St Peter or King Canute? The book industry and spelling

Vivian Cook 
English Spelling

Writers often believe publishers and editors have the sort of role assigned to St Peter at the pearly gates: 'Enter only if you have spelt "millennium" correctly.' They see them as enforcing commandment laid down on tablets of stone by Hart's Rules, Collins's Dictionary and the like.

But they haven't always been such saints. When William Caxton couldn't find English people to man his printing press in 1476, he hired Dutch printers who brought with them the 'gh' spelling for 'g', leading to 'ghost' rather than good old English 'gost'. Many of the diverse spelling of the 16th century are allegedly due to printers' needs to make words fit a line of print: variations in length came in very handy, say between 'truly', truely', 'treulie' and 'trewlie'.

But does spelling really matter? Isn't it just the same need for conformity as businessmen's suits and ties? Publishers gain respectability by producing their own guides – The Penguin Spelling Dictionary. Even NASA has its own on-line handbook to Grammar, Punctuation, and Capitalization. Some organisations clearly feel they have proprietorial rights over English spelling. They don't feel the same need to produce the Penguin Guide to Table Manners or the NASA Guide to Safe Sex.

Obviously in one sense it's important to get spelling right. If we can't recognise a word, we can't understand it. English spelling smoothes out differences of accent that might make a speaker from Glasgow incomprehensible to someone from Barnstaple, say, or an English speaker from Delhi hard for someone from Vancouver to understand.

But it’s not the same in written English. If you look at on-line English language newspapers from different parts of the world, almost nothing in the spelling gives away where they come from apart from a slant towards British versus American spelling. Indeed spelling allows people to use English to communicate with each other, when neither of them has English as a first language, say Japanese businessmen dealing with Brazilians, or even Arabic speaking businessmen sending each other e-mails in English. A universal spelling for English helps it as the major written language of the world, extending its grasp beyond print to most internet uses.

Not that everybody gets spelling right. Only two people have scored 100% in one of my spelling tests – which is it? 'desiccate' or 'desicate'? 'supercede' or 'supersede'? 'inoculate' or 'innoculate'? Many English words simply have to be remembered as wholes – 'yacht' and 'Cholmondely'. Hence the possibility of spelling bees in which people can be teased for their memory of 'quokka' or 'garlion'. No wonder that natives still produce 'accomodate', Japanese 'grobal', or poets 'furuit' (Keats), 'immitation' (Yeats), 'propoganda' (Dylan Thomas).

A spelling system often has anomalies within it - why on earth is 'debt' spelt with a 'b? (the answer is at one time people thought English should look more like Latin and so added a 'b' to 'dett'). Its rules are frequently eccentric – why should so-called function words like 'to' and 'I' have one or two letters, content words like 'two' and 'eye' have three or more? But English grammar is just as full of oddities and any non-native speaker will eagerly complain to you about the peculiarities of its pronunciation. It's how we use the system that's important not whether we get the odd word wrong.

Over the years English has been totally flexible in taking in spellings from outside. Look at the menus in restaurants and you'll see 'spaghetti' (or indeed 'fusilli'), 'jus' and 'Pak Choy'. We may pronounce these in an English fashion but none of them conform to the usual pattern of spelling - the final 'i' of 'spaghetti' is rare, the 'j' of 'jus' is seldom pronounced like the 'g' in 'genre', the 'k' of 'Pak Choy' would normally be 'ck'. We adapt the spelling to suit our needs.

So the fuss over the spellings in text messages and chat-rooms is the predictable reaction to the new ways in which spelling is adapting to fit our needs. Text messaging systems with length restrictions favours short messages like 'c u 4 t l8er'; showing reactions in chatrooms where you can't see people's faces or hear their voices leads to 'LOL' (laughing out loud) or 'H&K' (hugs and kisses). But the point is also to show you are a member of an in-group that excludes those not in the know by using a jargon of its own, just as 'correct' spelling and punctuation labels you a member of a group.

Alongside this comes people's need for play with language. From Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan to Spike Milligan, people have used puns to make language vivid or effective. Innovative spelling keeps this tradition alive. Most streets have shops with names like 'Shoeperior', pop-groups have names like 'Big Brovaz'; people call their houses 'Llamedos' (try it in reverse);  drugs are called 'Zyrtec' or 'Xanax' –'z's' and 'x's are apparently known for their curative properties; titles of books or films sometimes join in such as 'Pet Semetary' or 'Goodfellas'.

Spelling has many functions in our lives. The spelling of my first name 'Vivian' shows that I am a man – but not in the States. We patronise taxi-firms because they are called 'Tony Xpress' or listen to cover bands called 'No Way Sis'. Businesses can rechristen themselves with new names only because English spelling  permits it – we all knew how to say 'Consignia' or 'Accenture' immediately even if the names meant nothing to us. Spelling is fascinating once when one sees more to it than St Peter and his book of rules.

In a sense the book industry has to lie back and endure what the English language does to them; they are war correspondents not combatants. A better image than St Peter would be King Canute, except that he only had the comparatively simple task of stopping the tide. If printed books don’t adapt, they will contribute to their own demise, becoming more and more out of step with generations of readers familiar with the richness of English spelling everywhere else in their lives.