Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 8. The Influence of the Spelling Book

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXX. The English Language in America

§ 8. The Influence of the Spelling Book

The spelling book has exerted a powerful influence in America, where so many speakers have learned their language in the school and looked to it as a more compelling authority than the sometimes uncertain tradition of the home. The notion that all the letters of a word are entitled to a certain respect, reinforced by the native slowness of utterance, has led to the retention of unstressed vowels in tapestry, medicine, venison, and produced a secondary stress in such words as secretary, extra-ordinary. The eighteenth-century refinement of “dropping the g” in going, seeing, which still persists as a “smart” pronunciation in England, almost all Americans, though they use it oftener than they could be got to confess, would regard with horror because it violates what seems to them the obvious principle that all the letters should be pronounced. The same state of mind leads to the retention of h in hotel, hostler, reinforces the distinction between w and wh, and induces many to persist in pronouncing an r final and before consonants, in spite of the frankly expressed disgust even of their own countrymen of the East and South. Figure has lost its fine old pronunciation (”figger”) for a spelling pronunciation “figyure.” As for lieutenant, Coxe (1813, p. 36) notes that “lef-tenant prevails most generally, but lew-tenant appears to be becoming more popular”; spelling has now completely carried the day. Out of deference to spelling Americans pronounce a g in physiognomy, recognizance, and sometimes even in suggest.

Enough has been offered in support and illustration of the contention that the roots of American speech lie deep in history. The same might be done for less literary speech. Lowell established the antiquity of much in the Yankee dialect of his Hosea Biglow, and it is to be presumed that research, of which there has been far too little in this field, may establish the antiquity, if nothing more, of many other dialectical peculiarities. There is not an oddity in the “coarse, uncouth dialect” of the Deerslayer and Hurry Harry (The Deerslayer, 1841) that has not its root deep in the soil of the eighteenth and preceding centuries. Cooper has Noah Webster’s own creatur’s, ventur’s, f’erce. Sarpint, desarted, vartue, larned, s’ile, app’inted, expl’ite can all be found recommended in grammars of the eighteenth century. The Oxford Spelling Book (1726) says that sigh is pronounced sithe “according to the common way of speaking,” just as Natty Bumppo pronounces it. His ven’on is still good English. His consait (conceit), ginerous, fri’nd, ’arth sound Irish, but that is as much as to say that they belong to the old, authentic vernacular; they cannot be made to serve as illustrations of any wanton perversity on the part of Americans.