Sunday, December 13, 2009

Silent Letters

From McGuffey's Eclectic Spelling-Book, Revised Edition, 1879.

For the last few years, I have been rooting through yard sales and used bookstores for really old books—textbooks or children’s books—because I get a kick out the way their writers used language to convey their instruction. It tends toward the simple or the fanciful, as if they were really concerned about holding their young readers’ attention.

But when I opened a spelling book from 1879 to the dictation exercise shown above, using near homophones and rhymes to confound the students, it was as if I had stumbled on a precursor of a Dada poem. The repetition of sounds skips from sentence to sentence trying to force a connection that isn’t really there:

“The lamb is a dumb animal. He climbed the hill to the tomb, but his limbs became numb. Comb your hair, but do not thumb your book.”

Or is it?

As I thought about the long dead students who struggled with this assignment as the teacher read it while the class tried to write it down, I suddenly remembered my own situation back in 1975 while studying in France and going through the same motions in a French dictation lesson. It was all nonsense to me and so I wrote what I heard without regard to whether or not I was writing actual words. I can recall being utterly lost on a sea of sounds.

I have a propensity for punning. Some people think that the punster is not paying attention to the meaning of the words but rather is laying in wait until the right run of homophones presents itself before pouncing on the opportunity to twist the words inside out for a groan. But I consider it to be a constant disjuncture between what is heard and the meaning that is attached to that sound.

It’s a liability sometimes: it makes it hard to understand spoken French. But I’m willing to exchange that for hearing the music in textbooks. Dada or not.