Nineteenth-Century Spelling: The Rules and the Writers


Late in the evening of December 1, 1854, President Brigham Young penned this postscript in a letter to his son Joseph A. Young, then serving a mission in England. His scribe had, on President Young’s direction, given young Joseph the main news of the Salt Lake Valley, but President Young wanted to express in his own words his feelings for the son whom he missed.

In his own hand, with his own peculiar spelling, he reminded Joseph of his position as oldest son, “the arc of the famely,” and admonished him to be “worthe of your Stashon” in that family. The sentiments themselves reveal much about the writer; the characteristic script and peculiar spelling suggest more.

How are we to interpret the qualities reflected there? Present-day writers would certainly be expected to be more concerned about their spelling; one who wrote imagine as emagen, or soul as sole, or left the t off night, or added an e to joy would, by our present standards, be judged as ill-taught, if not marginally literate. But this note was written more than a century ago. What were the practices of Brigham Young’s own time? What does his writing suggest about his cultural and educational background? Should present-day editors change the spelling so that it conforms to modern standards?

The justification not only for leaving the spelling as it is, but also for valuing the writers’ eccentricities lies in our need to understand and appreciate what these writers of the past were really like. We get a special thrill when we have a chance to hold in our hands, or even see behind a carefully placed glass frame, a letter or document written by someone whose name is famous, someone who has earned a place in our history, or even some long-dead but still-revered ancestor. In some cases, we could go to a library and find the same words made more readable on the printed page, but somehow those printed words do not convey the same sense of presence that the original letter or document does.

There are many reasons for the thrill, of course. In addition to knowing that you hold in your hands the actual paper on which a great person wrote or that you see before you his very handwriting, a good part of the thrill is in exploring the shapes of the letters on the page, since handwriting is as unique as personality. We recognize the handwriting of friends and loved ones just as we recognize the shape of their heads or their walk.

However, handwriting is not all that conveys the special personality of the writer. Part of the uniqueness of a handwritten manuscript lies in the way the sentences are laid out on the written page: the capitalizations, sometimes peculiar; the long statements with no punctuation, which leave you breathless as you read them; the pauses and blanks—even places where words are left out or thoughts are incomplete, perhaps indicating the haste of the writer. Most important, when we see what is written, as it was originally written, we can imagine, partly because of the very irregularities, the distinctive sound of the spoken words, a sound often rendered lifeless by the regularized printed page.

Recognizing that important elements of personality are conveyed not only by what is said, or even by the way it is said, but also through spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammatical idiosyncrasies, many modern editors are now carefully indicating these irregularities in texts that are being published today. For example, the Center for Editions of American Authors, which sponsors definitive editions of the works of a number of American writers, carefully reproduces the exact spelling, capitalization, and variations in grammar of the original manuscripts.

Joseph Slater, who edited a volume of correspondence between Emerson and Carlyle, explains his policy: “Only photography can transmit the visual pleasures, the immediacy, and the dramatic and graphological values of manuscript. But much of the taste of a letter can be preserved in print if misspellings, repetitions, omissions, abbreviations, and eccentricities of punctuation are doggedly reproduced.” (Joseph Slater, “Preface” to The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle, New York: Columbia University Press, 1964, vi.) The texts produced through the Center represent the attempt to remain as faithful as possible to the author’s intention, and, therefore, to the personality which emerges through the eccentricities and deviations of his manuscript.

While it may be more acceptable to the general reader, a standardized text reduces the distinctive style and texture of the writer to predictable uniformity. Normalized texts are a bit like required uniforms: they conceal any irregularities, be they ugly bulges or a lovely form. However, when an editor carefully preserves the peculiarities of a writer’s style, including what many of us regard as errors or evidence of illiteracy, even the printed page can convey the distinctive quality of the writer’s perceptions, background, and character, which emerges in those peculiarities of style. We can thus capture some of the thrill that comes with handling the original manuscript.

Irregular spelling can often indicate the sound of the words as the writer spoke them. Look at Brigham Young’s postscript again and hear the voice of the loving father. Imagine how he must have said the words as he wrote them. We must remember that the spoken language precedes the written one, and, in the view of linguists, is the primary language of any people. Because we have all been educated in a system where writing is important, we sometimes feel that the written word alone represents a person’s linguistic facility. However, each of us spoke with ease at least three years before we learned to write with any assurance. Many of the difficulties that a person has with language are only with the written language. Spelling, punctuation, and capitalization must all be learned more with the eye than with the ear. The fact is, our written English has never been quite able to catch up with the natural changes of our spoken English.

We have all had to learn, sometimes painfully, that in English, knowing the sound of the word is not enough to tell us how to spell it. We represent in the spelling of many words (know, for example) the sound it had five or six centuries ago. Think of words such as night, bough, and through, in which the gh represents a sound which once existed in the language but that seems only inconsistent and puzzling today. The letters of our alphabet have the added burden of representing the sounds of all the other languages that have contributed to our vocabulary.

Not only that, the medieval scribes, who were often French, and the early printers, who had often been trained in the Netherlands and Germany, introduced their own conventions. For example, luv (or luf) was changed to love and sum to some simply because, in early printing, the letters u, v, and m were so much alike that the printers changed the u to make the words, frequently used, more readable. The use of the ’s for the genitive, which often causes confusion in writing (as in “the boy’s book” or “the writer’s decision”), was probably introduced because of a printer’s mistaken notion that the original -s or es genitive ending for most nouns was a contraction of his. English spelling became relatively fixed only with the development of printing techniques, and even then some of the words were changed to suit the particular printer.

Those who study language learn early that the one immutable fact about a living, spoken language is that it inevitably changes. The written language changes more slowly than the spoken language, but even that changes. Therefore, no one can make an absolutely authoritative statement about the correctness of spelling, punctuation, or even, in some cases, grammar and idiom.

This lack of ultimate certainty is a hard blow to many who want to know what is “right” and what is “wrong” in language. It would be comforting if we could hand out a set of rules for all times and places. However, the best we can do is indicate what is standard—that is, what is most acceptable at any given time and place.

Still, conformity to a standard, however arbitrary that standard may be, has come to be widely regarded not only as a test of a person’s educational background or general literacy, but also as a measure of his moral worth. Teachers tell students, with real justification, “If you write a letter of application that is full of spelling errors, you are not going to get the job.” The test of literacy has long been a means of determining social status and acceptability. It remains so even in our democratic nations. Our attitudes toward language tend to be dominated by our feeling that deviation or change somehow represents social decadence or moral turpitude. As a student of American attitudes in 1925, George H. McKnight wrote: “The moral earnestness which at one time dominated American life, appears in the disposition to apply the distinction of right and wrong, not only to conduct, but to language, and the laws of right and wrong were to be found in grammar and spelling books. … Authority in language, which the Americans were unable to find in American colloquial practice, was sought in British use, or, more frequently, in grammatical rule.” (George H. McKnight, “Conservatism in American Speech,” American Speech, I, 1925, p. 10.)

Those few people nowadays who have made it to the top without a high school-diploma or a comfortable literacy are careful to hire people who know how to write well even though, in a kind of reverse snobbery, some may brag that they cannot spell, implying that they have more important things on their minds. Still, they are usually careful to see that the finished letter or report is “acceptable” or “correct.” Well-educated or not, we are usually aware that misspellings or nonstandard grammar will brand us in today’s society.

Once we learn the standard rules, we like to think that we are conforming to a high standard of linguistic purity that is being corrupted by those who, somehow, are neither wise enough nor good enough to know better. In many cases, good writing is equated with a standard of spelling or punctuation. We sometimes forget that the function of language is communication and that true clarity of expression is the mark of a good writer. However, it is natural in this rapidly changing world that we should want an unchanging, stable guideline to tell us what is “right.” In seeking such guidelines, we often turn to dictionaries. Early lexicographers, such as Samuel Johnson, were conscious of the need to set a standard of usage and designed their dictionaries with that in mind.

The purpose of the earliest English dictionaries was to explain the meanings of “hard words”; that is, the definitions of the many difficult and new terms in the language. The inscription in one of the first, Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604), tells us not only about what he was trying to do but also something about how the language has changed since he wrote it: “A Table Alphabetical, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard usuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French &c. With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better understand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in Scriptures, Sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to use the same aptly themselves.” (Quoted in Ronald A. Wells, Dictionaries and the Authoritarian Tradition, The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1973, p. 17.)

When Samuel Johnson wrote his “Plan of a Dictionary” in 1747, he stated his wish to establish an authority that would “fix the English language.” Eight years later, in 1755, however, he had moderated his hope to forever establish a standard: “Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence, I will confess that I flattered myself a while but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify.” He goes on to say that no lexicographer can hope to “embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay.” (“Preface,” A Dictionary of the English Language, London, 1755, p. 1.)

In America, Noah Webster wished not only to establish an authority for the language in the new land but also, with perceptiveness and national pride, wished to reform and regularize the spelling system. In Dissertations on the English Language (1789), he wrote: “The pronunciation of the words which are strictly English has been gradually changing for ages, and since the revival of science in Europe, the language has received a vast accession of words from other languages, many of which retain an orthography very ill suited to exhibit the true pronunciation. The question now occurs; ought the Americans to retain these faults which produce innumerable inconveniences in the acquisition and use of the language, or ought they at once to reform these abuses and introduce order and regularity into the orthography of the American Tongue?” (Reprinted by Scolar Press, Menston, England, 1967, pp. 393–4.)

Webster’s dictionary and his spellers were used in America during the nineteenth century and did provide an authoritative standard for millions of people. Some of his changes were readily incorporated into the spelling system; for example, honor and color, instead of the British honour and colour. Likewise he changed the British musick, logick, theatre and centre to the music, logic, theater and center, which have become standard in the United States today. Other suggestions that he made, such as hed, giv, bilt, croud, thum, tung, wimmen, ake, and iland, have never been accepted.

Conservative lexicographers in America felt that Webster was threatening standards of tradition and purity and was encouraging provincial American peculiarities. In the mid-nineteenth century there erupted a rather violent “war of the dictionaries,” with followers of Johnson and the British tradition on one side and followers of Webster and American independence on the other. The controversy was ultimately political and regional as well as linguistic and was heartily promoted and encouraged by the competitive tactics of two rival publishers. The conflict between conservative tradition and practical reform continues today. In 1961, the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary provoked another “war” because it included words such as ain’t, which many had been trying to eradicate from the language.

Dictionaries and the conflicts they provoke have little effect either upon educators, who continue to use traditional handbooks and spellers, or upon the public. In the nineteenth century most people, especially those with little education, continued to write words as they sounded, and, being far more facile with the spoken word than familiar with the printed page, used punctuation and capitalization as it suited them.

The fact that editors and printers in the past have often imposed contemporary standards of spelling and usage upon texts not only may change the texture of the writing but also may perpetuate certain attitudes about the permanence of the language. In 1909, Thomas R. Lounsbury, a professor at Yale University and a distinguished scholar, wrote: “The large majority of even cultivated readers do not see the words used by any great author of the past in the way in which he himself spelled them. They see them only as the modern printer chooses to spell them for him. It is, therefore, not surprising that the existing orthography should come to seem to such men not the comparatively late creation it is, but as something which has about it all the flavor of antiquity.” (Thomas R. Lounsbury, English Spelling and Spelling Reform, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1909, p. 24.)

When we look at the actual manuscripts of a number of nineteenth-century writers, or when we examine the editions that have reproduced the original language of the author, we find that even those who were well-educated were often erratic, uncertain, and, according to our own standards, incorrect in much of their usage. For example, Ulysses S. Grant used the following spellings with some frequency: “asaid” (aside), “ferever,” “fals” (false), “spleanded,” “fer” (for), “singulir,” “voise,” “poarch,” “ignorent,” “comparitively,” “exagerated,” “seperated,” and “shure.” He also tells how “the woods was strued with the dead,” describing a battle in a letter to his family. (The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, vol. 1, ed. John Y. Simon, Carbondale, Illinois, Southern Illinois Press, 1967.)

Andrew Johnson regularly wrote: “whent” (went), “allways,” “determin,” “som,” “yealding,” “desid,” “decission,” “rediculous,” “anxus,” “immaganable,” and “propper.” In 1844, he reported: “The terms of anexation is agreed upon. …” (The Papers of Andrew Johnson, vol. 1, ed. LeRoy P. Graf and Ralph W. Haskins, Knoxville, Tennessee, University of Tennessee Press, 1967.)

Joseph Smith, whose formal schooling was limited to the very basics of “reading writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic,” wrote with as much finesse as many of his better-educated contemporaries. Typical of his phonetic spelling are these words from his holographs: “git,” “brotheren,” “ritious” (righteous), “betraid,” “injoyment,” “mearly,” and “durty.”

With almost no formal schooling, Brigham Young maintained a spell-as-it-sounds system of writing throughout his life. One notes such homey expressions as “fue,” “shead,” “toards,” “lade,” “goe,” “harcon,” “perty,” and “ware” (were). As he left England in 1841 he wrote “waed ancar [weighed anchor] a bout 10 A.M. saled out of the River a bout 12,” and in one of his last holographs he noted, “I due not wish to agorn [adjourn] the confrence till may.”

One might argue that none of these men of action were men of letters, and that, therefore, one would expect them to be somewhat illiterate. However, when we turn to the men (and women) of letters, we find similar eccentricities. Washington Irving, who knew Latin, Dutch, Italian, German, French, and Spanish, sometimes had problems with English spelling. We find both “recieved” and “received” in the same sentence as well as the variations “smoak,” “smocke,” “schmoke,” and even “smoke.” He also regularly used “tho,” “brot,” and “thro.” In one description, he tells how the “wind had came ahead.” (Washington Irving, Journals and Notebooks, vol. 1, 1803–6, ed. Nathalia Wright, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.)

In The American Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne, we see “ancles,” “cieling,” “sithe” (scythe), and “visiter.” Also, there are some forms that were acceptable then but would not be now: “choaked,” “chrystal,” “cloathing,” “musquito,” and “canvass.” (The American Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Claude M. Simpson, Columbus, Ohio State, University Press, 1972.)

In Herman Melville’s early letters, characteristic spellings include “buisness,” “systim,” “schollars,” “writting,” “evel,” “tempratur,” and, in the very same letter, both “characters” and “characterrs.” (The Letters of Herman Melville, ed. Merrell R. Davis, and William H. Gilman, New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 1960.)

Emily Dickinson, who confessed to uncertainty about the spelling of some words, writes: “sheperd,” “unparraleled,” “wifes,” and “marvellous,” and she quite regularly misplace or misused the apostrophe; some of her examples include “is’nt,” “hav’nt,” “had’nt,” “did’nt,” and “our’s.” Capitalization and punctuation in her letters and poems have created headaches for both her editors and her critics. (The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward, Cambridge, Mass., Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958.)

A prominent nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint “man of letters” was Parley P. Pratt, whose prose is anything but careful in its literary mechanics. Capitalizing practically every noun, spelling phonetically—“ferther,” “musick,” “perple,” “wrighting,” “suffice,” “cuntrey,” “hapily,” “shuck” (shook), and “bole” (bowl)—and long unwieldy sentences liberally punctuated with semicolons did not hinder his remarkable literary output.

In most editions of these writers’ works, even in the publications of parts of the letters and journals, the spelling and grammar have been regularized. In most cases, such changes probably do little harm to the basic message of the writer. Instead, they are usually demanded, if not by the reading public, then by the harried school teacher. Even those modern editors who insist upon fidelity to the manuscript would agree, I suspect, that standard spelling and grammar are hard enough to teach without confusing students, at least in the early years, with the facts about much nineteenth-century usage.

However, in making every text conform to a standardized norm, we run the risk of taking something away from the quality of the manuscript. We should have available to us, if not the entire original manuscript itself, at least a reasonable reproduction of what a person actually wrote in that manuscript.

When we read a seventeenth-century poet or a Shakespearean play, or even a nineteenth-century letter writer, without benefit of modernization or normalization of text, we might, at first, find that the strange spellings and forms present difficulties both to the eye and to the understanding. Yet, we are forced by the unusual appearance of the text to look at the actual language used as well as the meaning conveyed. And when we do that, we are discovering something about the style of the writer. Attention to the texture of the words can, like attention to the texture of an oil painting or a fine sculpture, be both pleasing and informative.

We can discover, through a person’s language, some interesting things about that person. Misspelled words can be an indication of how the words were pronounced. Direct, simple statements, in which an idea is clearly expressed even if the subject and verb do not agree, can tell us something about the writer’s straightforward character. Conversely, a convoluted structure, full of qualifications and hesitations, might well make us question the writer’s own conviction at that moment. A fragmented syntax, thoughts which are abruptly broken off, and words and letters which have been omitted may indicate haste, distress, or preoccupation. If a writer neglects to cue us with periods and capital letters, we are forced to hear the lines, even to read them aloud, in order to hear the pauses and stops that the writer would naturally have made in speaking.

These characteristics of style, which can tell us so much about the writer, should be accessible to us. That is why it is important that, at some time and in some place, the original manuscript be reproduced as accurately as possible. Only in this way can we sense the voice, and thus something of the living presence, of the person who wrote it.

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My Dear Son Joseph

It is late at nigh, the male has arived this evening and I have herd your letter red, and it rejoice my hart to here sush good knews frm you may the Lord Bles you for ever and ever, is my Prayr for you. We are jest movin in to our new house, I suepose Mary and the Chldren will give all the famely knews. You can hardly emagen the joy it gives me to here such good knews from you, my sole leaps for joye, be faithful my son and the Lord will Bles you and I Bles you. remember you are my oldest son the arc of the famely, I want you to be faithful that you may be worthe of your Stashon in my Kingdom give my love to all the Brethern God Bles you

Brigham Young

This letter from Brigham Young to his son Joseph includes such spelling as male (mail), herd (heard), hart (heart), and sush (such). Most of the spelling is phonetic.

[photos] This journal page, which records a journey of Parley P. Pratt and Joseph Smith, shows arrived spelled arived, Tuesday as Tusday, Wednesday as Wensday, journey as journy, and tried as tryed.

[photos] This entry in the pocket journal of Zina D. H. Young for Sunday, October 16, 1881, shows she “rote a card,” saw “ferres” (ferries), and that the day was “plesent” (pleasant).

Elinore Hughes Partridge is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She lives in the WestBend Ward, Milwaukee Wisconsin Stake.