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.

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.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson produced a new dictionary of English which is still the main authority on English spelling.     It undermined the old English spelling system with three major changes:

i) Johnson broke the systematic use of doubled consonants for distinguishing between long and short vowels,
as in ‘cope – copper;   hoped – hopped’, because he exempted many Latinate words from that system,
e.g. ‘proper, opera, topic’. This left doubling unsystematic and highly unpredictable.

He abused the consonant doubling system even further by using it to show the Latin history of words,
e.g. apply instead of aply (because in Latin it had the prefix ad in ‘adplicare), instead of showing short vowels.

  1. ii) He made earlier regular English endings and prefixes irregular by changing them to Latin patterns

(e.g. importence → importance;  inclose → enclose).

iii) He also responsible for the use of different spellings for different meanings (e.g. but /butt)

of 335 words which earlier had just one spelling, or random different spellings.

Johnson’s dictionary with its educationally harmful changes has been the definitive authority on English spelling.
He recognised that English spelling was often chaotic. He wrote in the 9,678 word Preface to his dictionary ( “Some combinations of letters …are used indifferently without any discoverable reason of choice, as in choak / choke; soap / sope”. But he carried on the same way: ‘stroke – cloak; rope – soap; roll – bowl…’.

Johnson claimed in the Preface that his spelling choices were guided by principles, rather than personal preference. Any changes he made were supposedly “from the modern to the ancient”, using ‘no testimony of living authours’, preferring ‘writers before the restoration’ (i.e. before 1660), with ‘a scholar’s reverence for antiquity’. – Yet he did not revert to any of the much simpler earlier spellings, such as ‘erly, reson, toun’ which had been around for centuries, and were also still used in the King James Bible of 1611.

Johnson’s   failure to take notice of the 1611 bible spellings,  seems particularly puzzling, because according to his friend and biographer James Boswell, he was a ‘zealous Christian’, at the high end of the Church of England. The reason for this was probably his bitterness about not being an academic. He had been forced to leave Oxford after just one year for financial reasons and appears to have turned this into reverse snobbery.
He points out near the end of the Preface that “the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned…, nor under the shelter of academick bowers”. Changing some of the spellings used by the 52 scholars who had collaborated on the King James bible seems to have been a way of distancing himself from academia.

Johnson was fussy in his spelling choices only with words of French and Latin origin. He tells us that he chose ‘enchant’ because it came from French and “incantation’, because it came directly from Latin. He took no care over words from Anglo-Saxon roots, the first and main source of English. He was guided chiefly by his great love of Latin, rather the principles which he set out in his Preface.

Johnson’s many irregular spellings were largely the result of his arrogance, He was supremely self-confident and very proud of having compiled his dictionary ‘single and unaided…which in other countries has not been effected but by the co-operating exertions of many’. He employed six assistants to help him with the copying and sorting of quotations which he chose entirely himself. He was contemptuous of the fact that the compilation of the first definitive French dictionary had taken 40 members of the French Academy 40 years. He had boasted that he could achieve the same in just three years. When quizzed about it, he replied: “I have no doubt that I can do it in three years. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.”

Johnson’s self-assurance and refusal to consult with others was undoubtedly one of the main reasons why English spelling has ended up so chaotic. The first full dictionary of German was the result of very close collaboration by at least two people – the Grimm brothers of fairy tale fame. They did not merely enshrine the spellings which they found in common usage, as Johnson mostly did for every-day words. They tried to improve the consistency of German spelling and to make learning to read and write German as easy as they could. The 40 French academics for whom Johnson had so little respect also left the French orthography in a much less chaotic state than Johnson did English spelling.

Because Johnson compiled his dictionary without taking advice from anyone else, his temperament and preferences and his extraordinarily good memory all played a part in making English spelling exceptionally irregular. – His mother was fond of relating how she had once asked young Samuel, ‘when he was still a child in petticoats’, to learn a poem for reciting in church a couple of days later. She gave it to him as they were starting up two flights of stairs. By the time they reached the top, he had learned it perfectly.

He would have found it hard to imagine that some schoolchildren might find it difficult to learn hundreds of unpredictable irregular spellings, such as ‘shoe flew through‘. His short career as a schoolmaster suggests moreover that he did not readily empathise with pupils of average ability. The small academy which he set up near his hometown of Lichfield in 1736 started well but was deserted by all but one pupil after 18 months. His biographer James Boswell blamed its demise on Johnson’s  mind getting ‘frequently irritated by unavoidable slowness and errors of scholars’.

It is also unlikely that Johnson envisaged his dictionary being used by many ordinary people. His target audience was probably predominantly the erudite readers of the Gentleman’s Magazine for which he wrote for 10 years, after coming to London in 1737, after the collapse of his academy. Concerns about how the average person might cope with his spelling choices probably never crossed his mind.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s character and opinions did not merely determine the spelling choices for his dictionary. They have also helped to prevent improvements to English spelling since its publication, because he used the preface to state his firm opposition to spelling reform.

He declared that irregular spellings were “spots of barbarity impressed so deep in the English language, that criticism can never wash them away: these, therefore, must be permitted to remain untouched. Every language has its anomalies, which, though inconvenient, and in themselves once unnecessary, must be tolerated among the imperfections of human things… being once incorporated, can never be afterward dismissed or reformed”. He clearly thought that once his spellings became established, they should never be changed. And although people no longer consult Johnson’s dictionary, phrases from its Preface have been used as justification for letting English spelling remain unmodernised.

The popularity of Johnson’s dictionary was due mainly to his witty explanations of the meaning of words, but its success ensured that he came to be regarded as an absolute authority on English spelling as well. His dismissive pronouncements on spelling reform were treated like the words of an oracle and have prevented a re-appraisal of English spelling ever since. There have been only a few, very minor changes to it since 1755, as in ‘authour, errour’ and ‘academick’.
American spelling is also still very much as it was in Johnson’s time. Their famous lexicographer Noah Webster had briefly worked as a teacher in his youth and understood that the inconsistencies of English spelling made learning to read and write the language difficult and advocated spelling reform for a while.

But like some British schoolmasters before him, he also published spelling lists to help his pupils – his little blue spellers. When they began to earn him a fortune, he satisfied his reformist zeal by merely making a few US spellings slightly different from British ones in his American Dictionary of the English Language of 1828, such as changing ‘standardise’ and ‘labour’ to ‘standardize’ and ‘labor’. He even brought about a handful of real improvements, such as cutting the second ‘l’ from ‘travelled’ and‘ marvelled’ and making six French endings (e.g. centre) conform to the main English pattern of ‘after, alter, swelter’.

One of the best know excuses for English spelling being chaotic is the ‘great vowel shift’. I don’t give it much credance, because:

1) Most words in the many texts from 1350 – 1755 with original spellings which I studied had more than one spelling, without rhyme or logic. English spelling has been an unreliable guide to pronunciation since the end of the 14th century and makes it very difficult to be sure exactly how words used to be pronounced or how their pronunciations might have changed.

2) Many reputable scholars no longer give the vowel shift theory much credence. Even David Crystal in his Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language says “what was so long an uncontroversial issue has become an open question“.
3) There is clear evidence for the many spelling changes which I have described above. They account for the majority of the irregular spellings which make learning to read and write English exceptionally difficult.

2 thoughts on “How Johnson worsened English spelling

  1. completely agree with you. Also add the fact that Johnson knew a great deal of Greek and Latin, but of the history of his own language, he knew little and cared even less. He said English was a pathetic and barbaric language and that he preferred Latin. Also, he didn’t know a single word of old English! He even admitted to that. it’s not even clear if he knew English was a Germanic language! Writing a dictionary of English in which etymology is to be a factor without knowing old English calls into question weather a person is capable of judging what they are qualified to do. I think his skills might have been better utilized writing a dictionary of Latin, and leaving dictionaries of English to those who know about that particular language. he couldn’t even be bothered to spell “uphill” with the same number of l’s as “downhil” (both spellings are his). so he was both ignorant and inconsistent. very few people have ever done something they were less qualified to do then him.


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