How Johnson worsened English spelling

The spellings of most English words still obey Johnson’s dictionary of 1755. It was a major achievement but wrecked the regularity of English spelling more than anything else. He probably didn’t deliberately try to make learning to read and write English exceptionally difficult. He did it by trying to force English spelling into a Latin mould.

He still regarded English as an inferior language, despite editing Shakespeare’s plays, and despite the advances made by science after scientists started to write their treatises in English instead of Latin. He continued to believe that English was unlikely ever to become fit for intellectual discourse and still used Latin for his own poetry.

He damaged English spelling in three main ways:                                                                        1. Made consonant doubling  incomprehensible  (ballad – salad).                                        2. Adopted irregular spellings for many endings and prefixes (-en/-on/-an,  in-/en-).        3. Chose different spellings for different meanings of 335 homophones (here/hear).

He made the English system of showing when a, e, i, o and u are long or short, as in  ‘mate – matter,   legal – ledger,   bite – bitten,   cope – copper,   cute – cutter’,  almost totally unpredictable by:                                                                                                                               a) not using consonant doubling in 544 words from Latin roots                                                        e.g.  ‘balance, merit, hideous, copy, study’,    unlike                                                                                ‘ballot,  merry,  hidden, floppy, muddy’.                                                                                   He even dropped doubling from Shakespeare’s  ‘cittie’ and ‘scoller‘.                       b) using doubling needlessly in 223 words to indicate Latin grammar changes                              (e.g. ‘apply’, because in Latin it had the prefix ad  – ‘adplicare’),                                instead of after a short, stressed vowel as in ‘apple’.

He diluted the regular English spellings of many endings, like –er and –en and prefixes like in– and de- (potter, fatteninjure, devote) by changing some of them to their earlier Latin or French patterns:  doctor, scholar; abandon, certainenclose, divine.

He undermined the consistency of English spelling still further by deciding that 335 homophones needed different spellings for their different meanings,  (such as ‘its/it’s, their/there, to/too/two’). Yet he also left 113 sets of different words sharing one spelling (have read – must read).

The main effect of adopting different spellings for identical words is to make it impossible to have a regular spelling system. Sadly, spending many years learning the ‘correct’ different spellings for the 335 identical words ends up making people believe that they are essential, and never considering that 2,500+ other homophones get by perfectly well with just one spelling for their different meanings (mean, lean, bank, tank, rank, found, sound, ground…).

I have examined Johnson’s impact on English spelling and have also read a great deal about him. – He was undoubtedly very clever, but had little empathy for ordinary mortals. He cared even less about young children’s learning and how his spelling choices affected them.

To learn more about Johnson and other wreckers of English spelling read my  blog    or see  my video.


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