Sloppy copy

#literacy

Samuel Johnson damaged English spelling more than all other meddlers combined.

O’ for /u/ and ‘wa’ for /wo/ made just a few dozen words irregular, alternatives for /e-e/ a few hundred, as I explained in my last piece. Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 increased the English rote-learning burden by over 2,000 words.

His compilation of a first really comprehensive English dictionary was a major achievement. - His dilution of English spelling consistency, however, was seismically destructive.

He probably didn't deliberately aim to make learning to read and write English more difficult. He achieved it, by trying to make English spelling more Latin. He still regarded English as an inferior language, despite being very familiar with Shakespeare’s work. He thought it unlikely that English would ever become fit for intellectual discourse. He much preferred Latin for writing poetry.

He made learning to read and write English more difficult mainly by:

1) Making consonant doubling unpredictable;

2) Adopting irregular spellings for several unstressed endings and prefixes;

3) Standardising different spellings for different meanings of 335 homophones.

1. He more or less destroyed the English system of showing when a, e, i, o and u

were long or short - improvingenglishspelling.blogs...,

as in ‘mate – matter, legal – ledger, bite – bitten, cope – copper, cute – cutter’.

Because:

     A. He omitted doubling in 544 words, predominantly from Latin roots 

         (e.g. ballot - balance, merry – merit, hidden – hideous, floppy – copy, 

                 muddy – study), including Shakespeare's 'cittie' and 'scoller'.

     B. In 223 words he used doubling to signal their earlier Latin forms,

         (e.g. ‘apply’, because it had the prefix ad in ‘adplicare’)

rather than for indicating a short, stressed vowel, as in ‘appetite’ or ‘apple’.

2. He diluted the regularity of some dominant spellings for unstressed

endings, like –er and -en (potter, fatten) and prefixes like in- (indulge),

by changing some of them back to their earlier Latin or French patterns:

doctor, scholar; abandon, certain; enclose.

3. He drastically undermined the consistency of English spelling by deciding that

335 homophones needed different spellings for different meanings,

e.g. ‘their/there’, ‘to/too/two’.

Yet he also left 113 sets of different words sharing one spelling

(have read - must read).

After spending many years learning the ‘correct’ different spellings for the 335 identical words in different contexts, it tends to become difficult to see that they are not really needed. It is easy to forget that 2,500 English homophones get by perfectly well with just one spelling for their different meanings (mean, lean, bank, tank, rank, found, sound, ground…), regardless of context.

The main effect of adopting different spellings for identical words is to make it impossible to have a regular spelling system.

Over the past 20 years, I have spent much time studying Johnson’s impact on English spelling, as well as reading about him. He was undoubtedly very clever. Sadly, he did not have much empathy for ordinary mortals.

He cared even less about enabling all children to learn as much as possible. See: englishspellingproblems.blogsp...

Author Profile

Masha  Bell

Masha Bell

Retired teacher of English and modern languages, now literacy researcher and writer

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