March 02, 2007

Spelling rage

Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, who writes a blog mostly about knitting (under the name "yarn harlot"), has been subjected to a series of abusive e-mail messages about... her spelling.  From someone with an e-mail address that can't be replied to.  So she has finally taken it upon herself to respond in public, on the blog.

Why should we here at Language Log Plaza be interested in this exchange?  Well, we have a professional concern with, as Mark Liberman put it recently, "the social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming", especially when rage is directed at minute points.  And in this case, we're inclined to feel sympathetic to someone who refers to her "trusty Oxford Concise" dictionary at the beginning of her posting and says, parenthetically, "(I love that book so much)".  But our interest was really piqued when we got to the list of reviled spellings:

colour (vs color)
fibre (vs fiber)
cancelled (vs canceled)
woollen (vs woolen)
labour (vs labor)
cheque (vs check)
centre (vs center)
draught (vs draft)
doughnut (vs donut)
behaviour (vs behavior)
off side (vs incorrect)

(I know, the last one is lexical choice rather than spelling, but that's not Pearl-McPhee's doing.)

So, class, what's going on here?

(Hat tip to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky.)

It's hard to believe that there are Americans on the net who don't know that people in many other parts of the English-speaking world have somewhat different spellings from the ones that are standard in the U.S.  British spellings, specifically (the details vary from country to country, but the influence of British spelling is clear).  Maybe the spelling critic just thinks that people in the U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, etc. should spell like all right-thinking people do, namely according to the American Way.  Anything else is just WRONG.

So the critic rages at Pearl-McPhee, telling her that she should take her head out of her ass and get a clue.  (The spelling was ass, not arse, of course.  Could anyone doubt that we're dealing with an American here?)  She replies:

I am responding to this string of emails, the ones in which the correspondent whips out the red pen (they use a red font, actually. It's very engaging) and corrects my spelling...because it is so wildly inaccurate that I can't even stand it and I can't email them back but I have to say something.

There is, my tenacious little emender, a whole wide world outside of the one you live in, and the country I occupy has different spellings than in the country you occupy. Now, as much as I would like very much to be able to, what was it? Oh yes... "Take my head out of my ass and get a clue", I just can't, decorous and rectifying reader, you are just plain wrong.

Oh, yes, she's Canadian, and it should take only a moment to figure that out.  Even if you don't notice the very many local references (to Toronto), there's the url, with "" right in the middle of it.

Pearl-McPhee got piles of supportive comments from readers, both American and Canadian.

There's some interesting history here.  Painting the picture in the broadest terms: British spellings spread with the British Empire, to North America as well as other continents (with variations from place to place); U.S. spellings were later altered in small ways, largely through the efforts of Noah Webster, as a symbol of U.S. independence from the mother country; Canadians tend to preserve a number of British spellings both as a symbol of their historical connection to England and as a symbol of their resistance to the influence of their much larger neighbor -- or, as they would write, neighbour -- to the south.  (In some of their comments, Canadian readers of the blog talk about treasuring their spellings.)

So there's no world standard for the spelling of English.  People often argue for standardization on the grounds that common forms are necessary for communication, for understanding one another.  In this case, that's an extraordinarily weak argument.  Anyone who can't accommodate to the minute differences between British and American spellings just isn't trying.  (Pearl-McPhee's mean critic evidently has no problem understanding, since he knows which words to "correct" and in which ways.)

There are a lot of loonies out there, of many different types.  This was a new variety for me.  [Added 3/3: I wish I could take credit for using loonies in a posting referring to Canada -- Language Hat has asked me if the reference to the loonie, the Canadian one-dollar coin bearing the image of a loon on one side, was deliberate, or merely felicitous -- but I must confess that any punning on my part was entirely subconscious.]

The red font is a nice touch, I have to admit.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 2, 2007 05:51 PM