Saturday, January 14, 2006

Belloc in the New Statesman

The upcoming issue of the New Statesman (Jan. 16, 2006) will feature a reprint of Hilaire Belloc's 1930 essay, "On Spelling," as a part of their "Backward Glance" series. An excerpt follows:
Spelling is a great breeder of hatred among the nations and of divisions, misapprehensions, wars - or as our fathers more splendidly put it (to a roll of drums) "Warres"; as also of Dissencyons and Broils. Here myself I confess to the weakness; to see "labour" spelt "labor" makes me see red; and the more openly we admit it the better for international and domestic prose.

Now that this word "labor" should be so abhorrent to the intimate taste of the English mind is a very good reply to the pedants who will defend spelling as a reminder of the origin of words. "Labor" is right. "Labour" is a twisted thing, coming round by way of a dead French usage. You may say, of course, if you like, that even so, it teaches you a little history and that at least such spelling reminds you that the gentry were French before they were English. But if you say this you lie; for it teaches people nothing of the sort, and such few people as hear this truth about the English gentry only fall into a passion and disbelieve it.

Again, who when he comes across a little word "ink" considers that imperial liquid which only the Basileus on his Constantinopolitan throne could use for his most awful signature? If there is one word the spelling of which ought to teach every child the whole story of Europe and of the great Byzantine centre thereof it is the little word "ink" - and it teaches nothing at all. Neither, for that matter, does Constantinopolitan, hard as it is to spell.

No, all that talk of spelling teaching one the past of words and things is nonsense. If there was any sense in it we should spell the Canon of a Cathedral after the same way in which we spell a gun. They are the same word; and yet I suppose there is not one man in 20,000 who would not ridicule the spelling of the Piece with one "n" and of the Ecclesiastic with two. For my part, if I had to give the extra "n" to either I should give it to the cleric, as one of God’s creatures and a hierarch and therefore infinitely nobler than a piece of brute metal.
You can read the rest of the essay here, although only once per day owing to the New Statesman's non-subscriber access policy. My advice to you would be to save the article to Notepad, or some such thing, that you might enjoy it in future times. It does not appear anywhere else on the Internet, as far as I can find.


Cruz y Fierro said...

Thanks a lot for the advise.

Anonymous said...

"When he sees a greengrocer selling 'potato’s' he does not reach for his horsewhip; he merely points out that in the 18th century it would have been perfectly acceptable. Indeed, he says, it is perfectly acceptable in the 21st century because there is no room for ambiguity. Everyone knows it must be a plural for the obvious reason that we know potatoes do not have the ability to possess things."

John Humphry's review of HOW LANGUAGE WORKS by David Crystal in The Times, Jan 14, 2006.