Saturday, June 26, 2021

The spell of spelling

 Many Sunday afternoons when I was in the fifth and sixth grades at Elizaville Elementary were spent copying the week's spelling words, ten times each, to be submitted Monday.

English spelling is a notorious mess, a mishmash of Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, ecclesiastical Latin, and words that Britain and the United States lifted from indigenous peoples. The need to master spelling as a mark of literacy made Noah Webster's Blue Back Speller a bestseller in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. 

(Also in the nineteenth century, misspellings were common fodder for humor, mocking the subliterate. We have the word OK thanks to the jocular spelling oll korrect in a Boston newspaper.)

A friend has lent me a copy of Book One of The Twentieth Century Spellers, Maryland Edition, published in 1912 by Appleton, and it is a window into public education a century ago. 

Each week has a specified set of words, with spelling and syllabification, and a set of example sentences using the week's words. 

But there is more. One finds an abundance of the sententiae adults love to unload on the young: Alice Carey's verses beginning "True worth is in being, not seeming; / In doing each day that goes by / Some little good, not in dreaming. ..." 

There are occasional interpolations of random information: "The Chinese are a curious people and live a great distance from us. They are different from us in many ways. They think that one girl in a family is enough. They prefer to have boys. Their near neighbors are the Japanese." 

And, of course, patriotism: "Admiral Dewey received great honors after his triumph over the Spaniards in the harbor of Manila."

To a modern reader, the example sentences each week read like found poetry:

"The fox is covered with fur.

"Did John peddle the potatoes from house to house?

"The bird flew out of the cage.

"The class can sing the song by rote but not by note.

"The stone was a real diamond

"Did you hear that whispering?"

Did John encounter the fox on his route selling potatoes? The students' singing is faulty, but the diamond is genuine. The bird is free, but the whispering is ominous. 

The appendix of Local Words is a little window into the Maryland of the time: Annapolis, brickyard, bombardment, cotton duck mills, Cecilius Calvert, Mt. Clare Shops, slavery, tonging, Wells and McComas

Did you hear that whispering? It was the past.