November 03, 2006

Plain spelling

Some entertaining foolishness from Simon Jenkins, "A million fingers are tapping out a challenge to the tyranny of spelling", The Guardian, 11/3/2006. The lede:

Thank you, Scotland. First John Knox, then the Enlightenment and now the Scottish Qualifications Authority. In a direct challenge to the English at their most reactionary, the authority has declared that it will accept text-messaging short forms in school examinations. The dark riders of archaism will protest and the backwoods will howl. No spell is cast as dire as spellcheck. But the champions of reason are massing north of the border and need our support.

Sample quotes:

I have no quarrel with grammatical authoritarianism. Grammar is a vehicle that needs a highway code of human communication. To parse is to prosper. [...]

In contrast, spelling has become a no-go area, an intellectual tundra. While plain writing is considered a stylistic virtue, plain spelling is a vice. English orthography is an edifice of unreason. Word endings are the last gasp of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman invasions, embedded in the cultural DNA of literary Brahmins. Not to spell properly is a sign of being common, as once was ignorance of Latin. Knowing your "ie" from "ei" or -ible from -able does not affect a word's meaning one jot. It is a caste mark, its distinction deriving from its very obscurity.

Most linguists think that this is backwards: syntax and word usage can take care of themselves, pretty well, but spelling does need standardization. The basic argument is that writing is artificial in a way that speaking is not, and orthography is the most artificial part of writing, so that the normal human process for creating and maintaining cultural norms is good enough for grammar, but not for spelling, which therefore needs to be established as "made order" rather than a "grown order".

The form and content of this argument are certainly valid, but it does have a bit of the smell of a rationalization. At least, it's certainly true that the Elizabethans got on fine with what Jenkins calls "plain spelling" (i.e. chaotic spelling) -- though this would have made search engines harder to implement, if they'd had them.

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 3, 2006 10:05 AM