I got an email the other day from long-time Millions reader Laurie, who sends us links and dispatches from time to time. Her email included a link to a peculiar book called The Swiss Family Robinson in Words of One Syllable. “Have you seen this?” She asked. “Is this for real?” I hadn’t seen it, but it is for real.
The book is exactly what it sounds like, the Johann Wyss classic The Swiss Family Robinson rendered entirely in monosyllabic words.
My first though was that the book was some kind of literary experiment like Georges Perec’s A Void, a French novel written entirely without the letter “e”, a feat impressively replicated in English by translator Gilbert Adair. Or perhaps it was a form of so-called erasure poetry.
As it turns out, the book dates back to the 19th century and was meant as an abridgment for young readers. The book was created by Lucy Aikin, a British historian and biographer who wrote and edited books for children under the pseudonym Mary Godolphin. In this capacity she created other “in One Syllable” books including Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim’s Progress. Other classics were rendered in this form by other writers and there was a small series of these books marketed towards beginning readers and meant as an alternative to the dull reading primers of the time. As is written in the preface to her version of Swiss Family,
The author’s object has been to provide what the reviewer of her former works in the Athenaeum has called “a field of exercise for a child who has just learnt to conquer words.” “There is sure to be some success,” he continues; “and it is a great point in all teaching to let the first independent exercise be one in which victory is really to be won by moderate effort.”
Later, in the preface to Aikin’s monosyllabic Pilgrim’s Progress, the usefulness of such a construction is extended to adults as well:
I wish it to be clearly understood that it is intended for Adult Beginners, no less than for Children. There is a large class of persons who do not begin to acquire the art of reading till somewhat late in life, and it is for such that I think a book of this character is peculiarly applicable.
It appears as though this approach, a way to make more literature available for less accomplished readers, was deemed successful. One reviewer wrote that Aikin’s Robinson Crusoe “ought to put primers out of countenance and make both teaching and learning to read a passtime.” There were apparently early critics as well, however. Aikin addresses them in her preface to Pilgrim’s Progress:
It may be objected that my system involves the use of words which, though short, are difficult to understand, and might be made more intelligible in polysyllabic language. But I have endeavoured as far as possible to avoid hard and technical expressions, and I cannot but think that the mere fact of the brevity of the words must be a great attraction to beginners of all ages.
It should be no surprise, however, that before long this rote approach to abridging classics fell out of favor. The in One Syllable books were published in the late-1860s (and possibly before that; Aikin died in 1864), but within a few decades they were held up as improper teaching tools. A 1903 teaching guide called Common Sense Didactics argues,
A book from which all life and vitality has been extracted; which, with view of bringing it down to the level of the child’s mind, has been diluted until it has lost the vigor of thought and clearness of expression which characterize the author, is not a good book for children. The intent is to make it even more interesting and attractive than it was as it came from the author’s hands, but it has been robbed of its power of inducing thought, and is no longer to be classed among books suitable for the district library. Robinson Crusoe in words of one syllable is not the same Robinson Crusoe which Defoe wrote.
Within a few decades after that, the monosyllabic book has been relegated to an antiquated example of a prior generations misguided approach to education. A 1922 teaching guide says “Some years ago it was believed that children could learn to read short words much more easily and quickly than long words,” and it asks would-be teachers to point out ways in which an accompanying passage from Aikin’s Crusoe uses unfamiliar monosyllabic words in order to stay within her guidelines. In other cases, the restriction leads to word choice that may give the wrong impression. A footnote in Bernard Porter’s book The Absent-Minded Imperialist, points out that Aikin’s Crusoe refers to the title character’s servant Friday as a “slave,” which clearly does not carry the same meaning as servant.
Still, the monosyllabic approach has a presence today. Most children’s books emphasize single-syllable words in teaching children to read, and at the same time, abridged classics are still very much a part of the literature available to young readers. I read dozens of them when I was a kid. The long-gone rote approach pursued by Aikin and others, though well-intentioned, was an unnecessarily strict method that became a forgotten stepping stone on the way to the wealth of children’s books available today.
See Also: Giving kids the classics
Footnote: Though I have written favorably about Google Books many times, compiling this post was the first time I had used it extensively as a research tool. It’s really a quite remarkable feeling to have this much information at one’s fingertips. Google’s efforts (and others like them) should be supported. It’s good for humanity.