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Society for Pure English, Tract 2, on English Homophones
by Robert Bridges
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However that may be, it is a lamentable situation that our high-salaried Board of Education, composed of the best trained intelligence of the country, should not be allowed to exercise its discretion efficiently. The people, no doubt, cannot be agreed as to the principles on which they desire to be educated, whether political, official, or religious, and they deprecate official control in such matters. Every one objecting to some principle, they consent in requiring that the central authority should have no principle at all; but this lack of principle should not be extended to paralyse action in questions that demand expert knowledge and judgement, such as this question of phonetic teaching—and it shows that the public by grudging authority to their own officers may only fall under a worse tyranny, which they will suffer just because it has no authority.]

In the preceding section Mr. Jones' dictionary was taken as authority for the actual condition of Southern English pronunciation. It must now be considered in its other aspect, namely as the authoritative phonetic interpretation of our speech; my contention being that it is a wrong and mischievous interpretation.

It is difficult to keep these two questions quite apart. The first, which was dealt with in Section 5, was that Southern English is actively productive of homophones. This present Section 6 is contending that the mischief is being encouraged and propagated by the phoneticians, and Mr. Jones' books are taken as an example of their method.

[Sidenote: Fault of Mr. Jones' method.]

The reason why the work of these phoneticians is so mischievous is that they have chosen too low a standard of pronunciation.

The defence that they would make would be something like this.

They might argue with some confidence, and not without a good show of reason, that the actual 'vernacular' talk of the people is the living language of any country: they would allege that a spoken language is always changing, and always will change; that the actual condition of it is the only scientific, and indeed the only possible basis for any system of tuition; and that it is better to be rather in advance of change than behind it, since the changes proceed inevitably by laws which education has no power to resist, nay, so inevitably that science can in some measure foresee the future.

This would, I suppose, fairly represent Mr. Jones' contention. Indeed, he plainly asserts that his work is merely a record of existing facts, and he even says that he chose Southern English because it is most familiar and observable, and therefore capable of providing him with sufficient phenomena: and he might say that what I call 'low' in his standard is only the record of a stage of progression which I happen to dislike or have not nearly observed. And yet the argument is full of fallacies: and the very position that he assumes appears to me to be unsound. It is well enough to record a dialect, nor will any one grudge him credit for his observation and diligence, but to reduce a dialect to theoretic laws and then impose those laws upon the speakers of it is surely a monstrous step. And in this particular instance the matter is complicated by the fact that Southern English is not truly a natural dialect; Mr. Jones himself denotes it as P.S.P.=Public School Pronunciation, and that we know to be very largely a social convention dependent on fashion and education, and inasmuch as it is a product of fashion and education it is not bound by the theoretical laws which Mr. Jones would attribute to it; while for the same reason it is unfortunately susceptible of being affected by them, if they should be taught with authority. These phoneticians would abuse a false position which they have unwarrantably created. This Southern English, this P.S.P., is a 'fashionable' speech, fashionable that is in two senses; and Mr. Jones would fashion it.

[Sidenote: judged by practical effects.]

But I wish to put my case practically, and, rather than argue, I would ask what are the results of learning English on Mr. Jones' system? What would be the condition of a man who had learnt in this way?

[Sidenote: His three styles.]

I shall assume that the pupil has learnt his pronunciation from the dictionary, the nature of which is now known to my readers: but they should also know that Mr. Jones recognizes and teaches three different styles, which he calls the A, B, and C styles, 'A, the pronunciation suitable for recitation or reading in public; B, the pronunciation used in careful conversation, or reading aloud in private; and C, the pronunciation used in rapid conversation.'

In a polemic against Mr. Jones his adversary has therefore to combat a dragon with three heads, and the heroic method would be to strike all three of them off at one blow. To effect this it seems to me that one has only to remark that a system which is forced to teach a dialect [a dialect, observe, not a language] in three forms where one is sufficient, is ipso facto condemned. This objection I will establish presently; at present I am content to confine my attention to one head, for I maintain that in practice those who will take the trouble to learn three forms of one speech must be a negligible number; the practical pupils will generally be content to master one, and that will, no doubt, be the highly recommended style B, and its corresponding dictionary; they will rule out A and C as works of supererogation; and indeed those would be needless if B were satisfactory.

[Sidenote: In deliberate repititions.]

So, then, we are asking what is the condition of a man who has learned the dictionary standard?

(1) In common talk if we speak so indistinctly as not to be understood, we repeat our sentence with a more careful articulation. As Sweet used to say, the only security against the decay of language through careless articulation into absolute unintelligibility is the personal inconvenience of having to repeat your words when you are indistinctly heard. 'What' leaps out from the dictionary with a shout to the rescue of all his fellows. And when you have experienced this warcry 'what? what?' oftener than you like, you will raise the standard of your pronunciation (just as you would raise your voice to a deaf listener) merely to save yourself trouble, even though you were insensible to the shame of the affront.

[Sidenote: In asseveration.]

And this more careful articulation obtains also in all asseveration. A speaker who wishes to provoke attention to any particular statement or sentiment will speak the words by which he would convey it more slowly and with more careful articulation than the rest of his utterance.

Under both these common conditions the man who has learned only the vernacular of Mr. Jones' phonetics has no resource but to emphasize with all their full horrors words like seprit, sin'kerpate, din'ersty, ernoin't, mis'ernthrope, sym'perthy, mel'ernkerly, mel'erdy, serspe'ct, erno'y, &c.[24], which when spoken indistinctly in careless talk may pass muster, but when accurately articulated are not only vulgar and absurd, but often unrecognizable.

[Footnote 24: Writing er, always unaccented, for [e].]

[Sidenote: In public speaking.]

(2) Again, public speakers use a pronunciation very different from that in the dictionary, and Mr. Jones admits this and would teach it sepritly as 'style A'. But it is wrong to suppose that its characteristics are a mere fashion or a pedantic regard for things obsolete, or a nice rhetorical grace, though Mr. Jones will have it to be mostly artificial, 'due to well-established, though perhaps somewhat arbitrary rules laid down by teachers of elocution'. The basis of it is the need of being heard and understood, together with the experience that style B will not answer that purpose. The main service, no doubt, of a teacher of elocution is to instruct in the management of the voice (clergyman's sore throat is a recognized disease of men who use their voice wrongly); but a right pronunciation is almost equally necessary and important.

Now if public speakers really have to learn something different from their habitual pronunciation, Mr. Jones is right in making a separate style of it, and he is also justified in the degraded forms of his style B, for those are what these speakers have to unlearn; nor is any fault to be found with his diligent and admirable analysis.

These two practical considerations expose the situation sufficiently: we may now face the triple-tongued dragon and exhibit how a single whiff of common sense will tumble all his three heads in the dust.

[Sidenote: The natural right method.]

The insideoutness, topsy-turviness, and preposterousness of Mr. Jones' method is incredible. In the natural order of things, children would be taught a careful 'high standard' articulation as a part of their elemental training, when in their pliant age they are mastering the co-ordinations which are so difficult to acquire later. Then when they have been educated to speak correctly, their variation from that full pronunciation is a natural carelessness, and has the grace of all natural behaviour, and it naturally obeys whatever laws have been correctly propounded by phoneticians; since it is itself the phenomena from which those laws are deduced. This carelessness or ease of speech will vary naturally in all degrees according to occasion, and being dependent on mood and temper will never go wrong. It is warm and alive with expression of character, and may pass quite unselfconsciously from the grace of negligence to the grace of correctness, for it has correctness at command, having learned it, and its carelessness has not been doctored and bandaged; and this ease of unselfconsciousness is one of the essentials of human intercourse: a man talking fluently does not consider what words he will use, he does not often remember exactly what words he has used, nor will he know at all how he pronounces them; his speech flows from him as his blood flows when his flesh is wounded.

[Sidenote: What Mr. Jones would substitute.]

What would Mr. Jones' system substitute for this natural grace? In place of a wide scale of unconscious variation he provides his pupils with 'three styles', three different fixed grades of pronunciation,[25] which they must apply consciously as suits the occasion. At dinner you might be called on to talk to a bishop across the table in your best style B, or to an archbishop even in your A1, when you were talking to your neighbours in your best C.—Nature would no doubt assert herself and secure a fair blend; but none the less, the three styles are plainly alternatives and to some extent mutually exclusive, whereas natural varieties are harmoniously interwoven and essentially one.

[Footnote 25: Of course Mr. Jones knows that these are not and cannot be fixed. He must often bewail in secret the exigencies of his 'styles'.]

Argumentative analogies are commonly chosen because they are specious rather than just; but there is one here which I cannot forbear. If a system like Mr. Jones' were adopted in teaching children to write, we should begin by collecting and comparing all the careless and hasty handwritings of the middle class and deduce from them the prevalent forms of the letters in that state of degradation. From this we should construct in our 'style B' the alphabet which we should contend to be the genuine natural product of inevitable law, and hallowed by 'general use', and this we should give to our children to copy and learn, relegating the more carefully formed writing to a 'style A, taught by writing masters', explaining that its 'peculiarities' were 'modifications produced involuntarily as the result of writing more slowly or endeavouring to write more distinctly', &c.[26]

[Footnote 26: Phonetic Transcriptions of English, by D. Jones, 1907, Introd., p. v, 'The peculiarities of Style A as compared with Style B are especially marked. These differences are partly natural, i.e. modifications produced involuntarily as the result of speaking more slowly or of endeavouring to speak more distinctly, and partly artificial, i.e. modifications due to the well-established though perhaps somewhat arbitrary rules laid down by teachers of elocution,' &c., and Mr. Jones is quite right in complaining that his pupils make fools of themselves when they try to speak slower.]

I believe that there has never been in Europe a fluent script so beautiful and legible as that of our very best English writers of to-day. But their aesthetic mastery has come from loving study of the forms that conscious artistry had perfected, and through a constant practice in their harmonious adaptation.

Finally, it may be worth while to raise the question how it can be that a man of Mr. Jones' extreme competence in his science should commit himself to a position that appears so false and mischievous.

[Sidenote: Reason of present discredit of phonetics.]

The unpopularity of phonetics is not wholly undeserved: from its early elements, the comfortably broad distinctions of convincing importance, it has progressed to a stage of almost infinite differentiations and subtleties; and when machinery was called in to dispose of controversy, a new and unsuspected mass of baffling detail was revealed.

The subject cannot be treated parenthetically, nor am I capable of summarizing it; but it seems clear that the complexity of the science has driven off public sympathy and dashed the confidence of scholars, withdrawing thereby some of the wholesome checks that common sense might else have imposed on its practical exponents. The experts thus left to themselves in despair of any satisfactory solution, are likely enough to adopt the simplifications most agreeable to their present ideas, and measure the utility of such simplifications by the accidental conveniences of their own science, independently of other considerations.

[Sidenote: The practical difficulty.]

The main practical difficulty which they have to meet in providing a reasonably satisfactory phonetic script or type for the English language is this, that the symbols of their alphabet must not greatly exceed in number those of the literary alphabet, whereas the sounds that they have to indicate do greatly exceed.

This discrepancy might be overcome by the use of what are called 'diacritical' marks, but here the universal prejudice against accents in English is forbidding, and it is true that even if printers did not rebel against them, they are yet distasteful and deterrent to readers out of all proportion to their complexity.

[Sidenote: The result of Mr. Jones' solution.]

[Sidenote: The true condition of modified vowels, &c.]

Mr. Jones no doubt allowed himself as much liberty as he could venture on, but to what has this paucity and choice of symbols led him? It has led him to assert and teach that an unaccented vowel in English retains no trace of its proper quality[27]: that is, that you cannot, or at least do not, modify an unaccented vowel; you either pronounce a, e, o, u, distinctly, or you must substitute an alien sound, generally 'er', or in some consonantal positions a short 'i'. Thus we have parersite, oblerquy, ikse'pt, ikspre'ss, iqua'ter, peri'sherner, perli'ce, spe'sherlize, pin'erkl, Mes'esperta'mier, &c., and one of his examples, which he advances with the confidence of complete satisfaction, is the name Margate, which he asserts is pronounced Margit,[28] that is, with a short i. The vowel is no doubt short, and its shortness is enforced by its being closed by a t: but it is not a short i, it is an extremely hastened and therefore disguised form of the original and proper diphthong ei (heard in bait and gate); and the true way to write it phonetically would be ei, with some diacritical sign to show that it was obscured. There is no long vowel or diphthong in English which cannot in some positions be pronounced short; and when hurried over between accents it is easy to see that there is nothing, except an obstacle of consonants, which can prevent the shortening of any syllable; for long and short are relative, and when you are speaking very slowly 'short' sounds actually occupy as much time as 'long' sounds do when you are speaking quickly. You have therefore only to suppose a speed of utterance somewhat out of scale; and this is just what happens. In the second syllable of Margate the diphthong is hastened and obscured, but a trace of its quality remains, and will more distinctly appear as you speak the word slower. And so in the case of unaccented short vowels that are hurried over between the accents in talking, they are disguised and lose quality, but in good speakers a trace of the original sound will remain (as in parasite and obloquy), where, on the ground of indistinctness, Mr. Jones introduces the symbol of an alien unrelated sound, a sound, that is, which is distinctly wrong instead of being indistinctly right: and this fault vitiates all his books. Economy of symbols has led him to perversity of pronunciation.[29]

[Footnote 27: I do not deny that he allows some exceptions: and these, few as they are, concede the principle for which I contend.]

[Footnote 28: His own words are, 'Thus Margate trippers now generally speak of Ma:geit instead of Ma:git: teachers in London elementary schools now often say eksept for iksept 'except', ekstr[e][o]:din[er]ri for ikstr[o]dnri 'extraordinary', often for [o]:fn 'often'. We feel that such artificialities cannot but impair the beauty of the language.' Dictionary, 1st edition, Preface, p.v.]

[Footnote 29: In the first edition of the Dictionary [1913] [e] has only one interpretation, the illustration being the a of about. In the Phonetic Transcriptions [1907] it was the er of over, but in the new Dictionary [1917] [e] has three interpretations with the following explanation: '[e] varies noticeably according to its position in the word and in the sentence. In final positions it is often replaced (sic) by "[Greek: L]" [=u of up], in other positions its quality varies considerably according to the nature of the surrounding sounds; the variations extend from almost "[Greek: L]" to the half-close mixed position. Three different values may be heard in the words china, cathedral: in the latter word the second "[e]" has a lower and more retracted tongue-position than the first [e].'

The value of [e] when Mr. Jones first substituted it for a disguised unaccented vowel, was that the speaker might know what sound he had to produce. It was wrong, but it was definite. Mr. Jones would now make it less wrong by making it less definite. That is, in the place of something distinctly wrong we are offered something which has an offchance of being nearly right: but as it has entirely ousted and supplanted the original vowel I do not see how there is any means of interpreting it correctly. The er of over is a definite sound, and to print it where it was out of place was a definite error—to give it three interpretations makes it cover more ground: but its usurpations are still indefensible.]

7. ON THE CLAIM THAT SOUTHERN ENGLISH HAS TO REPRESENT ALL BRITISH SPEECH.

On this head certainly I can write nothing worth reading. Whether there is any one with so wide a knowledge of all the main different forms of English now spoken, their historic development and chief characteristics, as to be able to summarize the situation convincingly, I do not know. I can only put a few of the most evident phenomena in the relation in which they happen to affect my judgement.

And first of all I put the small local holding which the Southern English dialect can claim on the map of the British Empire. It is plain that with such a narrow habitat it must show proof that it possesses very great relative superiorities before it can expect to be allowed even a hearing: and such a claim must lie in its superiority in some practical or ideal quality: further than that it might allege that it was the legitimate heir of our great literature, and in possession of the citadel, and in command of an extensive machinery for its propaganda.

Now, in my opinion it could not establish any one of these claims except the last, namely its central position and wide machinery.

I do not pretend to foresee the future, nor even to desire it in any particular form; but it seems to me probable that if the 'P.S.P.' continues its downward course as indicated by Mr. Jones, then, unless everything else worsens with it, so that it might maintain its relative flotation in a general confusion, it must fall to be disesteemed and repudiated, and give place to one or more other dialects which, by having better preserved the distinctions of pronunciation, will be not only more convenient vehicles of intercourse, but more truthful and intelligible interpreters of our great literature; and I believe this to be well illustrated by the conditions of our 'S.E.' homophones: and that something better should win the first place, I hold to be the most desirable of possible events. But perhaps our 'S.E.' is not yet so far committed to the process of decay as to be incapable of reform, and the machinery that we use for penetration may be used as well for organizing a reform and for enforcing it. There is as much fashion as inevitable law in our 'P.S.P.' or 'S.E.' talk, and if the fashion for a better, that is a more distinct and conservative, pronunciation should set in, then at the cost of a little temporary self-consciousness we might, in one generation, or at least in two, have things again very much as they were in Shakespeare's day. It is true that men are slaves to the naturalness of what is usual with them, and unable to imagine that the actual living condition of things in their own time is evanescent: nor do even students and scholars see that in the Elizabethan literature we have a perdurable gigantic picture which, among all stages of change, will persistently reassert itself, while any special characteristics of our own day, which seem so unalterable to us, are only a movement, which may no doubt be determining the next movement, but will leave no other trace of itself, at least no more than the peculiarities of the age of Queen Anne have left to us.

I have been told that the German experts believe that the Cockney form of English will eventually prevail. This surprising opinion may rest on scientific grounds, but it seems to me that Cockney speech will be too universally unintelligible; and, should it actively develop, will be so out of relation with other and older forms of English as to be unable to compete.

I wish and hope that the subject of this section may provoke some expert to deal thoroughly with it. The strong feeling in America, in Australia, and in New Zealand, to say nothing of the proud dialects of our own islands, is in support of the common-sense view of the matter which I have here expressed.

SUMMARY

When I consented to write this inaugural paper, I knew that my first duty would be to set an example of the attitude which the Society had proposed to take and hopes to maintain.

This Society was called into existence by the widespread interest in linguistic subjects which is growing on the public, and by the lamentable lack of any organized means for focussing opinion. It responds to that interest, and would supply that want.[30] There is no doubt that public opinion is altogether at sea in these matters, and its futility is betrayed and encouraged by the amateurish discussions and obiter dicta that are constantly appearing and reappearing in the newspapers. Our belief is that if facts and principles were clearly stated and thoroughly handled by experts, it would then be possible not only to utilize this impulse and gratify a wholesome appetite, but even to attract and organize a consensus of sound opinion which might influence and determine the practice of our best writers and speakers.

[Footnote 30: Neither the British Academy nor the Academic Committee of the Royal Society of Literature has shown any tendency to recognize their duties and responsibilities in this department.]

The Society absolutely repudiates the assumption of any sort of Academic authority or orthodoxy; it relies merely on statement of fact and free expression of educated opinion to assure the verdict of common sense; and it may illustrate this method to recapitulate the various special questions that have arisen from following it in this particular discussion concerning English homophones.

The main points are of course

(1) The actual condition of the English language with respect to homophones. [This is an example of statement of fact.]

(2) The serious nature of their inconvenience.

(3) The evidence that we are unconsciously increasing them.

(4) The consequent impoverishment of the language.

From these considerations the question must arise

(5) Whether it is not our duty to take steps to prevent the continuance and growth of this evil. [To give an example—the word mourn. If we persist in mispronouncing this word as morn, and make no distinction between mourning and morning, then that word will perish. We cannot afford to lose it: it is a good example of our best words, as may be seen by looking it up in the concordances to Shakespeare and the Bible: and what is true of this word is true of hundreds of others.]

(6) It is pointed out that our fashionable Southern English dialect, our Public School Pronunciation, is one chief source of this damage.

(7) Attention is called to the low standard of pronunciation adopted by our professional phoneticians, and to the falsity of their orthodox teaching.

(8) The damage to the language which is threatened by their activity is exposed.

(9) It is questioned how far it is possible to adopt living dialectal forms to save words that would otherwise perish.

(10) Respect for the traditions of neglected dialects is advocated.

(11) As to what differentiations of words should be insisted on [e.g. the lore = law class].

(12) The necessity of observing vowel distinctions in unaccented syllables, [e.g. Every one now pronounces the o in the new word petrol, and yet almost every one thinks it impossible to pronounce the o in the old word symbol; which is absurd.]

(13) The necessity for better phonetic teaching in our schools.

(14) The quality of the new words introduced into the language; and the distinction between mere scientific labels, and those names of common new objects which must be constantly spoken.

(15) The claims of the Southern English dialect to general acceptance is questioned.

(16) The general consideration that the spread of the English language over the world must accelerate the disuse and loss of the most inconvenient homophones.

These matters invite expert discussion, and it is our hope that every such question will receive due treatment from some one whose knowledge qualifies him to handle it; and that when any principle or detail is definitely recognized as desirable, then the consensus of good writers and speakers will adopt it. This implies wide recognition, support, and co-operation; and though the Society has already gone far to secure this, it may yet seem that the small aristocracy of letters will be insufficient to carry through such a wide reform of habit: but it should be remembered that they are the very same persons whose example maintains the existing fashions. And, again, when it is urged against us that the democratic Press is too firmly established in its traditions to be moved by such an influence, it is overlooked that the great majority of those who write for the Press, and maintain or even create the style by which it holds the public ear, are men of good education, whose minds are thoroughly susceptible to all intellectual notions, and often highly sensitive to aesthetic excellence. They are all of them in a sense trained experts, and though working under tyrannous conditions are no less alive in pride and self respect than those who command more leisure, and they will readily and eagerly follow where their circumstances might forbid them to lead. The conviction too that they are honourably assisting in preserving the best traditions of our language will add zest to their work; while the peculiar field of it will provide a wholesome utilitarian test, which must be of good service to us by checking the affectations and pedantries into which it may be feared that such a society as the S.P.E. would conceivably lapse. Their co-operation is altogether desirable, and we believe attainable if it be not from the first assured.

R.B.

THE END

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