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Orthography

ORTHOGRAPHY. When this word is looked at in its elements (two Greeks words denoting the art of writing and correctness), it would seem that there ought to be included under it whatever belongs to the art of writing a language correctly, including both what is called etymology and syntax. But the grammarians have given it a restricted sense, and it is used to denote not the writing correctly in the general, but the proper selection of literal elements of each word that is used, and the proper division of each word when one part of it is at the end of one line and another at the beginning of the line which succeeds. In the antient Hebrew manuscripts we may observe that this division of words never occurs, the scribes resorting to the expedient of widening certain of the letters, if in the ordinary form the words would not fill up the line. The lawstationers in their copies of legal documents fill up a line with a waved and unmeaning stroke, when the word whish follows cannot conveniently be written in it at length.

We perceive by certain grammars and dictionaries published by practical men, both at home and still more in the United States of North America, that the writers appear to suppose that their works will be reported to even by persons of cultivation as authorities or guides to orthography. But we believe it to be the case that the number is very few of persons who actually use dictionaries for this purpose. We mean of course not mere children or persons of very imperfect education, but even of those there are very few persons who read much and write occasionally, who ever think of resorting to books of the kind we are speaking of; and persons of a better education still trust entirelv to memory, and should a doubt arise, the reference would be made to some eminent author and not to the guides of which we speak. In fact, the art is acquired almost without teaching, and is maintained in vigour through a whole life by the constant practice of writing and reading. At all events there is no book, grammar, guide, or dictionary, which a scholar in England regards as in this point a book of aur authority. Whether it would be expedient to raise some one work into an authority in such a point as this, is in fact a question —one of the greatest in philology that can be proposed— whether there shall be an invariable standard established to which a living language shall for ever conform. We doubt not only the possibility but the expediency of this: and in respect of orthography, we are quite sure that no such standard can be raised, because it would be quite impracticable to bring all persons who have a right to a voice in such a matter to an agreement in any one system involving the admission of certain fixed principles. The contemporary usage of persons of cultivation, meaning of a great preponderating majority, which will always exist, is, we apprehend, the authority to which each person who aspires to write correctly must continue to defer.

This has been the standard to which reference has always hitherto been made. Open any book printed in the reign of Queen Anne, and many words will present themselves in an orthography very different from that in which they would now be found. But we must not say that the persons who wrote them wrote incorrectly, if they wrote according to the practice of the cultivated persons of their time. If wo ascend still higher and go to the reign of Elizabeth, we find the orthography still more diverse from our own; and when we reach the time of Caxton, and still more when we go back to the time of Chaucer and Wickliffc, we find many words which, though they are actually words now in use, are so disguised in their orthographical form that we can scarcely recognise them. We seem to have got among a people who spoke a different language, though they were our own forefathers, not more than ten or twelve generations above our grandfathers. This has arisen from the want of a standard; something fixed, not varying like usage. There is an inconvenience in it as respects the writers before the time of Caxton and the invention of printing, and we may reasonably wish that with reference to them there had been some less vaiying standard and a continuous uniformity; but when we look in the writings of the men of the Elizabethan period, we find that though now two centuries and a half have parsed, there is no more difficulty in perusing them than there is in perusing iho writings of our own day; and that the same Will be the case in respect of the writings of the present day in the hands of Englishmen four or live centuries hence, may be safely foretold. So that there is no real prejudice arising from the apparently unphilosopliical and dangerous course of leaving this point to be regulated by anything so uncertain as contemporary usage.

At present the number of words of which the orthography is not uniform in all writings which aspire at once to be coiTcct and devoid of afTectalion, is exceedingly small. Take this sentence and the whole of the paragraph which precedes it; is there any word, except this word precede, in which any variety would be found in the ordinary current writings of the day? Or if we found a variety, should wc not say that the deviation from the usual practice was a casual mistake, a slip of the press, an affectation, or that it was the result of some peculiar principle which some peculiar person had adopted? And even this word precede, though it belongs to a class in which orthography is not uniform, we should probably very rarely find written in any other way, for few persons would prefer the form preceed, if indeed such a form is ever used. So that practically a great and perhaps quite sufficient degree of uniformity and stability may be said to be secured under the regulating puwer which now exists.

Dictionaries and vocabularies, as affording an easy guide to iho knowledge of what is the usage, may have their use in this respect to a few persons who write occasionally only; but as authorities, we repeat, they are of no avail.

It has been matter of complaint that the orthography of the English language is not more uniform; that is, that words which are composed in whole or in part of the same elements are not uniform in the manner in which those elements are exhibited. Thus all words derived of the Latin cedo with prepositions prefixed, it may be said should be in one form, and it is a variety in defence of which nothing can well be pleaded that we should write proceed and yet write also concede. So with respect to such words as honour, favour, odour, labour, it may be said that there should be uniformity with other words like them, in which the u is not found, and further, that wc should keep to the orthography of the Latin words of which they are forms equally in meaning and orthography. This appears plausible, but when it is considered that these words do not come to us immediately from the Latin, but have passed to us through the French, we rccogniso in the unnecessary letter u a part of the history of the word, which a person of true taste would scarcely be willing to relinquish for an advantage so trivial. Or take the rough word through: some may think that the three last letters may well he dispensed with, but they remain a pleasing evidence of the origin of the word in tho rough and strong speech of our Saxon ancestors.

•These little irregularities in orthography, like irregularities in other parts of grammar, are not to be regarded as evils. Such irregularities give birth to what are called idioms, in which no small part of the beauty of a language lies.

Attempts have however been mado by ingenious men to introduce a greater degree of uniformity into our orthography. There is a treatise on the management of bees, firinted about two centuries ago, in which we have a pecuiar orthography on a system of the author's own. Ritson, in the last century, in some of his works adopted an orthography of his own. Professed writers on grammar have done the same; some of them to such an extent that the language, as written by them, can scarcely be known to be English. A more moderate reform is attempted by an American writer, Dr. Noah Webster, the author of nn English Dictionary, which has been reprinted in this country; and Mr. Bromby of Hull, n learned and ingenious clergyman, has printed for private circulation a translation of the treatise of Plutarch concerning music, in which the orthography is regulated by certain principles which he lays down in the preface. But no writer who has made such an attempt has ever gained in any way the slightest share of public attention. Practically the usage is thought or found to be sufficient. J

There is one point to which persons who tske this view of the subject do not seem sufficiently to attend, and that is, the huvock which any material changes in our orthography. so as to reduce it to some one system, would make in that beautiful poetry by which our language is eunoblcd, and which will preserve it at once from extinction and 6vm any very material changes. The words are in reality very few of which the orthography may not be said to be now established by the great Jus et Norma Loquendi, Custom. We take the following from a modern grammar, as being those which, in the opinion of the writer, are most frequently found with orthographical varieties:— honour honor Of course some of these represent clas>os. But what are these to the great body of such a language as ours? Aud with respect to the first and to the last, each of which represents a large family of words, we would submit that very few persons indeed who were entitled to a voice in a question of this kind would be found writing honor ; and that there is a most excellent rule by which we imagine all persons of education allow themselves to be guided respecting words in ise or ize. The rule is this: when the word it a derivative of the French prendre, as is the case w ith surprise, ent'rprise, and one or two othcts, to write it with the ise; but when it comes to us from the Greek, as in agonist, and several other words, to keep the Greek termination iZ« Angliciize.

Note - this article incorporates content from The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1840)

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