been a test of education. The yatt, a survival of one of the old Slavonic characters, has been a stumbling block to many, not only to foreigners, but even to middle-class Russians."

What's funny about this is that the NYT (or the AP, actually) failed the test. The "yatt" is pronounced "e," not "a"; the "double form of e" is actually just "i," or the "ee" sound; and they missed one of the most crucial elements of the reform, which is the exclusion of the "yer" (called the "hard sign" today) at the end of every word ending with a consonant. One Soviet linguist later calculated that 8.5 million pages worth of these meaningless and silent "yers" were printed every year in Tsarist Russia....

Improvement, indeed.

Paul M. Rodriguez said...

I seem to remember that Franklin's remarks on "improvement" actually appear in the front matter of modern Merriam-Websters' dictionaries.

Spelling reforms are typically too precise: they show the writer's dialect. In Franklin's case, the possibility of precision is the source of interest. If his transcriptions were any good, then his accent was almost the same as a modern Philadelphian's—I had one read out the letter in the link. There are oddities—his "cannot" is /kæn nɔt/, not /kæ nɑt/; his "sound"s seem to be two-syllabled /sa undz/, not /saʊndz/; "your" is /juɹ/, not /jɔɹ/; and "gradually" is hideously syncopated to /græ du æl li/ instead of /græ dʒə li/. But in all, he could pass for a native—though with some Anglophilic affectations.

Conrad H. Roth said...

These are both terrific contributions, thank you. I have nothing to add to them.