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The Study of Spelling

Written by: Sherwin Cody

The mastery of English spelling is a serious under-taking. In the first place, we must actually memorize from one to three thousand words which are spelled in more or less irregular ways. The best that can be done with these words is to classify them as much as possible and suggest methods of association which will aid the memory. But after all, the drudgery of memorizing must be gone through with.

Again, those words called homonyms, which are pronounced alike but spelled differently, can be studied only in connection with their meaning, since the meaning and grammatical use in the sentence is our only key to their form. So we have to go considerably beyond the mere mechanical association of letters.

Besides the two or three thousand common irregular words, the dictionary contains something over two hundred thousand other words. Of course no one of us can possibly have occasion to use all of those words; but at the same time, every one of us may sooner or later have occasion to use any one of them. As we cannot tell before hand what ones we shall need, we should be prepared to write any or all of them upon occasion. Of course we may refer to the dictionary; but this is not always, or indeed very often, possible. It would obviously be of immense advantage to us if we could find a key to the spelling of these numerous but infrequently used words.

The first duty of the instructor in spelling should be to provide such a key. We would suppose, off-hand, that the three hundred thousand school-teachers in the United States would do this immediately and without suggestion——certainly that the writers of school-books would. But many things have stood in the way. It is only within a few years, comparatively speaking, that our language has become at all fixed in its spelling. Noah Webster did a great deal to establish principles, and bring the spelling of as many words as possible to conform with these principles and with such analogies as seemed fairly well established. But other dictionary-makers have set up their ideas against his, and we have a conflict of authorities. If for any reason one finds himself spelling a word differently from the world about him, he begins to say, “Well, that is the spelling given in Worcester, or the Century, or the Standard, or the new Oxford.” So the word “authority” looms big on the horizon; and we think so much about authority, and about different authorities, that we forget to look for principles, as Mr. Webster would have us do.

Another reason for neglecting rules and principles is that the lists of exceptions are often so formidable that we get discouraged and exclaim, “If nine tenths of the words I use every day are exceptions to the rules, what is the use of the rules anyway!” Well, the words which constitute that other tenth will aggregate in actual numbers far more than the common words which form the chief part of everyday speech, and as they are selected at random from a vastly larger number, the only possible way to master them is by acquiring principles, consciously or unconsciously, which will serve as a key to them. Some people have the faculty of unconsciously formulating principles from their everyday observations, but it is a slow process, and many never acquire it unless it is taught them.

The spelling problem is not to learn how to spell nine tenths of our words correctly. Nearly all of us can and do accomplish that. The good speller must spell nine hundred and ninety-nine one thousandths of his word correctly, which is quite another matter. Some of us go even one figure higher.

Our first task is clearly to commit the common irregular words to memory. How may we do that most easily? It is a huge task at best, but every pound of life energy which we can save in doing it is so much gained for higher efforts. We should strive to economize effort in this just as the manufacturer tries to economize in the cost of making his goods.

In this particular matter, it seems to the present writer that makers of modern spelling-books have committed a great blunder in mixing indiscriminately regular words with irregular, and common words with uncommon. Clearly we should memorize first the words we use most often, and then take up those which we use less frequently. But the superintendent of the Evanston schools has reported that out of one hundred first-reader words which he gave to his grammar classes as a spelling test, some were misspelled by all but sixteen per cent{.} of the pupils. And yet these same pupils were studying busily away on categories, concatenation, and amphibious. The spelling-book makers feel that they must put hard words into their spellers. Their books are little more than lists of words, and any one can make lists of common, easy words. A spelling-book filled with common easy words would not seem to be worth the price paid for it. Pupils and teachers must get their money's worth, even if they never learn to spell. Of course the teachers are expected to furnish drills themselves on the common, easy words; but unfortunately they take their cue from the spelling-book, each day merely assigning to the class the next page. They haven't time to select, and no one could consistently expect them to do otherwise than as they do do.

To meet this difficulty, the author of this book has prepared a version of the story of Robinson Crusoe which contains a large proportion of the common words which offer difficulty in spelling. Unluckily it is not easy to produce classic English when one is writing under the necessity of using a vocabulary previously selected. However, if we concentrate our attention on the word-forms, we are not likely to be much injured by the ungraceful sentence-forms. This story is not long, but it should be dictated to every school class, beginning in the fourth grade, until every pupil can spell every word correctly. A high percentage is not enough, as in the case of some other studies. Any pupil who misses a single word in any exercise should be marked zero.

But even if one can spell correctly every word in this story, he may still not be a good speller, for there are thousands of other words to be spelled, many of which are not and never will be found in any spelling-book. The chief object of a course of study in spelling is to acquire two habits, the habit of observing articulate sounds, and the habit of observing word-forms in reading.

1. Train the Ear. Until the habit of observing articulate sounds carefully has been acquired, the niceties of pronunciation are beyond the student's reach, and equally the niceties of spelling are beyond his reach, too. In ordinary speaking, many vowels and even some consonants are slurred and obscured. If the ear is not trained to exactness, this habit of slurring introduces many inaccuracies. Even in careful speaking, many obscure sounds are so nearly alike that only a finely trained ear can detect any difference. Who of us notices any difference between er in pardonerand or in honor? Careful speakers do not pass over the latter syllable quite so hastily as over the former, but only the most finely trained ear will detect any difference even in the pronunciation of the most finely trained voice.

In the lower grades in the schools the ear may be trained by giving separate utterance to each sound in a given word, as f-r-e-n-d, friend, allowing each letter only its true value in the word. Still it may also be obtained by requiring careful and distinct pronunciation in reading, not, however, to the extent of exaggerating the value of obscure syllables, or painfully accentuating syllables naturally obscure.

Adults (but seldom children) may train the ear by reading poetry aloud, always guarding against the sing-song style, but trying to harmonize nicely the sense and the rhythm. A trained ear is absolutely necessary to reading poetry well, and the constant reading aloud of poetry cannot but afford an admirable exercise.

For children, the use of diacritical marks has little or no value, until the necessity arises for consulting the dictionary for pronunciation. They are but a mechanical system, and the system we commonly use is so devoid of permanence in its character that every dictionary has a different system. The one most common in the schools is that introduced by Webster; but if we would consult the Standard or the Century or the Oxford, we must learn our system all over again. To the child, any system is a clog and a hindrance, and quite useless in teaching him phonetic values, wherein the voice of the teacher is the true medium.

For older students, however, especially students at home, where no teacher is available, phonetic writing by means of diacritical marks has great value.* It is the only practicable way of representing the sounds of the voice on paper. When the student writes phonetically he is obliged to observe closely his own voice and the voices of others in ordinary speech, and so his ear is trained. It also takes the place of the voice for dictation in spelling tests by mail or through the medium of books.

*There should be no more marks than there are sounds. When two vowels have the same sound one should be written as a substitute for the other, as we have done in this book.

2. Train the Eye. No doubt the most effective way of learning spelling is to train the eye carefully to observe the forms of the words we read in newspapers and in books. If this habit is formed, and the habit of general reading accompanies it, it is sufficient to make a nearly perfect speller. The great question is, how to acquire it.

Of course in order to read we are obliged to observe the forms of words in a general way, and if this were all that is needed, we should all be good spellers if we were able to read fluently. But it is not all. The observation of the general form of a word is not the observation that teaches spelling. We must have the habit of observing every letter in every word, and this we are not likely to have unless we give special attention to acquiring it.

The “visualization” method of teaching spelling now in use in the schools is along the line of training the eye to observe every letter in a word. It is good so far as it goes; but it does not go very far. The reason is that there is a limit to the powers of the memory, especially in the observation of arbitrary combinations of letters. What habits of visualization would enable the ordinary person to glance at such a combination as the following and write it ten minutes afterward with no aid but the single glance: hwgufhtbizwskoplmne? It would require some minutes' study to memorize such a combination, because there is nothing to aid us but the sheer succession of forms. The memory works by association. We build up a vast structure of knowledge, and each new fact or form must be as securely attached to this as the new wing of a building; and the more points at which attachment can be formed the more easily is the addition made.

The Mastery of Irregular Words.

Here, then, we have the real reason for a long study of principles, analogies, and classifications. They help us to remember. If I come to the word colonnade in reading, I observe at once that the double n is an irregularity. It catches my eye immediately. “Ah!” I reflect almost in the fraction of a second as I read in continuous flow, “here is another of those exceptions.” Building on what I already know perfectly well, I master this word with the very slightest effort. If we can build up a system which will serve the memory by way of association, so that the slight effort that can be given in ordinary reading will serve to fix a word more or less fully, we can soon acquire a marvellous power in the accurate spelling of words.

Again: In a spelling-book before me I see lists of words ending in ise, ize, and yse, all mixed together with no distinction. The arrangement suggests memorizing every word in the language ending with either of these terminations, and until we have memorized any particular word we have no means of knowing what the termination is. If, however, we are taught that ize is the common ending, that ise is the ending of only thirty-one words, and yse of only three or four, we reduce our task enormously and aid the memory in acquiring the few exceptions. When we come to franchise in reading we reflect rapidly, “Another of those verbs in ise!” or to paralyse, “One of those very few verbs in yse!” We give no thought whatever to all the verbs ending in ize, and so save so much energy for other acquirements.

If we can say, “This is a violation of such and such a rule,” or “This is a strange irregularity,” or “This belongs to the class of words which substitutes ea for the long sound of e, or for the short sound of e.”

We have an association of the unknown with the known that is the most powerful possible aid to the memory. The system may fail in and of itself, but it more than serves its purpose thus indirectly in aiding the memory.

We have not spoken of the association of word forms with sounds, the grouping of the letters of words into syllables, and the aid that a careful pronunciation gives the memory by way of association; for while this is the most powerful aid of all, it does not need explanation.

The Mastery of Regular Words.

We have spoken of the mastery of irregular words, and in the last paragraph but one we have referred to the aid which general principles give the memory by way of association in acquiring the exceptions to the rules. We will now consider the great class of words formed according to fixed principles.

Of course these laws and rules are little more than a string of analogies which we observe in our study of the language. The language was not and never will be built to fit these rules. The usage of the people is the only authority. Even clear logic goes down before usage. Languages grow like mushrooms, or lilies, or bears, or human bodies. Like these they have occult and profound laws which we can never hope to penetrate,?which are known only to the creator of all things existent. But as in botany and zoölogy and physiology we may observe and classify our observations, so we may observe a language, classify our observations, and create an empirical science of word-formation. Possibly in time it will become a science something more than empirical.

The laws we are able at this time to state with much definiteness are few (doubling consonants, dropping silent e's, changing y's to i's, accenting the penultimate and antepenultimate syllables, lengthening and shortening vowels). In addition we may classify exceptions, for the sole purpose of aiding the memory.

Ignorance of these principles and classifications, and knowledge of the causes and sources of the irregularities, should be pronounced criminal in a teacher; and failure to teach them, more than criminal in a spelling-book. It is true that most spelling-books do give them in one form or another, but invariably without due emphasis or special drill, a lack which renders them worthless. Pupils and students should be drilled upon them till they are as familiar as the multiplication table.

We know how most persons stumble over the pronunciation of names in the Bible and in classic authors. They are equally nonplussed when called upon to write words with which they are no more familiar. They cannot even pronounce simple English names like Cody, which they call “Coddy,” in analogy with body, because they do not know that in a word of two syllables a single vowel followed by a single consonant is regularly long when accented. At the same time they will spell the word in all kinds of queer ways, which are in analogy only with exceptions, not with regular formations. Unless a person knows what the regular principles are, he cannot know how a word should regularly be spelled. A strange word is spelled quite regularly nine times out of ten, and if one does not know exactly how to spell a word, it is much more to his credit to spell it in a regular way than in an irregular way.

The truth is, the only possible key we can have to those thousands of strange words and proper names which we meet only once or twice in a lifetime, is the system of principles formulated by philologists, if for no other reason, we should master it that we may come as near as possible to spelling proper names correctly.


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