3.361 old and new spelling, cont. (100)

Wed, 16 Aug 89 19:35:59 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 361. Wednesday, 16 Aug 1989.

Date: 16 August 1989 11:01:30 CDT
From: "M. R. Sperberg-McQueen " <U15440@UICVM>
Subject: old spelling vs. modern

My instinctive response to Flannagan's question whether one
preferred original or modernized versions of texts was:
"original, of course." But seeing a number of humanists weigh in
on that side has made me contrary and reflective, so here are some
reservations about using original spelling texts.
The question of audience is all important. The original
question was directed at the readership of Humanist, a group of
people many of whom have made it part of their professional
training to be able to read older texts with ease. But it's worth
trying to recall how confusing those unmodernized texts can be to
the untrained--rather than putting their difficulties down to
laziness or stupidity. Consider the German word "Thon" for
example. I considered it once for nigh on a week back in 1974
when it came up in a text I was reading. I was completely
flummoxed by it: what the hell does that word mean? Dictionaries
were no help. I asked several professors of German (by chance,
all of them specialized in modern German literature) and they were
equally perplexed. Well, the answer is obvious: "older" German
(and this means pre-WWI) often uses "th" where modern German has
"t". This example came to mind again this past spring when an
undergraduate history student beginning a project on the
development of German elementary education came to me for help
with reading some secondary literature from the late 19th century.
Same problem: she'd spent (wasted?) a good deal of time trying
to look up a word beginning with "th." Said student may have
been "poor" and perhaps "overworked"--but she was also diligent
and intelligent. Not someone in whose way I want to put
obstacles. Sooner or later someone like her (or me back in
1974) is going to have to be trained to deal with archaic
spelling--and syntax and typefaces (Fraktur: the bane of the
German student's existence). My experience has been, however,
that professors don't bother to offer that kind of training, and
students have to learn on their own--or quit. Is it beneath us
to take fifteen minutes in a seminar to point out some basic
differences between modern spelling and old? To give students
exercises to help them learn to read Fraktur fluently? Or
should they learn the hard way? As we did. That strikes me as
being a good way to ensure the decline of student interest in
older literature.
The point I seem to be working my way around to is: if we
are so enamoured of older spelling, the least we can do is to
keep its decipherment from being an obstacle to everyone but us.
I also found myself wondering what we trained readers get
out of the older spelling. Willard, if I understood him
correctly, suggested that "flavour" is not really much of an
answer. How often is the original spelling actually
significant? In prose, I would bet, seldom. (But I'm more than
willing to be corrected on this point--can anyone provide
examples where original spelling in prose really makes a
significant--not a flavour-- difference?) In verse, sometimes,
when a modern spelling ruins scansion. (Preserving dialect is
altogether another question--not a question of orthography.)
Still, I can think of two arguments for keeping to the original
spelling: the desire to have precisely what the author wrote,
and the wish to study orthographic and printing practices
To take the second argument first: studying orthography
and printing practices can obviously only be done on the basis
of original spelling, and thoses scholars have the most
legitimate need for original spelling editions--and they need
the original editions themselves or facsimiles or VERY thorough
critical editions. But these are not necessarily the form most
suitable for people without a special interest in spelling and
printing to use for reading and study.
As far as the "precisely what the author wrote" argument
goes: Too often it's forgotten that the typesetter comes
between author and reader. I've read supposedly responsible
scholars making arguments about where an author was from and
what his ideology was on the basis of apparent dialect coloring
in the spelling in the original editions of his books--ignoring
the fact that the orthography may well have been the printer's,
not the author's. And I know of one instance in which the
spelling is obviously not the author's but that of the
printer--in Paul Fleming's Teutsche Poemata of 1646, there are
about 75 pages part way through the volume where the spelling
becomes wildly Dutch like. It's a phenomenon interesting for
the student of printing, but irrelevant for the student of
17th-century lyric.
My instinctive answer is still "yes, I want to read texts
in their original spelling." But I don't want to exclude other
potential readers by insisting upon it; I don't want it used to
mystify. And I don't want more value attributed to it than it
actually has.
(Sorry this has gotten so long. But then I didn't always
make it to the bottom of the discussions of quantum theory.)
--marian sperberg-mcqueen
U15440 at UICVM