Breaking out of the spell

24th September 2004 at 01:00
The spelling police might be on the look-out for 'mistakes', but modern texting conventions may point to a rich creativity with the language, says Vivian Cook

When people discuss spelling, they tend to be in one of two moods. One is angry criticism of people who have the presumption to make spelling mistakes: anybody who writes "accomodate" or "pronounciation" is supposedly not fit to be called educated.

The other mood is regret for the declining standards of society since some bygone day when English people could spell properly: for the past 500 years, people have often looked back to some previous period as the Golden Age of the English Language. Both these moods are negative: English spelling is seen as 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 have great difficulty in understanding spoken English, and it is used for the majority of scientific articles and web pages. How can something that is in such a terminal state function so successfully?

The main reason for this paradox is disagreement over how spelling works.

One of its functions is to show the sounds of words. For instance, the word "dog" links the letters to the sounds one by one. English has complex rules for these links, examples being: * One letter may have several different sounds -the letter "a", for instance, has three, as in brat, bravo and brave.

* Two letters may be combined to make one sound, such as "th" in thin.

* The order of letters may be out of step with the order of sounds - eg the "u" in guess is there to show the pronunciation of the "g" which occurs before it.

Most high-frequency words, such as "of" and "the", are read as wholes, going straight to the meaning rather than being understood letter by letter - just as we read "@" or "%" without any direct clues to their pronunciation.

The strength of the English spelling system, however, is that in many cases it provides links to the meaning of words as well as showing their sounds.

Like other aspects of language, spelling is, however, more than straightforward communication of information. We proclaim by our speech who we are and where we come from.

Hence accent or spelling can be used as a way of including or excluding people from a group. As George Bernard Shaw once said:"No sooner does an Englishman open his mouth than another Englishman despises him." He might have added: "or spells 'receive' as 'recieve' or uses the wrong apostrophe, as in 'new's'." This is not so much about the efficiency of spelling itself as about our social attitudes to other people.


How did we get Chomsky's "optimal system"? English spelling has undergone many changes, as we can see in the extract from The Merchant of Venice. One early change was to insert spaces to divide words, something now taken for granted, but invented as late as the eighth century. Roy Harris compares it in importance to the invention of zero in maths.

The actual letters which are used have also changed. In Shakespeare's time, the letter "u" had still not separated from "v" - "vpon" and "heauen" - and "i" was still 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 modern English, the past tense ending is spelled as "ed" regardless of whether it is said as "t" as in "cooked"; "id" as in "waited"; or "d" as in played". In other words, "ed" is a symbol of past tense meaning, not of particular sounds. However, until the late 18th century, spelling tried to show the actual pronunciation. From 1613 to 1760, the "d" spelling was most common, as in "strain'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.

So spelling evolves over time. The changes in English pronunciation from Chaucer to modern times are obscured because the spelling has largely stayed the same. Over the years, English spelling has consequently become more meaning-based, less linked to the contemporary way in which words are pronounced.

New spellings

Spelling has to adapt to new times and new technology, like anything else.

Take the way people use emails, text messages or chat-rooms, seen in the sample below. One convention is to use acronyms for phrases - eg LOL (laughing out loud) and BRB (be right back). This has a long tradition in informal English. TTFN (ta-ta for now) and asap (as soon as possible) go back many years.

Another convention is "emoticons". Starting as sideways faces made with punctuation marks - eg :

) - they have evolved in many chat-rooms to little cartoons - eg - that appear whenever the user wants to show a happy (or otherwise) face.

A pervasive texting convention is the use of letters or numbers as words - "c u l8er" for "see you later". Devotees claim this shortens messages and makes them faster to key in. However this convention has probably also existed for many years - Jeg pub notices (R U 18?) and pop-group names (4-Hero).

English spelling is still adaptable; people exploit its conventions in new media. While the spelling purists are laying down the rules for being a member of their elite group, so are the chat-room users establishing rules for their group. Beyond this, quite evidently many people feel 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 not everybody who is interested in spelling gets the blues. They can use it to get closer to the way Chaucer and Shakespeare actually wrote. Or they can delight at the richness and creativity in the ways spelling is used today.

* Vivian Cook is professor of applied linguistics at the University of Newcastle. His book, Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary (or why can't anybody spell?) is published by Profile Books (pound;9.99)

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