Mis-spleling Anglissh

Ah, the language police are after us again! Now it’s all about spelling.

As part of my day job, I follow the IT trade journals. One of the most thorough is The Register (though rather irreverent). In its “Odds and Sods” section I found an article that took a two-pronged (and contradictory) approach to English spelling.

The article points out that to the horror of The Spelling Society, whose members presumably have the last word on such things, only about half the people they polled could spell “embarrass” correctly. Presumably the other half were embarrassed that they got it wrong. And, in high dudgeon, the society goes on to note that only 40% get “millennium” right.

Well, golly gee whiz. Imagine that. Is the world coming to an end because we stumble over some often-misspelled words? I rather think not. True, we all rely on our word processors perhaps more than we should (and even this blog editing software has auto spell-check), but I think most of us get by.

Now, here’s the weird part. Quoting from the Register article, Edward Baranowski of California State University [declared]:

We have different spellings for the same sound, silent letters, missing letters, and basically a system which reflects how English was spoken in the 13th to 15th centuries, not how it is spoken today. So many sound changes have occurred that are not reflected in modern spelling, that we are left with a fossilised system.

Uh, I thought fossilized (let me use the American spelling) means no one uses it. Sort of like Latin. But English is hardly fossilized. According to Wikipedia’s article on English, up to 1.8 billion people speak English either as a first or second language. A language spoken by nearly a third of mankind is certainly not fossilized.

The Spelling Society is by no means the first group to despair of English spelling. They could as easily despair of our grammar, for English is considered a difficult language to learn. English comes to us from many sources, mostly blended together, giving us many words for a single object and sometimes the same word to mean different things. And the myriad accents used around the world are sometimes so indecipherable that written English is what all English-speaking people have in common. So, all the Spelling Society has to do is convince 1.8 billion people. They’d better get started.

But all prior attempts were doomed. In fact, spelling variations were manifold, with one of the most cited examples being “waggon” and “wagon.” But then this Samuel Johnson guy came along in 1755 and built a widely-accepted dictionary. As dictionaries became popular, so did standardized spelling. And that didn’t happen all that long ago in the long history of the English language. Of course, the Americans had to be different. Noah Webster published the first widely-used American dictionary in 1828. He claimed he was a spelling reformer (he probably would’ve been a member of the Spelling Society) and put his reforms into his dictionary. Hmm…one man’s reform is another man’s religion. By and large we’ve stuck with Webster to this very day.

The biggest and, many say, most authoritative dictionary is the Oxford English Dictionary, first available under that title in 1928. You can now find it online at www.oed.com. Unfortunately, using it involves paying a subscription, which enormously reduces usage. Too bad.

Uh, so if English isn’t fossilized, that must mean it’s growing, right? Right! New words are added to dictionaries (and there are many competing American dictionaries) every year. “Internet,” for example. Who decides what’s in and what’s out? Ah…that part remains a bit opaque.

I for one defend standard spelling because it is just that: standard! I find that my eyes come to a screeching halt when I come across a misspelled word. My favorite misspelling is “co-location.” The correct spelling is collocation, although the intensive misuse of co-location is slowly gaining admirers, myself not among them. Here’s another one, a common misspelling of disc by computer geeks: disk. That spelling has already entered the language with full force and effect.

I heartily recommend that you use standard American (or, if you must, English) spelling in all your work, whether fiction, technical writing, or journalism.

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