United by uncommon lexicography

May 17, 2011

A few centuries ago, English spelling was a far looser and more inconsistent affair than it is today. Dictionaries were few, their contents patchy. Shakespeare’s name, even by his own hand, serves to illustrate the degree of variation. Gradually, a good deal of standardisation came about, particularly in the written language, but different standards apply in different places, and usage remains much colo(u)red by variety.

A lot of the discussion over this variety concerns the differences between AmE and BrE spellings (many of which owe to the influence of Noah Webster). Ireland uses BrE spelling, for the most part, as do Australia and New Zealand (Burchfield’s home country), while Canada mixes American and British conventions. Wikipedia has a long, heavily footnoted page on transatlantic spelling differences; for analysis of these and more general differences, I recommend Lynne Murphy’s separated by a common language blog, named after G. B. Shaw’s famous quip.

Are AmE and BrE spelling differences reversible? More qualified minds than mine have entertained the idea of bringing the spelling systems closer together. It’s a very human urge to want to tidy the messy edges of a language. We want to fix, if only in part, an imperfect system. Efficiency is one of the forces behind linguistic change, whether it is consciously directed at a text before us or emerges spontaneously and gradually over time.

Lexicographer Robert Burchfield was no stranger to linguistic change: his revised third edition of Fowler’s iconic usage dictionary was criticised for its largely descriptive approach; and as editor of the Supplement to the OED, he received death threats over some of his decisions. So he was more aware than most people of the passions, for better and worse, that words can inspire.

Tucked away at the back of his book The English Language (1985) is a curious endnote about spelling reform that’s worth reproducing in full:

It would not be a difficult exercise for British people to become accustomed to final -or in all the relevant words (honour/honor, labour/labor, etc.), or for Americans to become used to –our. Similarly it should be possible to come to an agreement about the spelling of such words as marvellous/marvelous, travelling/traveling, and kidnapped/kidnaped (the British forms given first in each case). More difficult (it seems to me) would be the resolution of oe/e in oesophagus/esophagus, etc., ae/e in aesthetic/esthetic, etc., and ph/f in sulphur/sulfur, etc. But a ‘trade-off’, if it could be achieved, in such relatively minor areas of spelling would help to bring the written forms of British and American English much closer together. In 1968 Dr Philip Gove (editor of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary)* and I lightheartedly discussed the possibility of making an approach along these lines to our respective governments but it came to nothing in the end.

Much as I admire Burchfield’s optimism, I think it’s very unlikely that even the more modest shifts could ever be engineered. If changes along the lines Burchfield describes were to be introduced systematically, there might be uproar – or, at any rate, furious brow-furrowing, ferocious levels of grumbling, and further inconsistencies.

Not only do people become accustomed and attached to words and particular spellings and usages, but they positively fetishize (and fetishise) them – often to the extent of finding legitimate variants objectionable.

But it’s tantalising to imagine the discussions Burchfield and Gove had about this. How light-hearted were they? What sort of approach to their governments was envisaged? Were any records kept of possible “trade-offs” – lists made on café napkins, degrees of difficulty calculated, that sort of thing? My curiosity about this is unlikely to be satisfied.


* A fiercely contentious reference book which I wrote about here.

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The enormity of Webster’s Third

November 4, 2010

“I find righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language.” – Lionel Trilling

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, first published in 1961, was among the most contentious reference books of its time. It signalled a clear editorial shift from its 1934 predecessor, most controversially in that it empirically described conventional English usage more than it prescribed ‘correct’ usage (as Webster’s Second had done). Where W2 had liberally applied labels like erroneous, incorrect, improper, vulgar, and ludicrous, W3 preferred to label words as substandard and nonstandard, and did so only infrequently.

The response to its publication was mixed, to put it mildly. Some luminaries accused Webster’s of abandoning its authority; others denounced the book’s permissiveness (unlike W2, it included many taboo words; this remains a sticky subject). Wilson Follett described its makers as “patient and dedicated saboteurs”, declaring their work “a scandal and a disaster” and fulminating that it had “thrust upon us a dismaying assortment of the questionable, the perverse, the unworthy, and the downright outrageous”. Jacques Barzun said that he didn’t read it all, but that he laughed at least once on every page he read.

The New York Times advised its staff to keep referring to W2, feeling that its successor could “only accelerate the deterioration of the mother tongue”. The National Review found W3 “big, expensive and ugly” and said it had “only one standard – inclusiveness”. The Journal of the American Bar Association called it “a flagrant example of lexicographic irresponsibility”, while the Richmond News Leader said that no school or library was compelled to buy it,* and that “no English teacher need respect its corruptions” [via]. Dwight Macdonald, in an influential savaging in the New Yorker, called it a “massacre” and wondered “where completeness ends and madness begins”. He said it had “made a sop of the solid structure of English, and encouraged the language to eat up himself”.

Solid structure? Himself?! At this point I need to remind myself that yes, he was writing about the English language.

A few critics were less caustic and appreciated W3’s non-judgemental approach and modern linguistic sense. (Though they generally had reservations too.) Mario Pei noted its “many commendable features”, predicting that it would “enjoy a healthy life, even if not too prolonged”, while Robert Burchfield described it as “a bold landmark fashioned to meet the needs of the present”. Ethel Strainchamps praised the dictionary in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch review, then wrote a follow-up article that addressed the shortcomings of some of the criticism. She believed the attacks suggested a “cultural lag”, about which more below.

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