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So spake the son of Saturn, and his spouse
This is not so bad, but wait a moment.
The son of Saturn spake, and in his arms
His consort clasp'd. For them the sacred earth,
There are three men living who could translate Homer well, Elton, Tennyson and Aytoun; but the first is too old, the second too lazy, and the third too busy.
PHONICS AND PHONETICS.
Literary World, January 1848.
Comstock's Phonetic Reader. Philadelphia: E. H. Butler
& Co. 1847. Comstock's Phonetic Speaker. Do.
Do. Comstock's Phonetic Magazine. Philadelphia: A. Comstock.
1847. DR. COMSTOCK, or, as he spells himself phonetically, and doubtless prefers to be spelled, Dr. Komstok, proposes simply to alter and remodel the entire orthography of our language; and as a necessary means of carrying out this somewhat comprehensive and radical reform, he announces a perfect alphabet.
A perfect alphabet! When it is considered that perfection is predicable of few sublunary works, and that all existing alphabets are allowed to have some imperfections in the way of deficiency, redundancy, or incongruity of some sort, the announcement is not a little startling, and savors of something very like arrogance. But “to us much meditating” (as Brougham saith after Cicero), another interpretation has occurred which renders the assertion less wonderful and more admissible. There is a popular use of the adjective perfect as an intensive epithet without involving the exact idea of freedom from imperfection. Thus, when particularly injured or annoyed by the stupidity of some not over-sagacious individual, we irately speak of him as “a perfect fool.”
Thus, Mr. Headley denominates a number of unfortunate deceased, “a perfect carpet of corpses.” And thus, when we have occasion to show up some would-be scholar, poet, or philosopher, his friends are sure to cry out by way of irresistible vindication of him and confutation of ourselves, that he is “a perfect gentleman.” We may then call Dr. Komstok's a perfect alphabet, meaning thereby, as we should say in common parlance, that it is "quite an alphabet," or "considerable of an alphabet," or as Punch's "fast man” would express it, “no end of an alphabet.” And indeed this last phrase is not inappropriate to the “Phonetic Alphabet," considering its length. It comprises forly-four letters, thirty-eight "simple" and six “compounds.” Of the simple letters, fifteen are vowels, including all the vowel and nearly all the diphthongal sounds of the language, viz. the four sounds of a, the ordinary long and short sounds of e, i, and u, the oo or continental u long (which Dr. K. classes with the sounds of o), the short sound of the same as in full (which he classes with the sounds of u) and the diphthong ow or ou. The consonants, divided into fourteen "subvowels” and nine "aspirates," are the established English consonants, minus c and ľ, with additional characters or new appropriations of old characters to represent sh, ch, wh, ng, the French j, and the sounds of th. Each letter has its distinct character, and five of the compound letters, oi, j, ch, gs, r, have characters compounded of the simple ones, expressing their component sounds. The sixth, ai in fair, has a character of its own.
"All the consonants in the Anglo-American ("alias the Phonetic') alphabet are sanctioned by English, French, Greek, or Gothic usage.” For instance, c represents the sound of sh, because (we are not answerable for the logic here) ch in French has the same sound.
There are some obvious objections to the theoretical construction of this alphabet. Thus we may ask, why is oi to be considered a compound letter and ou a simple one? The former, is as Dr. K. properly enough states, composed of the sounds aw, ee; is not the latter as clearly composed of the sounds ah, oo? Does not the power of the diphthong au in Spanish, Italian, and German, confirm this? Nay more, are not the sounds of į and u long diphthongal sounds quite as much as oi, and do they not exist as diphthongs in the continental languages? And how is ai in fair to be made out a diphthong? Dr. K. says, it is compounded of a long and u short and he makes lair and layer equivalent sounds. Now, with all submission, it strikes us that layer is decidedly a dissyllable with the sound of the consonant y distinctly appreciable in it. As to the supposed distinction between ai in fair and a in fate, whe have said enough on that point lately. Our more immediate concern, however, is with the practical applicability of the alphabet. Of course, the first obstacle which meets us in limine is, that it is no joke to ask a whole people to unlearn their letters and learn them over again. To this Dr. K. replies, that the perfection of his alphabet enables any one to learn it in an hour; and there is a case adduced of a wonderful "phonic girl in Michigan," who did so. Now, we do not profess to be "phonic" ourselves (not clearly understanding what it means, but like the little boy in the story who was called a philosopher, we “hope it's nothing bad"), and that may make some difference, but we have studied the type of the Phonetic Magazine much more than an hour (more we confess to decipher some specimens of Cherokee and other curious tongues which we found in it, than with any intention of adopting the Komstokography) and are yet far from being able to read it with fluency. One constant source of confusion is, that familiar characters have new sounds affixed to them. Thus e represents long a; c, sh; z, the French j, and so on. With the written alphabet it is still worse; different forms of the same letter according to the present system) are made to stand for different sounds, and sounds as different in some cases as e and r; some of the characters very nearly resemble each other; and, indeed, the Phonetic written alphabet seems to us nearly as inconvenient as the German and what that is, any one who has learned, or tried to learn to write German, can testify. Again, there are cases in which the proposed spelling is contrary not merely to habit, but to the very genius and theory of the language. It is one of the most striking peculiarities of English pronuniciation that e final is mute, and that this mute e final when preceded by a single consonant lengthens the vowel preceding that consonant which would otherwise be short. To write the words mate, mite, as Dr. K. proposes, met, mit, is not merely foreign, but absolutely repugnant to the idea of every one who has at all examined the principles of his own language.
The next obvious objection is that the new system would throw out all the printed books now in existence, so that, unless reprinted, they would be lost to future generations. To this Dr. K. answers that we must reflect that "the English tongue has been racked by periodical changes in spelling, which appear to have been founded not upon phonology, but upon caprice. By these fluctuations in orthography, many words have been repeatedly rendered unintelligible, and consequently useless, until reprinted in a new spelling.” (So the remedy for this is to render all works "unintelligible, and consequently useless," until, &c.) and he then proceeds to argue from sundry examples (very ingeniously and plausibly selected, we admit), that the changes which the language has undergone, are chiefly in spelling, those in pronunciation being very slight, so that the New Alphabet is restoring, not destroying the language.” If any one wishes to know how far this will hold water, let him recall to mind the first two couplets of Chaucer; or, without going so far back, recollect how ocean was pronounced by Milton, and Rome by Shakspeare. But so far is Dr. K. from being moved by any of these things, that he is preparing to adapt his "phonetic alphabet” to the European languages, beginning with the French; and one of the numbers of his magazine contains an “Avis aux Français," on the matter, which we sincerely hope may some day meet the eye of the Charivari. And certainly his plan derives some encouragement from that most erroneous popular idea which makes educalion to consist in cramming the mind with facts, not in disciplining it to use the facts it meets with, and therefore seeks to dispense with or abridge as much as possible all preparatory steps.