[On other pages, comments in SSS literature, Bulletins 1983-1975.]

Dr Johnson: Comments

in Spelling Progress Bulletins 1972-1961.


Bulletin Fall 1972.

 Factors which have hitherto led to Failure of Attempts to Reform English Spelling, by William J. Reed.
The most eminent scholars in Britain and America have generally been in favour of spelling reform. There seems to be only one noteworthy exception: Richard Grant White in Everyday English, 1880, pp 512, (a sequel to Words & Their Uses, 1871). Here is his summary of 21 objections to spelling reform, in Chp. XVI, with my comments.

(15) "Johnson's dictionary ... merely recorded a spelling which had been established for fifty years. Approximately true.

Bulletin Winter 1971.

 Letter. Miss S. G. Stewart.
"What can I do about it?, when hundreds of reformers before me have failed to make a dent in Dr. Samuel Johnson's erratic spelling!"

Education, if it ever expects to make any real progress, must throw off the shackles of this Johnsonian handicap, and be modernized like everything around us.

Bulletin Fall 1971.

 The Law of the Letter, by Louis Foley.
Not until a generation later did Samuel Johnson bring out his Dictionary, which settled - in most cases once for all - the spellings of many words which had previously fluctuated between different forms about equally acceptable. Naturally we may not always agree that Johnson's choice was wise, but it did largely decide the matter.

Bulletin Fall 1971.

 The History of Spelling Reform in Russia, by John E. Chappell.
So, at about the time Samuel Johnson was codifying English spelling in its presently unphonetic form, Russia was achieving its own sort of modest alphabetic reform. It was not a full-scale orthographic reform, but the inconsistencies which remained were considerably fewer in number than those in Johnsonian English.

Bulletin Fall 1971.

 Something of What Reading Means, by Louis Foley.
"The purpose of a writer," said Samuel Johnson, "is to be read."

Bulletin Summer 1971.

 What Must We Change? by Gil Stevenson*
So accustomed are we to the rigid standards laid down by Samuel Johnson and his successors that in proposed spelling reform, we think the same way. We want to replace one rigid standard with another.

The last thing we need is a phonemic Sam Johnson.

Simplified Spelling, Phonetic Alphabets, and their application to the teaching of reading, by Betty Lou Allen Iles.

Bulletin Fall 1970.

 Chapter II.
Wm. Reed criticized the insistence on holding on to an antiquated system of spelling, almost entirely that of Dr. Johnson's dictionary of 1755. He believed that spelling should have changed to keep up with pronunciation in the ensuing two centuries.

Bulletin Fall 1970.

 Chapter IV.
Samuel Johnson. In 1775 Dr. Johnson published a dictionary that has affected spelling up to the present day. Up to the time of its compilation, English spelling had been very unsettled, as evidenced by almost any manuscript of the time. Often within one manuscript a single word may have been spelled two or three different ways, even by "scholars." William Shakespeare seemed in doubts as to the correct way to spell his own name, spelling it variously: Shakspere, Shackspere, Shakespeare, and Shaksper. [6]

Into this sea of uncertainty waded Johnson, determined to do something to still the turmoil. He did. In some cases real progress was made; in others he simply compounded the errors already existing. A man of letters who leaned toward the classics, he preferred spellings that indicated Greek or Latin origins, whether they were or not so derived. Also he was inconsistent - he did not always follow through on spellings of words that were similar. Henry Gallup Paine later credited Johnson with blocking progress in spelling reform. He wrote:

At a time when English spelling was still unsettled, when etimology was largely based on guesswork, and English filology was in its infancy, his literary reputation gave to his dictionary... an "authority" far beyond that which it - or, indeed, any dictionary compiled at that time - could possibly merit.

Thru whim or indolence he approved in certain instances spellings that were inconsistent with those he adopted for other words of the same general class. Thus, while retaining the Latin p in receipt, he left it cut of deceit; he speld (sic) deign one way, and disdain another; he speld uphill but downhil, muckhill but dunghil, instill but distil, inthrall but disinthral. ... In other instances his carelessness permitted him to deviate in the text from the spellings given in the vocabulary. [7]

In spite of its imperfections, the dictionary was accepted as "authoritative" and "correct," and the efforts of later, more qualified scholars did little to eliminate, as Paine put it,
a vast number of unhistorical, illogical, and unscientific forms. Words that have greatly altered in pronunciation since Johnson's day continue to be speld as he speld them; and the change and growth of air flexible language has failed to be recorded by an orthography that owes much of its inflexibility to his influence. [8]

Bulletin Summer 1970.

 Letter to The Teacher by William Reed.
Experiments with regular teaching media, such as i.t.a. and colour factor methods, have shown that children learn quicker, better and more happily with a regular spelling than they do with Samuel Johnson's very inconsistent T.O.

Bulletin Fall 1969.

 The Future of English as THE World Language, by Yoshisaburo Okakura.
"The wisdom of our ancestors is in the arrangement; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for." (Dr. Samuel Johnson).

Bulletin Summer 1967.

 the oeldham reederz, by Maurice Harrison reviewed by Helen Bowyer.
[In 1948], in a letter to Prof. Daniel Jones, Bernard Shaw recalled this bit of evidence of the depth and extent of that prejudice and fear [of spelling reform].
"As to teaching children, I urged a Minister of Education to encourage them to spell phonemically, just as they speak, thus enabling the teacher to detect their mispronunciations and correct them. He replied that the merest hint of such heresy would banish him from public life. It is safer, nowaday, to be anti-Christ than anti-Johnson."

Bulletin Winter 1966.

 Will the Real Dr. Johnson Please Stand Up? John E. Chappell.

Bulletin Summer 1966.

 The Advantages of an International Language, by R. E. Zachrisson.
No other country has been so unfortunate in its spelling as England. Those who were primarily responsible, i.e. the XIVth and XVth century scribes of the Royal Chancery of London, the early printers, and last but not least, Dr. SAMUEL JOHNSON, showed a denseness and lack of adaptability in matters orthographical which led to the wholesale adoption of foreign words, especially from French. The spelling of these new words was seldom changed to conform to the rules of the native words.

Bulletin Spring 1966.

 Phonetic Spelling - according to the Russians, G. B. S. and spelling reformers, by Abraham Tauber.
Although Shaw stressed the economic significance of a phonetic spelling reform in easing the "alphabetic burden" and in making "life more abundant," he deplored the fact that because of Samuel "Johnson's absurd etymological bad spelling," we are "turning our children out of our elementary schools after nine years' daily instruction unable to speak or write English well enough to qualify them for clerical or professional appointments!"

Bulletin Spring 1966.

 Let's Have Effective Phonics, by Mildred Vandenburgh.
Modern English became established with the advent of printing. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1775) stabilized it. But Johnson performed a disservice to students learning to read and spell by placing a b in such words as doubt and debt. Our dictionary now has more than a million words. Over half are of Latin, Greek; and French origin. The rest are from all over the world.

Bulletin Summer 1965.

 Reading Without Dick and Jane by Arther S. Trace, Jr. challenged by Helen Bowyer.
His attitude is all the more amazing in that the spelling he holds sacrosanct isn't very hoary. As many of our readers know it goes back only to these latter 1700's when the dictionary of the esteemed Dr. Johnson began the standardization of the thousands of variant spellings of that day into such ear-eye incongruity as that of our present whom, boom, tomb, flume, rheum.

Bulletin Spring 1965.

 The Two Englishes, by William Barkley.
This written form of the English language, grotesque as it is, served well enough when English literature was an affair of the literati and not of the common people, an affair of the polite salon of the 18th century, the circle of Dr. Johnson. In fact, for them, this spelling had a great advantage. It kept the working man and the working boy in the humble station to which God had called him.

So when our grandfathers in 1870 decreed that education should be universal and when the Tory Government in 1892 decided that it should be free, they did not open the door to the working boy. They only unlocked the door. It is still a heavy door and annually even in peace-time, when the routine of schooling is not disturbed by bombs and requisitioning of school property, many scores of thousands of our children never really pass through that door because it is jammed by the spelling-book of Dr. Johnson.

It is convenient rather than accurate to blame the celebrated doctor. In truth the spellings had become stereotyped or frozen in the hundred years preceding the publication of his dictionary. But that dictionary was until the middle of last century accepted as canon law, inviolable, sacred, unerring and unalterable, to a degree which is a high tribute to the Great Bear's force of character if it be but little recommendation of his or his admirers' sense of exact scholarship. It was Johnson who explained that sirloin is so called because a joint was knighted by an English king in good humour. But we know that sirloin is merely French surlogne - the upper part of the loin. In his dictionary he defined the pastern (which is the instep) as the knee of a horse; when questioned by a doubting lady how he came to do that, he replied: "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance. So we find him respelling the word ake as ache, believing it to be from the Greek word achos; whereas it is Anglo-Saxon, and properly spelled with a k - a spelling which he denounced as primitive and only adopted by versifiers for the sake of rhyme.

The truth, of course, is that Johnson was widely read in the classics but that he and all other scholars until the middle of last century were in utter ignorance of the Anglo-Saxon and Old English manuscripts mouldering in the University libraries, so ignorant that the childish fabrications of Thomas Chatterton imposed on them all. But his dictionary had immense weight in maintaining the style of spelling which he accepted for the most part without question and indeed with positive approval. His dictionary was the basis of elementary teaching throughout last century. An abridgement of it was the handbook of the spelling-bees which sprang up in the eighties and nineties to enable the illiterate parents to keep pace with the newfangled system under which all their children without exception were compelled at school to learn their letters.

So we have not gone quite all the way with the Chinese, although we have followed them faithfully some distance along the path of literary exclusiveness. The proof of this resemblance will be found in a remarkable passage of Dr. Johnson's Tour of the Western Islands. In the course of that journey, he arrived in Edinburgh and took occasion to visit a "philosophical curiosity which no other city has to show." This was a school for the deaf and dumb kept by Mr. Braidwood, a pioneer in this branch of welfare work. Dr. Johnson observes:

"It will readily be supposed by those that consider this subject, that Mr. Braidwood's scholars spell accurately. Orthography is vitiated, among such as learn first to speak and then to write, by imperfect notions of the relation between letters and vocal utterances. But to those students every character is of equal importance. For letters are to them not symbols of names but of things. When they write they do not represent a sound but delineate a form."

There you have the root of the whole matter. "The deaf and dumb spell English accurately because when they write, they do not represent a sound."

With this passage the learned doctor concludes his account of his tour. I may picture him pondering at that conclusion, raising the mighty pen to add a final note, but shrinking from straining too far the allegiance of his devoted readers, "Dare I?" we may imagine him soliloquising. "My conscience urges me forward; my good sense holds me back." For the conclusion which I imagine that he itched to pen was simply this: "For the easy and proper assimilation of the words in my Dictionary, it would be advantageous for the whole nation to become deaf and dumb."

For my part, I bemoan the fact that events so frequently do not occur in their proper order or relationship. The Germans have burned the house in London in which Dr. Johnson compiled his dictionary. Now I would keep the house as a monument to that robust character and trenchant writer; but I would burn his Dictionary.

Is it not odd that we have made no inquiry to see if our spelling cannot be brought more into conformity with modern requirements ever since the days of Dr. Johnson who petrified and stereotyped the spelling.

Bulletin Winter 1964.

 Relativity and Spelling: Two Departures from Logic, by John E. Chappell.
Certainly, the lesson is not that the old spelling of Samuel Johnson must be followed lest we depart into confusion with a new revision. On the contrary, Johnson's system was itself a departure from the basic rationale of writing, that it should reflect as closely as possible the spoken language (just as relativity is a departure from the basic rationale of nature). Johnson's specific objective was to standardize spelling, and he chose the conservative course: to reflect the most frequent, current usage. He thus preformed a great service which improved communication - but a greater service is to be done by those who standardize spelling, not in terms of a "usage" which has remained inflexible in the face of centuries of natural development of the spoken language, but instead in terms of a logical and phonetic system.

Bulletin Summer 1964.

 Maximizing Simplicity and Similarity with General Suitability of Standard Print Forms, by Sir James Pitman
The printing of the Bible in English - not Dr. Johnson - made spelling inevitably, and most valuably, conventional and uniform.

Bulletin December 1963.

 Why Johnny Could Spell, by G. W. Stevenson.
The language simply got ahead of its spelling. Classical scholars with their passion for Latinizing everything also wrought much of the damage. The affectation of retaining foreign spellings has done its share of harm. Grammarians, etymologists, and lexicographers like Samuel Johnson did the rest. They tried to standardize our spelling along etymological, rather than phonetic, lines, and many of our etymologies are phony, at that.

Bulletin October 1962.

 Letter. Maurice Harrison.
Misguided latinists and self-important Dr. Johnsons as well as others less blameworthy just made mistakes which have been perpetuated, e.g. "ghost", "sovereign", "sylvan".

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[On other pages, comments in SSS literature, Bulletins 1983-1975.]