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Henry Bradley on spelling reform

By Anatoly Liberman

Last week I wrote about Henry Bradley’s role in making the OED what it is: a mine of information, an incomparable authority on the English language, and a source of inspiration to lexicographers all over the world. New words appear by the hundred, new methods of research develop, and many attitudes have changed in the realm of etymology since the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, but nothing said in the great dictionary has become useless, even though numerous conjectures and formulations have to be revised.

Unfortunately, the world knows little about those who did all the work. It will probably not be an exaggeration to say that before Katharine Maud Elisabeth Murray wrote a book on her grandfather (1977) and gave it the wonderful title Caught in the Web of Words, few people outside the profession had any notion of who James A. H. Murray, the OED’s senior editor, was. Samuel Johnson’s definition of a lexicographer as a harmless drudge has been trodden to death by authors who live on borrowed wit. Alas, very often the only way to honor a distinguished “drudge” is to publish a short obituary, usually forgotten on the same day. As I mentioned last time, Bradley had better luck: a posthumous volume of his collected works appeared in 1928. I was happy to see his archival picture in my post. Many eminent scholars of that epoch were photographed in the same position, so that they look like venerable old twins, writing desk, glasses, beard and all. Yet this picture is different from the one reproduced in the 1928 book.

How harmless lexicographers are I cannot tell. It seems that, with regard to character, this profession, like any other, is, to use the most popular word of our time, diverse. In any case, lexicographers do not only shuffle index cards and sit at computers, trying to disentangle themselves from the web of words: they have opinions about many things, not related directly to the art of dictionary making. For example, both Bradley and Skeat had non-trivial ideas about spelling reform. Today I will summarize Bradley’s views. Skeat’s turn will come round next Wednesday. To begin with, Bradley, who made his thoughts public in 1913, was an opponent of Simplified Spelling, but he addressed only one side of the reform, namely the proposal that phonetic spelling should be adopted. In making his position clear, he advanced several perfectly valid arguments but overlooked perhaps the most important aspect of the problem.


In one respect, Bradley was decades ahead of his time. He insisted that the written form of Modern English and of any language using letters, far from being a mechanical transcript of oral speech, has a life of its own. This is perfectly true. Much later, the members of the Prague Linguistic Circle, a great school of European structuralism, made the same point. Bradley wrote: “Among peoples in which many persons write and read much more than they speak and hear, the written language tends to develop more or less independently of the spoken language.”  He referred with admiration to the epoch of ideographic writing, when characters were pictures. Even today, he stated, we never read letter by letter, but grasp whole words. So we do, and for this reason we tend to overlook typos. Bradley did not object to many English words being ideograms, or images that have to be memorized and remain independent of the sounds of which they consist. Many scholarly words are familiar to us only from books; they are hardly ever pronounced, so may they preserve their familiar form, he said.

Bradley made his attitude clear: English spelling is an heir to an age-long tradition and should be reformed with care. Sounds, he added, change, and, “when change of pronunciation had made a spoken word ambiguous, the retention of the old unequivocal written form is a great practical convenience. It makes the written language, so far, a better instrument of expression than the spoken language.” Sometimes he was forcing open doors, but in his days there was no theory of orthography, and his point is well taken. Indeed, modern spelling has several (though hardly equally important) functions. For example, it may connect related words, in violation of the phonetic principle. Thus, k- in know ~ knowledge is a nuisance (I was almost tempted to write knuisance), but it should probably be retained by reformers because k- is pronounced in acknowledge (however, I am afraid that aknowledge would be quite enough).

It may be convenient that in some situations we bow to the ideographic principle and have write, wright ~ Wright, and rite. The recent invention of phishing is characteristic: it designates fishing for customers in muddy waters, fishing with an evil flourish (phlourish?). Bradley did not cite rite and its kin, but referred to hole and whole, son and sun, night and knight among numerous other homophones, which are not homographs. (Homophones sound alike; homographs are spelled alike.) He quoted the line Nor burnt the grange, no buss’d the milking-maid (buss means “kiss”) and remarked that Tennyson would not have agreed to write bust for bus’t; hence the virtue of the apostrophe.  When words are spelled differently, we are apt to ascribe different meanings to them. This is again correct. Bradley recalled the case of grey versus gray (see my post on this word): many people, especially artists, when asked about their thoughts on those adjectives, replied that they associate gray and grey with different colors.

Bradley agreed that the spelling of some words should be changed. He admitted that it may be useful to teach children some variant of phonetic spelling before introducing them to letters, for this would make them aware of the sounds they pronounce. But phonetic spelling as the aim of a sweeping reform was unacceptable to him. I am all for simplifying English spelling, but I think Bradley was right—not so much for theoretical as for practical reasons.  The English speaking world will never agree to a revolution, and promoting a hopeless cause is a waste of time. But the most interesting aspect of Bradley’s attack on the reform is his general attitude. He addressed only the needs of those who had already mastered the intricacies of English spelling. Obviously, to someone who learned that choir is quire and a playwright is not a playwrite, even though this person writes plays, any change will be an irritation. But the advocates of the reform have the uneducated in mind. They and Bradley speak at cross-purposes.

Strangely, only one aspect of English spelling worried Bradley: the existence of many words like bow as in make a low bow and bow in bow and arrow. This situation, he thought, had to be changed, even though he could not offer any advice. In his opinion, words that sounded differently had to be spelled differently. “The task of rectifying these anomalies, and of making the many readjustments with their correction will render necessary, will require great ingenuity and thought.” Consequently, homophones may be spelled differently (right, write, wright, Wright, rite), but homographs should be homophones (for this reason, bow1 and bow2, read and its past read, etc. need different visual representations).

The rest of Bradley’s argumentation against the reformers is traditional (English speakers pronounce words differently: for example, lord and laud are not homophones with 90% of English speakers, and so forth) and need not be discussed here, but we will return to it in connection with Skeat’s passionate defense of the reform.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credit: Theodore Roosevelt cartoon via Almanac of Theodore Roosevelt.

Recent Comments

  1. Masha Bell

    Bradley was right to think that English spelling should be reformed with care. If, however, he was not interested in how English spelling inconsistencies impede learning, then his views are really quite irrelevant.

    English abuses the alphabetic principle of representing speech sounds in a regular manner in numerous ways. One of the most blatant is the use of redundant letters which do nothing except make learning to read and write more difficult, such as the use of surplus -e endings (have, give, promise) which mere obscure their useful vowel-lengthening role (gave, drive, surprise).

    There are plenty of good reasons for shedding those, just as was done with the useless letters of ‘hadde, olde, shoppe’ several centuries ago.

  2. […] Bradley, while writing his paper (see the previous post), must have looked upon Skeat as his main opponent. This becomes immediately clear from the […]

  3. […] think some sort of closure is needed after we have heard the arguments for and against spelling reform by two outstanding scholars. Should we do something about English spelling, and, if […]

  4. […] think some sort of closure is needed after we have heard the arguments for and against spelling reform by two outstanding scholars. Should we do something about English spelling, and, if […]

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