An Interview...

Dr. Thomas Cable – A History of the English Language and its Orthography

Dr. Thomas Cable is the Jane and Roland Blumberg Centennial Professor In English at the University of Texas at Austin.  He is the co-author of "A History of the English Language" the standard, best-known, and most frequently quoted textbook in the field.  He is also the author of A Companion to Baugh and Cable's History of the English Language, 3rd ed., 2002 - The English Alliterative Tradition, 1991 - The Meter and Melody of Beowulf, 1974.  Additional bio info

Our interview with Dr. Thomas Cable is a delightful conversation full of scholarly wit, humor and stories that put the history of the English language into perspective.

Note: Remember to click on any word on this page to experience the next evolutionary step in technology supported reading.

(see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.


Dr. Thomas Cable: Your project looks fascinating. It’s an ambitious and very interesting and stimulating and important project, so I wish you all the best.

David Boulton: Thank you. Well, as you probably gathered from some of your reading, the core of our work is to create an opportunity for a social insight and reformation in how we think about reading. In the United States, the correlated expense of reading related difficulties is hundreds of billions of dollars a year. More importantly, and something that very few people really understand, children who struggle for a long time in the process of learning to read are learning about how to relate to themselves, their own minds, in a way that’s generating all kinds of social pathology.

Dr. Thomas Cable: I agree.

David Boulton: And yet this whole thing traces down to interfacing with a technological invention, this code. The story of how this code came to be the way it is an important part of demythologizing it.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Well, you’re covering that and other topics as well. Obviously cognitive scientists figure into it as well.

David Boulton: Yes. The cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, code scientists, and like I said, the emotional dimensions.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes.

David Boulton: And then experts on reading — there’s so many different facets to it. But when we distill it all down, we’re talking about a natural human brain that never evolved to deal with this very confusing code that few people have really been that attentive to in terms of how learnable it is.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes.

David Boulton: That’s kind of our background takeoff.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Goodness. May I ask you how you became interested in it?

David Boulton: “Stewarding the health of our children’s learning,” has been my life mission for over twenty years now. How is it that children learn to become ‘present’ in the world? How do they learn to extend their learning into becoming masterfully present in the world that they have to live in?

I had been on that journey for almost a decade before my own children bumped into reading. Up till then I was on the other side of reading. I took it for granted. I was on the other side of it asking ‘what are the learning challenges a human being faces coming into our world today, and how can we meet them in that’?

My basic premise was that just about anybody could learn anything if we could meet them on the living edge of their learning, and help them become more articulate about what they were needing to stay flowing in it. So I was working on that when all of a sudden I started bumping into children whose lives were being profoundly affected by the learning to read process, two of which were my own. My second son, Daaron, was the first one to expose me to this — his kindergarten teacher said he had the vocabulary of a twenty-year-old — he was very meta-conscious and able to communicate his difficulties with reading. We had a fantastic dialogue about his experience of learning to read and that is what began my work in this area.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Wow.

David Boulton: When he bumped into reading, he said to me, “Dad, this doesn’t make any sense. What is this?”

Dr. Thomas Cable: It was just the different code — well, a different language.

David Boulton: Yes. Well, it is a different language, but it’s not like a different natural language. In a natural language, we’re learning to name things and their relationships. We’re using words, and in that sense…

Dr. Thomas Cable: Words and syntax, putting them together, yes.

David Boulton: Right. But we can almost imbibe that in relationship to the talking humans around us. As Pinker and others have said, there’s kind of an instinct for us to do that with.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, I keep trying to imbibe it here on the streets of France. [laughter] I will have spent, I think after this sojourn, maybe four years of my life in France, and they were the wrong four years to become fluent — four years at various times. If they had been four years between the ages of two and six, well, then I would be fluent.

David Boulton: There are plasticity differences with age, yes.

Dr. Thomas Cable: [laughs] Yes, it’s tough.

David Boulton: So we’re going to bring every possible dimension to bear on this in a way that anybody who’s interested in it will be able to follow their own learning interests through our database of interviews and cross-correlated themes. Then in the series we’ll be creating multimedia, very powerful, evocative images and simulations of what’s going on in the brain.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Goodness. How many installments will there be in the series?

David Boulton: There will be three in the broadcast version and ten on a DVD.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Wow.

David Boulton: What I came to was that reading is at the very center of so much of our universe. When you look at our oral language, and we look at our cognition, and we look at the levels of abstraction, and critical self-reflection, and generalization, and so much of what we take for granted in our world today – these are outgrowths of having become literate.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes.

David Boulton: I know that we’re not saying anything that a number of experts don’t know, but what we are saying as a whole is not part of the way we collectively understand this.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Or it seems so obvious that we don’t step back and look at it.

David Boulton: Yes. That’s perhaps better said. So having said all of that, I come at this with a great passion of wanting to connect all these dots and make it palpable and understandable to the parents and teachers. A key component in all of that is understanding the history of the English language.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Sure.

Personal History:

David Boulton: So, how is it that you came into your work?

Dr. Thomas Cable: In graduate school I decided that I wanted to find out about the structure and the history of the language from the inside, mainly to understand poetry because as an undergraduate at Yale in the 1960’s, the New Critics and the formalists were very important, and I liked that. I liked their understanding of how language works syntactically, lexically. When I was in graduate school I discovered Chomsky, and I thought, wow, these generative linguists are gearing it up to a level that I had never understood as an undergraduate English major. If I could understand the magic that they work, well, then I would really be able to understand Shakespeare and all the rest of the great poets.

David Boulton: The implicate order of the English language.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes. It turned out not to be so direct, but it lead to the study of the history of the English language itself — and that’s what I’ve spent most of my time with, the history rather than the synchronic structure, although I do teach courses in both. But the history, the way it changes, the way things got to where they are, I think is a perennially interesting topic. It’s something that you can sit down with anybody in a room and talk about for an hour.

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Thomas Cable: And just the anecdotes in the way the language has become what it is are fascinating for me. I think it’s not a perversion that I have, it’s generally shared.

David Boulton: Right.

Dr. Thomas Cable: People go, “Oh, well, that’s the way it worked.”

David Boulton: It’s a fascinating story. I’m an amateur coming into this from an entirely different vector.

Dr. Thomas Cable: As I said, I’m an amateur, too, on the specific studies that you’re working on here. So I’m sort of as you are, I’m just looking with fascination at what the experts have done. But I try to read through it and summarize it and popularize it, put it in this book so that undergraduates can understand what’s going on.

David Boulton: Well, I appreciate that. And I appreciate your humility in framing yourself in that way. At the same time, though I haven’t read your book, I’ve kind of pulled on this thread, and the ceiling has fallen down full of resources.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes. Your problem, I think, will be limiting the scope of it, finally, because the subject goes off in so many directions.


David Boulton: Yes. I’ve already done a good deal of research, and probably the most fascinating part of it in some ways is the history of attempts to reform the orthography.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, well, that’s something that I’ve spent a lot of time with.

David Boulton: You have?

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes. I mean, going back to the beginnings, that’s been a concern. The orthography has been a source of anxiety, not just for individuals, but in a national way. So you were talking about the anxiety of individuals learning to read. In England, and that’s where we have to trace it to, it’s about trying to come to terms with what it means to speak and write in a code that’s not of that region. Even now in the Third World, in the colonies, the former colonies of the British Empire, we can see it currently happening.

David Boulton: Which is the way English was, with respect to the Latin, yes?

Historical Overview:

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, exactly, because in the mid 16th century, it was not clear that English was a worthy competitor with Latin. Several events happened that changed the story, but it certainly wasn’t inevitable. It wasn’t seen as inevitable, so that there were people who were having to defend English as being a perfectly worthy language, and others saying, “We should stick with Latin, it’s the common language of Europe, and it’s the language of learning.”

But of course, there are so many parallels between what was happening then and what’s happening now as science brought about new discoveries. In the Renaissance, they needed new terms, and so the Latin of Cicero wasn’t going to be adequate for the needs of the European Renaissance. That was in Europe, generally.

English is quite comparable to the other vernaculars after one bumpy ride, which the others did not have. That bumpy ride was, of course, having a foreign language imposed on it at a very crucial time for a century and a half, Norman French. So what English had to do was establish that it was a worthy competitor, both against French and against Latin.

Then after it got over that, by the end of the 14th century, the course was pretty much parallel with what was going on in France, with its vernacular, and Italy, and to some extent in Germany and Spain.

David Boulton: But each of them were able to transcribe from the Latin without the same degree of an intermediary as English had with French. One of the other interesting questions here was the number of sounds in these other languages.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right.

David Boulton: In the case of English, my understanding is that there are more sounds than there were in the other Romance languages that would emerge.

Dr. Thomas Cable: You had Norman scribes transcribing English, and not doing a great job of it. But how the phonemes matched up in the two I can’t tell you off the top of my head. But they would just introduce letters that hadn’t been there. Town was spelled t-u-n in Anglo-Saxon and pronounced “tune.” So they, the Anglo Norman scribes, spelled it t-o-u-n, and that was before it became diphthongized by the Great Vowel Shift. So that added some confusion to it.

The Printing Press and Phonics:

David Boulton: Well, yeah. Once we start looking at the code as a code, we’re talking about a code for transcribing, for having letters that represent sounds. And there is this confusion that occurs over the 15th, 16th century that gets exacerbated by the printing press variations, that ends up in the inertia that we’re struggling with today.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Well, see, the printing press just came in at the wrong time for English because English had really two peculiarities; one, as I said, was having French as the official language of the country for a century and a half, and the other was just the long vowels went crazy during the course of the 15th century.

Caxton brought the printing press into England in 1476, and it was during this time that the language was undergoing its greatest upheaval. So the spelling got fixed, I think largely by just the inexorable workings of the printing press, where you can print a book and a thousand copies exactly the same. That was fixed at a time that the language was still in flux. So that added some confusion.

Then you said you’d looked at the spelling reformers during the second half of the 16th century. So they were concerned about it then already, and were writing books suggesting reform, diacritics, and — most of the systems were just too complex to catch on.

David Boulton: So phonics emerged.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right.

Historical Highlights:

David Boulton: So what do you think are some of the great stories that you mentioned before?

Dr. Thomas Cable: The anecdotal stories?

David Boulton: Yes. One of the things that we’re trying to show is that, as you’ve just indicated, there’s this French influence on the language, there’s the Chancery scribe story that John Fisher has brought forth, there’s Caxton and the printing press, then there’s the emergence of phonics in the 1600’s, and then Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster go to work in the 1700’s.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes. You’ve kind of hit the high points. You peg your story to those, and you’ll have something really interesting, I think. If you can start back withJohn Fisher, I don’t have his articles here with me, but I’ve read them in the past and we’ve exchanged ideas and I think he said that when Henry V went to the continent in 1420, that he sent a letter back to his wife in English, and it kind of marks this as the beginning of English correspondence. There had been some English letters in the last few decades of the 14th century, but Henry V was a big deal.

Then his clerks of chancery — I think Fisher says there were a dozen masters of chancery who imposed a certain way of writing, which, again, as parallels with what the Spaniards were doing in the New World when they were trying to impose their alphabet on the Native American languages. There’s so many directions that this goes. But just to stay with English, there is the competition between English and French, and the standardization of English, beginning with Henry V. I thinkFisher has some very smart ideas on that.

There are two factors in standardizing spelling, one is the invention of printing and its effects, and the other is the orthoepists and those who are trying to revise English orthography. I think they diddled around and didn’t really accomplish much. William Bullokar had a system with a lot of hooks and diacritics, and that didn’t catch on. Richard Mulcaster had a moderate system that might have had some influence. But I think even if they hadn’t fretted about it, just this kind of impersonal inexorable force of the printing press would have standardized it.

But there’s always this anxiety. I think that’s interesting, too, because you mentioned the personal anxiety of children learning to read. There have been periods when the English as a nation, and then after them, America and the colonies, have felt anxious about their language.

So there was the whole to-do about an academy, which reached its culmination in the early 18th century with Jonathan Swift, and then Queen Anne, and it didn’t amount to anything. But the English would look across at the continent, at the Academie Francaise and the Accademia della Crusca in Italy, and see that there were these countries that had committees that were regularizing the language. The English just felt inferior.

So there was an effort for a century or more to establish an academy mainly because people couldn’t agree. Lord knows how the French ever agreed to put an academy together. But the English did not, and so finally that just kind of fizzled out in the early 18th century.

But by the middle of the century it was done — the job of the academy was done by individuals. Samuel Johnson published his dictionary in 1755. About that same time, the Grammarians were publishing their prescriptive grammar, saying how it ought to be. They were just cooking rules up off the top of their head, using kind of false analogies with Latin and spurious analogies with mathematics and logic. But once they wrote it down, it would get repeated from one grammar to the next, so that…

David Boulton: I use the analogy of the Millennium Bug.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, well, there are all kinds of analogies between then and now. There are lots of good stories in the history. Shakespeare had nearly finished his career before the first English dictionary was published, which was in 1604.

David Boulton: Wow. That’s a great factoid.

Dr. Thomas Cable: He got along without a dictionary.

David Boulton: And he probably had a lot of influence on the dictionaries that would come, too, yes?

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right.

The Simplified Spelling Fiasco:

David Boulton: What you were speaking of, this attempt to create some kind of a committee to oversee this, would raise its head again in the 1880’s, with Melvil Dewey and then fizzle out again with Theodore Roosevelt’s bravado in the White House.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Exactly. It comes to life and then fizzles out.

David Boulton: A number of the people involved in simplified spelling send me their proposals. I’ve had a number of conversations with folks in that field.

I have to say that while I think that we need to be ‘stewarding the health of our children’s learning‘, and that reforming the orthography is a particular tactic that could in theory help, preserving the heritage of our written language is non-negotiable. It seems to me that reform attempts have gone down to folly time and time again because they failed to recognize the institutional inertia of the established base and the fact that it’s just not going to change.

Dr. Thomas Cable: That’s right. It’s not. No matter how smart the proposals are, they aren’t going to work.

David Boulton: They’re not going to work. Exactly.

Dr. Thomas Cable: I mean, how many spelling changes can you think of that have caught on? If you go back early enough you can have some effect on the language. So some of the guys in the Renaissance then were able to affect it more than now. Noah Webster made some minor changes in the spelling.

But what’s interesting is that it was motivated out of a sense of patriotism, a kind of national pride, “We need a national language.” Well, when you stop and think about it, this is rather superficial. But that was what spurred him to do his American Dictionary of the English Language.

David Boulton: He thought that failure to fix this would end up becoming an incredible impedance to the intelligence of the country.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, right. That’s pretty loopy.

David Boulton: Yes, but understandable. I mean, it is implicate thinking about the infrastructure of consciousness and…

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, it is understandable, and it served as his inspiration to do the work that he did, which was of great benefit.

David Boulton: I think he got fifty words changed, or something like that. I forget the exact number.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes. I had not known, so that’s good. Fifty, alright.

David Boulton: What you were speaking of, this attempt to create some kind of a committee to oversee this, would raise its head again in the 1880’s, with Melvil Dewey and then fizzle out again with Theodore Roosevelt’s bravado in the White House.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Exactly. It comes to life and then fizzles out.

David Boulton: A number of the people involved in simplified spelling send me their proposals. I’ve had a number of conversations with folks in that field.

I have to say that while I think that we need to be ‘stewarding the health of our children’s learning‘, and that reforming the orthography is a particular tactic that could in theory help, preserving the heritage of our written language is non-negotiable. It seems to me that reform attempts have gone down to folly time and time again because they failed to recognize the institutional inertia of the established base and the fact that it’s just not going to change.

Dr. Thomas Cable: That’s right. It’s not. No matter how smart the proposals are, they aren’t going to work.

David Boulton: They’re not going to work. Exactly.

Dr. Thomas Cable: I mean, how many spelling changes can you think of that have caught on? If you go back early enough you can have some effect on the language. So some of the guys in the Renaissance then were able to affect it more than now. Noah Webster made some minor changes in the spelling.

But what’s interesting is that it was motivated out of a sense of patriotism, a kind of national pride, “We need a national language.” Well, when you stop and think about it, this is rather superficial. But that was what spurred him to do his American Dictionary of the English Language.

David Boulton: He thought that failure to fix this would end up becoming an incredible impedance to the intelligence of the country.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, right. That’s pretty loopy.

David Boulton: Yes, but understandable. I mean, it is implicate thinking about the infrastructure of consciousness and…

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, it is understandable, and it served as his inspiration to do the work that he did, which was of great benefit.

David Boulton: I think he got fifty words changed, or something like that. I forget the exact number.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes. I had not known, so that’s good. Fifty, alright.

Standardization and Vocabulary:

David Boulton: Yes. Well, it’s such an amazing story. One of the things that Fisher brings up I thought maybe you might comment on and that has a great parallel with reading research is that what standardizes the oral language is the written language. It creates the common frame of reference that the more sophisticated language users are using, which then becomes the kind of reference standard for the general oral language community.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes.

David Boulton: In other words, that it was the standardization of writing that brought about some standardization of the oral language. Does that fit for you?

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes. I’m not sure what Fisher had in mind by “standardization of the oral language,” and we’re not talking about accent or pronunciation, but we’re talking about…

David Boulton: Stability of vocabulary, let’s say.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Stability of vocabulary. Yes, that seems plausible.

David Boulton: Okay. Well, it’s very clear now that when children are growing up, there’s a certain point at which the reading and writing is dependent on their vocabulary, their oral language vocabulary.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right. So it flows in that direction.

David Boulton: Then they cross a point where their vocabulary is getting built by what they’re reading

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes.

David Boulton: Because the vocabulary they’re reading is much richer than the vocabulary that they’re playing with in the playground.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right. That makes common sense, doesn’t it?

David Boulton: Yes, it does, and that there’s almost a kind of macro-analog to that.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes. So what was Fisher saying about it historically? I missed that.

David Boulton: In his book The Emergence of Standard English, he’s saying that to the degree to which we do have some stability in the oral language that we share, it’s been brought about to a large extent because of the writing system.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Sure. That seems almost self-evident, doesn’t it?

David Boulton: It does. But the way he talked about it was that for a while it was pulling teeth to get people to get to the self-evidency..

Dr. Thomas Cable: Okay, sure. That’s good.

No One Was Minding the Store:

David Boulton: Now that you’ve got an understanding of where we’re trying to go with this are there any anecdotal stories, things that you think would illustrate that nobody has been minding the store?

We have this sense today that there’s been this transmission of almost God-like intelligence in the language system that we’re using…

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right.

David Boulton: And yet when we look at it, whether we go back to Henry V‘s letter to his wife, or the French interruption, or all these other little points that we’ve been touching on, what’s really clear is that people just did what made sense to them at the time. We did not have cognitive scientists, psychologists and code theorists and…

Dr. Thomas Cable: I think that’s an important point to make. In various ways, that’s the point I make when I teach the history of the English language, that what has become international standard written English, so that you can read a newspaper from Sidney and a newspaper from London, and a newspaper from New Delhi, and from Boston, and you can go for paragraphs without really knowing what the country is that the paper was published in.

That kind of international English came about as a sequence of accidents. It really goes back to the variety — the first accident was the variety of English that became standard. So you can trace it certainly from the 14th century when London was the most important city.

If Lancaster had been as important as London, we’d have quite a different English now. But the East Midland dialect was the one that was the most populous. It was a kind of compromise between the extreme dialects of the north and the south. But there wasn’t any committee that got together and said, “This is the way English ought to be.”

David Boulton: No one was minding the store…

Dr. Thomas Cable: No one.

David Boulton: Nobody saying, “We’re going to take responsibility for…”

Dr. Thomas Cable: No minding the store at any point, even though, as we were just talking earlier, they tried to put some store minders in with an academy. But that didn’t work. All of the self-appointed guardians I think had very little influence.

The standardization of spelling is often attributed to Dr. Johnson in the 1755 dictionary. But really, spelling had pretty much been standardized by 1650. That was, again, not because of what the orthoepists and the reformers were doing in the late 16th century, it was just the printing press.

David Boulton: Right. The inertia that crept into the conventions for the printing press technicians.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Exactly. And the printing press technicians, if they had to justify a line, they’d take a letter out or put a letter in, just the way they would do spaces.

David Boulton: Just like I rewrite something in order to make it fit in a page layout.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Exactly. Like the way journalists always have to do for headlines. When I worked for a newspaper in college, I remember having to count not only the letters, but the size of the letters.

David Boulton: And these were printing press technicians that weren’t necessarily good at English speaking, reading and writing. 

Dr. Thomas Cable: I think you’ve understated it.

David Boulton: If you can state it with more authority, please do.

Dr. Thomas Cable: That’s exactly right.

A Sequence of Accidents:

Dr. Thomas Cable: So there’s a sequence of accidents beginning with the dialect that became Standard English, which was essentially London English. It was reinforced by Cambridge and Oxford, maybe it was reinforced by Chaucer, but we know that poets don’t count for so much now, they probably didn’t account for much more then as far as standardizing the language.

David Boulton: They created a market.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, that was an accident, that it was London, the capitol of the country. Same thing happened in France. Paris was — that gave the French their dialect. Now, Italy had more of a problem, and so it took them a while to decide which dialect would be standard. But here in England and France you had London and Paris. So that was nothing that was God-given, and it was certainly nothing that a committee of cognitive scientists or reading experts came up with.

Once that dialect was established, the way it was spelled, as we just said, was fortuitous, almost whimsical.

Language Protectionism:

Dr. Thomas Cable: There was a lot of debate about what words should be let into the language. Have you encountered that?

David Boulton: No.

Dr. Thomas Cable: This was the same time as the spelling reformers and there were heated debates. If you stop and think about it, there’s a kind of ripple effect all the way up to William Safire and John Simon and others. They were concerned that too many Latin words were coming into the language. This was in essentially the 1580’s and they were also concerned about the Italianate Englishman, the guy who would go to Italy, and come back effecting — you see this in Shakespeare’s plays — effecting Italian styles and using either — a continental language, either Italian or French, showing his savoir faire, if you like. And there was a reaction against this.

So there were several specific categories of vocabulary that these guys objected to. Inkhorn terms, which were those from Greek and Latin; overseas language, which were from Italian and French; and to some extent, Spanish; and Chaucerisms, or the old words that were being revised. So during the Renaissance, there was this anxiety about letting words into the language. But the words are going to come in willy-nilly. Even the French have found that out with their French academy.

Still into the 20th and 21st century, you hear people worrying about George Orwell‘s famous essay on Politics and the English Language about Latinate words. I don’t mean to be condescending to that, because there is a point that if you use polysyllabic Latinate vocabulary, you can just sound very pretentious, and it turns into jargon. So there’s a kind of middle path somewhere to hit. But this was a problem that went back to the 16th century — I’m talking too much, sorry.

David Boulton: You’re doing great. Please continue, I’m really enjoying listening to you.

Dr. Thomas Cable: But we can always see the parallels between the printing press then and the computer and the internet now, the anxiety over Latinate terminology then and the legitimate concern about jargon. George Orwell said, “Use this homely, simple monosyllabic native words, not the Latin vocabulary.”

David Boulton: As you were saying that, the image that struck me was that it was very much like the problems of immigration or the problems of the melting pot of culture in general.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, exactly.

David Boulton: Some people’s concern today about the loss of jobs that will go with spreading the economy around like this nationalistic conservative protectionism but happening at a language level.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Exactly.

David Boulton: The center of our memetics.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Exactly. That’s true, yes.

David Boulton: That’s fantastic. I really hadn’t gotten on that dimension of conserving or insulating against the inbound influence of other words.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Let me find something and read it to you, if I could.

David Boulton: Please.

Dr. Thomas Cable: This is a letter from Sir John Cheke in 1561. He was a purist and he said — and this was published in Sir Thomas Hobys translation of the Courtier, 1561: “I am of this opinion, that our own tongue should be written clean and pure, unmixt and unmangled with borrowing of other tongues. Wherein, if we take not heed by time ever borrowing and never paying” — see, it’s this metaphor that we’ve got of borrowing words as if some — we’re running up this debt — “she shall be feign to keep her house as bankrupt; for then doth our tongue naturally and praisably utter her meaning when she borrowith no counterfeit-ness of other tongues to attire herself with all, but usith plainly her own with such shift as nature, craft, experience, and following of other excellent, doth lead her unto. And if she want at any time…” that is, in being in lack at any time — “As being unperfect she must, yeah let her borrow with such bashfulness that it may appear that if either the mold of our own tongue should serve us to fashion a word of our own, or if the old denisoned words could content and ease this need, we would not boldly venture of unknown words.” Now, that’s wonderful, isn’t it?

David Boulton: Wow, it is. And it sounds like you could change out some of the words and put it into modern descriptions of protectionism on a lot of levels.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Exactly, and with the same kind of stupid assumptions. He’s writing this argument with borrowed words by the dozen. “Opinion,” and “counterfeit-ness,” and “nature,” and “craft,” and “experience,” and “excellent,” — these are not native English words, these were borrowed.


David Boulton: This is fantastic. So again, we’re looking at this whole historical movement of the concretization to the extent we could use that word or term, of the standard that you mentioned that has emerged and now allows somebody in Australia or Canada or England or any one of the colonies to be able to read one another through this thing called the English language.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes.

David Boulton: And this story of unfolding — maybe “negligence” is too strong a word. It certainly is the word that I use when I think about what’s happening to all of the children.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes. I appreciate that you’re ethically driven on this, it’s not just a kind of problem of knowledge or of an intellectual interest, but it makes a difference in people’s lives.

David Boulton: It makes a huge difference. There’s 100 million people whose lives are diminished because of their struggle with learning this.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Wow.

David Boulton: It’s an artificial code that, as our story and our conversation indicates, nobody was minding the store as it came into being. Nobody was caring about what was going to happen to 700 million speakers of the language, or hundreds of millions of people that would struggle to learn to read it.

Printers and Scribes:

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes. Caxton was a bookseller, and he was very much concerned about reaching the widest market, and so he thought about it. But he didn’t think about it in the terms that we’re talking about it in.

David Boulton: Then, of course, when it originally formed, it sounds to me like the scribes, and certainly up to that point the language of power as you mentioned, and the language of science and learning was Latin. So if we’re going to err in the way of stewarding or being careful with one of the languages, it wasn’t going to be English.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right.

David Boulton: English was for the other people.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Exactly. It wasn’t taken seriously for literature or for science.

David Boulton: Right, it was just another thing to be able to connect up this other part of the population to build some constituency over time. But it wasn’t the central compass for what was going on.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right.

David Boulton: My sense is that it was: First preserve the Latin; second, the French, all of these influences were more foremost in the mind of the people that were originally involved in developing what would become our written language.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, certainly in some of them, there were divisions, there were debates about this. So you get lines of debate, going back to, as I said, the latter part of the 16th century. Some people were — first of all, they had to defend English against those who wanted to keep Latin as the language of learning.

Now, Richard Mulcaster is an admirable person for his time, because not only did he defend English, but he tried to figure out some way to standardize the spelling. He was always moderate. But you never know how much effect a single person has in matters of language; certainly then, when there were fewer people speaking English, a single person could have more of an effect.

But sometimes the language just takes on a life of its own — I mean, usually the language takes on a life of its own. You were concerned that nobody was minding the store, or you are concerned, and rightly so, but I’m not sure if it would have made any difference.

No Fault Problem:

David Boulton: This is an important point. It’s not like I’m interested in making anybody wrong, or making history wrong, but I am trying to say, regardless of the rights and wrongs of history, that we have this problem today…

Dr. Thomas Cable: We’ve got the problem.

David Boulton: Which is a massive problem in terms of psychological well-being, economics, and all of these other things. It comes down to an artificial code processing challenge, which, at root, few people have ever really cared about in the sense…

Dr. Thomas Cable: It’s a problem that’s just artificial and arbitrary and whimsical.

David Boulton: Yes, and my sense is that we as a people really need to get thumped with that to understand what’s going on with these children and what’s going on in our world that’s connected to it.

Dr. Thomas Cable: When you speak of children — and you mentioned the problems that your own children had — is it you’re thinking of children generally? But obviously you also have, and I think folded within the subsets of your program would be the socio-ethnic economic divisions…

David Boulton: Oh, absolutely. On that there’s an interview with Russ Whitehurst, who is the Assistant Secretary of Education for the U.S. Department of Education and the Director of the Institute of Education Science in Washington. We’ve also talked with the president of ProLiteracy, the world’s largest literacy organization, and the director of the UNESCO Literacy Movement. So we definitely want to put this in perspective in terms of the dimensions of its economics, and social equality dimensions. I mean, it’s pretty tragic, eighty-seven percent of African-American fourth-graders in this country are below proficiency in reading, and still…

Dr. Thomas Cable: Is that right?

David Boulton: Eighty-four percent in the twelfth grade. This code is the machinery, to a significant degree, which perpetuates so much social inequality.

Dr. Thomas Cable: That’s true. That’s absolutely true.

David Boulton: All of this comes back to what’s happening in a less than a second of processing inside our brains as our eyes encounter letters that we do recognize but can’t make sounds out of.

Stupid Decisions:

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right, yes. Back to the history, it’s a tangled history that resulted in that, just a lot of what in retrospect seemed like stupid decisions, putting in letters that didn’t need to be there, that weren’t there etymologically. We spell “delight” d-e-l-i-g-h-t.

David Boulton: As if to remove the light.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Exactly. Etymologically that’s not it. It was borrowed from French delit.

David Boulton: I just used that word as an example in an e-mail a month ago.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Oh, really?

David Boulton: Yes, it’s a perfect bingo with me.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes. All kinds of arbitrary — but you’re right, it’s to remove the light. Arbitrary causes have resulted in this system that — well, it seems fine to you and me, since we just pick up a text and read it throughout the day. But what you’re doing is really good in reminding people — among other things, reminding people who can do that that there are a lot of people who can’t.

The Power of English:

David Boulton: Yes, thank you. I agree with Venezky and some of the orthographists that would argue that there is an understandable structure in all of this, and that in a way, the ambiguity that we learn to process allows for the creative articulation of new words in a way that has been a creativity exercise environment for the verbal intelligence of the users of the English language.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes.

David Boulton: So it’s not like I think this thing should be some kind of monolithic, totally coherent code system. I think there’s a lot to be said for the reason that English has become so powerful in that it’s ambiguities allow for creative construction in ways that other languages perhaps don’t lend themselves as well to. The problem isn’t that…

Dr. Thomas Cable: Let’s pause on that.

David Boulton: Okay.

Dr. Thomas Cable: You said that the reason you think English has become so powerful is because it allows ambiguity. The reason English has become as powerful as it is is because of Donald Rumsfeld and his predecessors.

David Boulton: The language imperialists?

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right. We rule the world and before us the Brits did, so that’s why English is as powerful as it is. Now, to be more nuanced about it, I think that ambiguity does allow English to do some things that French, for example, doesn’t. I’m thinking now about, oh, the receptivity to new words which the French are always on their guard about. So if you look at a bilingual English and French dictionary, the English dictionary will be — if you have them in two volumes, will be half again as large as the French dictionary. Now, that’s good. In the colonies, new words came in in a way that they were not allowed in French. So I’m sort of contradicting myself. I’m no expert, certainly, on this. But it does seem that the French were successful in repelling these intruders, whereas English was more welcome.

Certainly at the lexical level, we’ve got a lot of ambiguity. You were, I’m sure, thinking of other kinds of ambiguity as well. But yes, the ambiguity in spelling probably does allow for more creativity.

David Boulton: Yes. There’s no question, I agree with your point entirely, that the reason that the extent of the dominion of the English language has more to do with the power driving it…

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right.

David Boulton: But that the creativity inside of that extent is probably connected to the fact that it isn’t so monolithic and rigid.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Exactly. I agree with that

We are Not Going to Change the Code:

David Boulton: So on the one hand, I’m fine with that. That’s one of the arguments that defends against the spelling reform proposals in the modern world, right?

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right.

David Boulton: The question isn’t whether or not we should overhaul what’s working, the question is: How do we build a ramp for kids that don’t understand it, into it, a different ramp, a different way of looking at this?

Dr. Thomas Cable: This is something I just don’t know anything about. What do your reading experts say?

David Boulton: Well, this is the strange thing, the way I look at it anyway, is that ever since the 1906 disaster in the White House, and the smear that was put over the whole spelling reform movement because of Andrew Carnegie’s involvement and what newspapers said about it: “It is a scheme financed by Carnegie, backed by certain large publishing interests, and designed to carry out an immense project for jobbery in reprinting dictionaries and school books“, the code has been completely taken for granted. Since that time, I believe that the researchers, with respect to reading, pretty much from there on, said, “Look, I don’t even want to think about the code. I don’t even want to think that there’s anything that we can do about the code. It’s a done conversation, it’s folly to even go there.”

In fact, in a recent interview with Reid Lyon who — I don’t know if you know who he is…

Dr. Thomas Cable: No, I don’t.

David Boulton: He is considered by some to be the czar of reading in America.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Is that right?

David Boulton: Yes, he runs the early learning and reading related projects at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. He works intimately with the President of the United States and reports to Congress. A lot of the legislation about reading and No Child Left Behind is in some way a reflection of his work over the past twenty-five years. He is responsible for many great things in the field of reading science.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Okay.

David Boulton: But in a conversation with him, I said, “So what we’re saying is that most of our children are having their lives all but fated by this archaic technology.”

Dr. Thomas Cable: Right.

David Boulton: And he comes back and says, “Well, if you mean by that, lousy teaching…” And I say, “No. I mean by that the code itself.” He very abruptly, forcefully, quickly says, “Well, we’re not going to change the code, I’m sure.”

It’s not that I’m suggesting we should change the code. But I am suggesting we should understand and think about it from the child’s point of view rather than from a literate-adult-centric, orthographic, scientists’ point of view.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, it would certainly make us more sympathetic wouldn’t it? We would be more understanding of the problems that children have, and more…

David Boulton: And develop a better pedagogical unfoldment that met them in the kinds of confusions that they’re experiencing, rather than the kind of imposed models and overlays that we see as masters analytically looking back upon it.


Dr. Thomas Cable: Yes, well, I think you’ve got a good argument, and that I assume will be the moral that you will draw from your story.

David Boulton: That’s part of it, yes.

Dr. Thomas Cable: It’s very ethical and it’s very wise. I think that it is also very smart, and that it makes sense, and it should be persuasive as well.

David Boulton: Well, I hope so. Thank you very much. I appreciate it a lot, that coming from you and your over-sight and the understanding and knowledge of all of this.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Well, what you’re doing is very thoughtful, and I think that you’ll be persuasive.

David Boulton: We’re starting to get pretty good traction now.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Wow. I wish I had more expertise on some of your topics, but I’ve enjoyed talking to you.

David Boulton: I’ve enjoyed talking to you. Thank you so much.

Dr. Thomas Cable: Sure. It’s been a pleasure.