In words of one syl-la-ble
January 1, 2010 4:25 AM   Subscribe

Time was, folks wrote books with just small words, for kids, or for folks who could not read well.

Interesting exemplars of this forgotten literary parsimoniousness include:Some of these books are still worth the read. And it's hard to write that way.
posted by twoleftfeet (22 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Very good post. I compared the first few pages of Alice's Adventures with the original; it's one of my favourite stories and something in me shuddered a little at the thought of it being tampered with but they've actually done a good job and (from what I read) captured the spirit very well.

The claim "in words of one syllable" is a bit of a fib however - they cheat by putting hyphens in longer words like "sis-ter", "rab-bit", "start-ed". Though maybe that's the unpleasant pedant in me that needs slapping down; I guess that breaking up longer words does at least make them easier to read.
posted by Dali Atomicus at 4:49 AM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's also this explanation of Einstein's theory of relativity in monosyllables, as well as one using words of four letters of less.
posted by teraflop at 6:45 AM on January 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

Cool post. Regarding the first link, it seems to me that it would actually be harder for a child to understand the meaning of the story when this monosyllabic rule is in place. The author has to add more words and use somewhat awkward phrasing to describe things in a roundabout fashion.
It is the want of this self-rule that is the cause of so much that is bad in the world. It is this that makes girls and boys think more of what they want to do, than of what they ought to do; and each time they give way to it, they find it more hard not to yield the next time; and thus they go on till they are grown-up folks. They who would not like to grow up in this bad way must take great care while they are young not to think so much of self
posted by scrutiny at 7:10 AM on January 1, 2010

So when were the rewrites written?

I'm not sure I get what's going on here. To me, when you dumb down a book all you're going to get is dumb kids.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:37 AM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, teraflop, that second link is truly awesome. It's like reading a piece of OULIPO.
posted by The Bellman at 7:38 AM on January 1, 2010

The last chapters of those histories offer interesting views on how the writers wanted to reflect recent events of their era:

Wil-helm felt that the time for a change had come. At first he tried or it looked as if he tried to be a friend to the So-cial-ists. He wished to be known as the friend to work-men. He gave out that he would help them to gain their high aims and they could find no more strong friend in all good works than he would be.

Plus ça change... amirite?
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 7:52 AM on January 1, 2010

Four-word relativity reminds me of Vonnegut.
posted by stilist at 7:59 AM on January 1, 2010

I'm not sure I get what's going on here. To me, when you dumb down a book all you're going to get is dumb kids.

I'm no ex-pert, but if I had to guess I would say that the idea was that pre-tv, pre-xbox live, pre-mmorpg, etc., reading was one of people's main entertainment options. For those adults and older children that could not read well, there might have been a void in choices. They can't exactly read "adult"/standard reading level books, but they don't want to read See Spot Run either. So it seems to me that the goal of these books was to reduce the story to a lower reading level, so that less literate adults and older children could enjoy it too. According to the first link, above, they were not meant to be used to teach reading.
posted by bunnycup at 8:29 AM on January 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

when you dumb down a book all you're going to get is dumb kids.
Ditto, bunnycap, making the voc-ab-u-lary more accessible, therefore the story easier to read and the lesson within grasp of kids. The breaking down of words with hyphens really isn't different from what they teach kindergartners now in NY public schools: say the word out loud and break it down into parts.

I'm *so going to start making my boys read Pilgrim's Progress before bed.
posted by njbradburn at 10:13 AM on January 1, 2010

So that's why they always wrote "today" as "to-day" in those children's books when I was growing up! And all this time I just thought they were being quaint.
posted by pravit at 10:50 AM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

They were, methinks. Looks like a period (/hyphen) convention to me.
posted by lumensimus at 12:31 PM on January 1, 2010

The OP implies we don't have this today but Dan Brown still seems to sell a lot of books.
posted by Justinian at 12:53 PM on January 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Speaking purely from my own experience, words were toys and big words were really cool toys. Consider:
"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"
Frumious bandersnatch, man. Frumious bandersnatch. How cool is that? Hey, they even made a song in tribute of big words. And it's not just made-up words, either; flibbertigibbet is a fine and sorely underused word that even "Al-ice" could get behind.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:04 PM on January 1, 2010

"...words were toys and big words were really cool toys."

They are, Halloween Jack. But one's enjoyment of those toys depends upon what you're reading for. Humans tend to understand things by associating them with things they already know, so if you understand everything else in a passage the strange words make sense in context, and are fun to learn. But when you understand very little of what you're reading, strange new words can feel more like roadblocks than toys. Just look at a philosophy or science textbook written at the graduate level; those books are full of strange words that make them impossible to understand for anyone who doesn't already have a feel for the vernacular.

Still though, I would imagine that this kind of reading feels like a constant diet of oatmeal if it's all you consume. It could be very useful when you're learning to read, but one would want to learn enough to get past it fairly quickly and on to more novel uses of grammar.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:48 PM on January 1, 2010

The political economy primer is amazing:
See the Bird! It is a black Bird, is it not? They call it a Crow. it is a fat Crow, but it does not Work. How, then, does it keep so Fat? Do you not see the Small Bird? Yes, I see it. Well, that is a Jay. It has to Work and find Grub for the Crow, so the Crow may sit on the tree all day and have a Good Time. … You see, the Crow owns the Air, and will not let the Jay use it but on these Terms: the Jay must pay Rent or he can not fly nor sit on a Rock, so you see the Fix he is in. … It is a Fine Thing to own the Air, is it not?
posted by kenko at 2:47 PM on January 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

The first few lessons of Bengough's political economy primer can be seen with their original illustrations at Prosper Australia, and the full text without illustrations is available at Wealth and Want.
posted by Canard de Vasco at 4:59 PM on January 1, 2010

I think it's quite hard to write this way and not have it seem weird, but it does change the way you think.

I did a search or two to try to learn more a-bout the theme of this post, but could not find much on the web that could tell me how these kinds of books first took hold. Odd, I thought. So I would like to ask if there is some place I can go to find out more a-bout the back-stor-y.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:11 AM on January 2, 2010

I think it's quite hard to write this way and not have it seem weird, but it does change the way you think.

Game for Small Sounds by Paul Ford (yup, of the blue) talks at some length - and with both style and smarts - of just this sort of change.

And this thing made of strings from The Cat in the Hat [and here I say that some of you should not make this jump now, but should see it when you get home from what it is that you do in the day!] is a bit like that game of his, and like these books -- but not all of it is this way. Yet it, too, is fun and a bit deep...and so it looked like a good thing to tell you of here too, I think.
posted by arms-length at 10:09 AM on January 2, 2010

(I lurk for ten years -- and then don't think to check for flaws in my new name 'til my first words are sent! Heh.)
posted by arm's-length at 10:37 AM on January 2, 2010

Thank you, arm's-length. I'm glad you chose to do more than lurk now.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:01 PM on January 2, 2010

Though maybe that's the unpleasant pedant in me

That's un-pleas-ant ped-ant.
posted by Spatch at 5:27 PM on January 2, 2010

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