Getting in a Strop about Spelling

Vivian Cook 
Spelling data
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When people discuss spelling, they tend to be in one of two moods. One mood is angry criticism of those groups or individuals who have the presumption to make spelling mistakes. Anybody who spells 'accommodate' as 'accomodate' or 'pronunciation' as 'pronounciation' is supposedly not fit to be called educated. Being unable to spell words such as 'beginning' and 'there' correctly is for the angry critics a sign that one is not a proper member of English society.

Yet almost everybody has skeletons somewhere in their closet of words they can never remember how to spell. Gifted individuals like W.B. Yeats produce spelling like 'proffesorship' and 'litteray'. Emily Dickinson couldn't use apostrophes – 'does'nt' and 'it's dripping feet' are among her spellings.

George Prentice pointed out in 1860 'Many writers profess great exactness in punctuation, who never yet made a point.' The same is true of spelling. There seems little connection between the ability to write memorable English and the ability to spell.

The second mood is sad regret for the declining standards of society. Standards have in this view deteriorated since some by-gone day when English people could spell properly. Prince Charles is supposed to have said 'All the letters sent from my office I have to correct myself and that is because English is taught so bloody badly'. Yet, to be scientific about this decline, we would have to compare the same types of writing used today and yesterday; you can't compare the e-mails of today with the correspondence of thirty years ago, say, because e-mails didn't exist then. But no real statistics seem to exist that show spelling mistakes have increased over the years.

For five hundred years English-speaking people have looked back to some previous period as the Golden Age of the English Language. The early eighteenth century for instance, one of the most distinguished periods for prose, looked back to the seventeenth century as 'the wells of English undefiled'. Interpreting change as decline is a common human weakness.

Both these moods are negative, if not actually depressed: English spelling is a problem. Yet Noam Chomsky has said that the current orthography of English is a 'near-optimal system'. It works for billions of people around the world, some of whom may have the greatest difficulty in understanding spoken English. English is used for the vast majority of scientific articles and web-pages. How can something that leads people to make such mistakes and that is in such a terminal state actually function so successfully?

Spelling sounds and spelling meanings

The main reason is disagreement over how spelling works. It is a truism that language is communication. So spelling is an aspect of communication, like pronunciation or vocabulary: if 'C U l8er 4 t' or 'Independant Stockbrocking' communicate then what's wrong with them? If the reader gets the meaning, communication has taken place. We look at '&' or '#' or % and we know what they mean even if we can't say them; we may even read them aloud in different ways – is '=' in '2+2=4' to be read aloud as 'is', 'are', 'equal', 'equals', 'make' or 'makes'?

Discussions of spelling however usually assume two things. One is that spelling is there to show how the word sounds, not what it means. Critics get great amusement out of showing that 'gh' corresponds to different sounds in 'tough' and 'ghost' and that the 'g' of 'sign' is silent. But Chomsky points out that the inaudible 'g' in 'sign' links it in our minds to the 'g' of 'signature', which is pronounced, a useful meaning link.

The strength of the English spelling system is that it does not just show the sounds of words but also links to their meaning. Only because of this spelling/meaning link can the man from Houston understand the woman from Glasgow; it successfully compensates for different accents. Chinese has taken this to the extreme by having a single written form unconnected to speech that Chinese can read all over the world, regardless of what kind of Chinese they speak. But most of the high frequency words of English like 'of' and 'the' are probably read as wholes and go straight to the meaning rather than being understood letter by letter. English spelling is optimal because it allows people to get direct to the meaning of many words, to work out the pronunciation for others. And how often do we need to actually read English aloud?

Of course language is much more than communication. In particular it is used to show people's identities as members of groups. We proclaim by our speech where we come from. Hence it is highly convenient to use accent or spelling as a way of excluding people from the in-group. As George Bernard Shaw once said 'No sooner does an Englishman open his mouth than another Englishman despises him'. Or Shaw might have added, spells 'receive' as 'recieve' or uses the wrong apostrophe – 'NEW'S'. But this is a social use of language to establish in and out groups, like the shibboleths about dropping your aitches 'arry' for 'Harry'. It’s not about the efficiency of spelling itself but about our attitudes to other people.

History of spelling

How did we get Chomsky's 'optimal system'? English spelling has changed in all sorts of ways, as we can see in the extract from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice which reproduces the text of the 1621 First Folio. One simple early change was putting in spaces to divide words, something now taken completely for granted but only invented about the eighth century. According to Paul Saenger, this meant we could now read silently and so reading was private rather than public. Roy Harris compares in importance the invention of the word space with the invention of zero in mathematics.

But the actual letters have also changed, Old English starting out with extra letters for 'th' sounds which we no longer have (but led to the peculiar 'y' in 'Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe'). By Shakespeare's time we can see that the letter 'u' has still not separated from 'v' – 'vpon' and 'heauen' – and 'i' is used for 'j' – 'maiestie' and 'iustice'. The letter 's' had a long form '='' seen in 'ble=t', somehow giving the impression that everybody lisped in those days.

The meaning-based aspects of English spelling had still not been fully established in the Elizabethan era. In modern English we spell the past tense as 'ed' regardless of whether it is said as 't' 'cooked', 'id' 'waited' or 'd' 'played'; in other words we treat 'ed' as a symbol of past tense meaning. not of particular sounds. However, until the late eighteenth century spelling tried to show the actual pronunciation. From 1613 to 1760 the ''d' spelling was most common as in '=train'd', with variants such as 't' as in 'dropt'. It was only after about 1760 that 'ed' firmly took over as a meaning-based part of English spelling.

Spelling then evolves over time. The fact that English pronunciation changed dramatically from Chaucer to modern times is largely obscured because the spelling is still largely the same. Over the years English spelling has become more meaning-based, less linked to the contemporary way in which words are pronounced.

New spellings

Spelling changes, like anything else. Partly this is to accommodate the new words coming in to English: we now eat 'sushi', 'ciabatta' and 'pak choi' so we have to find ways of fitting them into English spelling.

Or we start to use Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) in e-mails, text messages or chat-rooms, a fairly typical sample of which is given below. One obvious feature is leaving out full stops and capital letters 'kim babe' – I don't even know how to get capital letters on my mobile. In some ways this creates an air of informality; these messages are done at speed with users being no more careful than they would be chatting on the phone, as opposed to writing a formal letter

One notable chat-room convention is the use of initial letters of phrases – 'LOL' 'laughing out loud' or 'BRB' 'be right back'. This has a long tradition in informal English. At school I sent letters with 'SWALK' written on the envelope. 'TTFN' 'ta-ta for now' or 'asap' 'as soon as possible' go back many years. Even 'TANSTAAFL' 'there ain't no such thing as a free lunch' harks back from the web to Robert Heinlein's 1966 book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

A second chat-room convention is the use of 'emoticons'. Starting as sideways face cartoons made with punctuation marks :>), they have evolved in many chat-rooms to little cartoons ☺ that appear whenever the user types in 'happy face' etc – a totally new way of conveying emotion in written English which lacks the expressive powers of spoken intonation.

A pervasive convention in CMC is the use of letters or numbers as words – 'c u l8er' for 'see you later'. Devotees of texting claim this shortens messages to get them within the permitted 160 characters or make it faster to key them in. However these conventions have occurred in the pub notices 'R U 18?' for many years and are common in popgroup names – '4-Hero' or the amazing spelling 'Bhang II Rites'.

What these show then is that English spelling is adaptable; people can start to exploit is conventions in new media. People can use it as in the chat-room to show they are members of a group. While the spelling purists are laying down the rules for being a member of their elite group, so are the chat-room users. Beyond this, it shows that for many people spelling is fun. Why else would they choose to call their car 'PS9 CHO', their house 'Llamedos' (spell it backwards) or their racehorse 'Funny Cide'?

So people interested in spelling don't need to be depressed. They can get closer to the way Chaucer and Shakespeare actually wrote. Or they can delight at the richness and creativity of spelling today.

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Portia's speech

    1. The quality of mercy is not =train'd,
    2. It droppeth as the gentle raine from heauen
    3. Vpon the place beneath. It is twice ble=t,
    4. It ble{eth him that giues, and him that takes,
    5. 'Tis mightie=t in the mightie=t, it becomes
    6. The throned Monarch better then his Crowne.
    7. His Scepter =hewes the force of temporall power,
    8. The attribute to awe and Maiestie,
    9. Wherein doth =it the dread and feare of Kings:
    10. But mercy is aboue this =ceptred =way,
    11. It is enthroned in the hearts of Kings,
    12. It is an attribute to God him=elfe;
    13. And earthly power doth then =hew likest Gods
    14. When mercie seasons Iustice. Therefore Iew,
    15. Though Iu=tice be thy plea, con=ider this,
    16. That in the cour=e of Iu=tice, none of vs
    17. Should see =aluation: we do pray for mercie,
    18. And that =ame prayer, doth teach vs all to render
    19. The deeds of mercie. I haue =poke thus much
    20. To mittigate the iu=tice of thy plea:
    21. Which if thou follow, this =trict course of Venice
    22. Mu=t needes giue =entence 'gain=t the Merchant there.