Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Spelling For Fun and Profit (2022-12-12)
Illustration from page 131 of Thomas Dilworth's Spelling Book
in its third united states edition published in 1796, courtesy of the internet archive
Although today thanks to automatic spellchecking it gets less attention and fewer complaints whether eloquent or crude, the common consensus about english spelling still leans to the pejorative. It doesn't make sense, is too irregular, has too many silent letters, and is apparently along with french deemed among the more difficult to learn to read and spell of languages written in a roman alphabet. As David Crystal has pointed out in many books and television programs, english spelling actually does make sense, and if we get a chance to learn about the basic history of written english we can put together a few excellent rules to help us manage most of what otherwise seems like chaos. English isn't spelled phonetically, and it can be surprisingly difficult to read or write fluently without the various quirks its not-phonetic spellings preserve. If it were otherwise, we would have no difficulty at all reading Forkner's alphabetic shorthand without training. What got me to thinking about this again was trying to find a reasonably accurate, though quick, answer to about when the sort of spelling book I had used in elementary school came into use in schools. Among the various things I learned was that, as we would reasonably expect, english spelling books are very old, but not too old. They are very much a product of the printing press and the attendant regularization of spellings in the first place. We complain now, but really, we have it extremely good and have for a long time. English spelling today is tame compared to the riot of variant spellings used by just one scribe before printing finally outran handwritten reproductions.
Poking around on the internet archive, I found the oldest scanned example of a spelling book or speller available there is Dilworth's, which provided the illustration for this thoughtpiece. This book was published in 1796, and it has suffered hard wear that includes water stains as well as a bit of free notation by its young owner. Unfortunately the scan is of poor quality, rendering the intriguing illustrations in the last section of selected fables too muddy to quite make sense of in most cases. People seem to be beating dogs or snakes in most of them, which is very strange, and they don't seem to quite go with the fables. Still, they are worth a look, and many of the fables feature familiar sayings and messages. Indeed, this is a common theme of such books, the inclusion of short texts for students to read and later texts to be used as both dictation and reading exercises. These texts of course included messages the author deemed necessary for children to learn and accept without question. Besides a selection of prayers and psalms, Dilworth included such injunctions as "obey your parents," among others. He also included brief sections on english grammar, etymology covering some of the detail David Crystal has brought back to broader attention. There are also tables of words for students to learn.
By 1840 worried anglophones in lower canada hoped for a spelling book reflecting spellings acceptable to them, meaning not the modified system marketed by Noah Webster, but referring to local geography and institutions. This indirectly reveals that the basic topics now introduced in these books together with the spelling had expanded. Looking further into Alexander Davidson's The Canada Spelling Book reveals a change from mostly religious material and a smattering of materials drawn from greek and roman authors to include history, geography, and even secular poetry. There are also a few more illustrations as they are now much cheaper to reproduce. Where Dilworth's book came to less than 150 pages, Davidson's reaches 220 pages and includes a lengthier grammar. But lost in the expansion is the etymological information in favour of teaching words in groups according to how many syllables they have. Davidson's book remained in print for at least twenty five years and was widely used in what is now better known as southern ontario, canada. Nevertheless, it was rather different than one of its near contemporaries in that Davidson does not provide a vocabulary key at the head of each text selection and the words themselves selected for the student to learn to spell. This is a common teaching technique today, and well established in this period as well, as N. Leith's 1843 The Juvenile Reader, which uses it alongside providing selections for dictation and recitation exercises.
By the turn of the twentieth century, canadian school standard spelling books have gone through significant changes, although the english are still printed almost exclusively in toronto. The Western Canada Series Public School Speller for example now features short texts written specifically for the book, and they are generally much shorter. Still, this book like its predecessors is designed to be used for several years of elementary school, in this case all the way up to grade eight when students are usually 13-14 years old. Unlike the older Davidson desk, this text has brought back the etymological information starting at page 184 of 232. Besides delving into prefixes and suffixes, it provides the basics of latin, french, greek, and germanic roots used in english including broad guidelines as to how they are combined. In my own elementary school years much later in the twentieth century this material made no appearance in spelling books at all and hardly showed up in what was called "language arts" in earlier grades and just "english" in the later ones. This is actually a cruel omission, even if not covering this material seems like it should be "easier." One of the ways we learn to deduce the probable meanings of unfamiliar words is by recognizing reused roots. A text that demands too many visits to the dictionary too often to read is one anyone will run aground on, and children especially as they strive to build their reading skills.
There is one more example I found that is well worth looking at, because it includes another teaching technique featured in the first two or three spelling books I saw in school. The Pacific Coast Speller by A.W. Patterson, published in san francisco in 1877. Patterson was quite proud to emphasize the role of penmanship in his book, including illustrations of both plain fonts we would expect, and cursive letters in what looks suspiciously like a copperplate hand. The readings are printed in cursive form on the reasonable grounds that students need to learn to recognize words in both those shapes and their printed forms. The result together with the page design is a clear and pleasant to read book, with the font size decreasing in steps as the word length and reading comprehension goes up. The last few pages are full of notable and useful tables that represent a genre of material that soon gets left to the almost sole jurisdiction of dictionaries. The summary of words that take specific prepositions will stand out to readers who have learned at least some french, and from there discovered that prepositions are often counterintuitive in use between the two languages. Preposition usage varies somewhat by english dialect as well, and in school students are typically trained to follow a standard based on some chosen standard, usually a metropolitan one.
All that said, this style of spelling book, typically no more than 250 pages at the most, hard covered, and with the dimensions of a common paperback novel, has basically vanished. The ones I used were in their last years of standard use, and were first printed in the early 1950s. These were tough little books, and then as now schools had difficulties replacing textbooks. Nowadays students are more likely to use softcover workbooks with plenty of bright colours, plenty of illustrations, and at least to begin with minimal etymology and maybe no instruction in cursive script at all.
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