Spelling Out the Consequences


In Shakespeare’s day, one could get by with spelling variations; not any more.
Image: Oli Scarff/Getty

A language is a dialect with an army and navy, as the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich once supposedly said. We could update that to say a language is a dialect with an army, navy, and Silicon Valley, and it’s that, not any intrinsic merit, that makes English the dominant language of the world so far this century.

English certainly didn’t get there on the strength of its spelling system. On the contrary, the English spelling system is so complex that it wrestles even native speakers into submission or defeat. We can blame the French, or the French-speaking Normans, who conquered England in 1066 and persisted in speaking French for several centuries, with the result that the English language, when it eventually resumed its place in court, had swallowed enormous amounts of French vocabulary along with French spelling rules.

So the word defeat, for example, tumbled from French into English with spellings (as we see in the Oxford English Dictionary) as various as deffete, defete, deffayt, dyffeat, defait, defayte, defette, defeict, defaict, disfeat, defeate, and defeit before it finally settled into its modern form. And why, for example, shouldn’t we spell it dafeet? Well, there are good historical reasons, but it’s a stretch to think that every schoolchild should take a course in Middle English orthography.

And we’ve become stricter about spelling, too, thanks to editors, publishers, lexicographers, and schoolteachers. In Shakespeare’s day you could get by with a little variation in spelling, even of your own name, but not now.

So we find ourselves today with so many different spelling rules, and so many exceptions even to those rules, that nearly everyone fails to be a perfect speller.

Can anything be done about it? Well, last week when I wrote about truly bad spelling, I got this message from one Timothy Travis: “Your article has circulated among members of the English Spelling Society. You may be interested to know we are planning an International English Spelling Congress which will select and present to the world an update to English spelling as an alternative to traditional spelling.”

It’s a well put-together website, with a short course in Middle English orthography as well as many other features, even a Kids Corner.

The congress is to take place in 2016, according to the society’s website, but when and where remains to be decided. “The main meeting could be held in the USA with a video link to a separate venue in the UK and with others able to participate by video link worldwide.”

“The task of delegates at the first session of the Congress will be to appoint a commission of experts charged with drawing up a short list of proposals for a long overdue updating of traditional English spelling. Congressional delegates at the second session of the Congress, probably a year later, will then choose, by vote, one system from the Commission’s short list. The intention is that the preferred new system will run alongside traditional spelling as an informal alternative and, if its merits are recognized and if it gains sufficient support, eventually replace traditional spelling.”

It’s a daunting task, but the society has people who know what they’re doing. The well-known linguist and etymologist Anatoly Liberman of the University of Minnesota is its president. So who knows? They might just make a difference.


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