A recent article in Wired by Anne Trubek argues that the advent of the fully digital age will — and should — have as great an influence on English spelling as the age of print did, more than half a millennium ago. The author, a professor at Oberlin College, argues that our current obsession with correct spelling is out of keeping with the digital age: "Consistent spelling was a great way to ensure clarity in the print era. But with new technologies, the way that we write and read (and search and data-mine) is changing, and so must spelling." Must it?
Ms. Trubek is not the first to think so, but efforts to reform English spelling (previously addressed in the Language Lounge and the VT, here and here) nearly always end in tears, and not very much reform. Trubek thinks we should move toward looser rules, and greater acceptance spelling variants, in which writers are free to spell as they wish. What will this get us?
No one can disagree that English orthography is a dog's dinner. The evidence is everywhere to be seen: single letters (like S, C and G) represent multiple sounds; the same sounds (like /ʃ/ and /f/) can be represented by a variety of letters; the same sequence of letters can represent different sounds in different words (like gh in enough, night, burgher). Making matters more complicated, English has hundreds of homophones (different words that share a pronunciation but not a spelling) whose main disambiguating feature in writing is a distinctive spelling. What sort of reformed spelling system could possibly do justice to this jumbled inheritance that has been evolving for more than a thousand years?
"Standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity. Period. There is no additional reason, other than snobbery, for spelling rules. " That's Trubek again, with the implication that these reasons for standardized spelling are mere trifles. In fact, correctly spelled English encodes a wealth of information for readers, and the more educated the reader, the more information he or she will find latent in the written form of a word: meaning, pronunciation, the word family that a word belongs to, and some hints regarding its etymology can all leave tell-tale traces in the way a word is spelled. Do we want to throw out so many babies along with the old bathwater of our quaint and irregular system of spelling? When is it ever sensible for a communication system discard information that is meaningful?
A number of languages have undergone successful spelling reforms in recent times (see the Wikipedia article on spelling reform for a rundown) but none of these languages is the unruly monster that English is today. Languages that execute successful spelling reforms are typically associated with their country of origin, whose form of the language is still regarded as the single standard internationally. English is not a language that fits this description. To begin with, England does not own English. Two different polities behave as if they own English (Britain and the United States) but neither really does, and even they can't agree on a unified spelling system.
A recently published paper (and we think, a brilliant one) in the journal Cognition, called The Communicative Function Of Ambiguity In Language, argues that ambiguity is a functional property of language that allows for greater communication efficiency. Hearers rarely have difficulty disambiguating words that in isolation might be ambiguous, because they have sufficient context for making correct choices. Written language is equally easy for readers to disambiguate because they have, ideally, correctly spelled words whose single disambiguating feature may be their orthography.
Here's an example: in a phonetically spelled English that retains some of the conventions we like while introducing one simplification, we could write
I went down to the lake and took a pol.
But what kind of pol: was it a poll, a pole, or a Pole? Context is normally a good disambiguator, but in this sentence — since take is so wonderfully polysemous and the lexeme /pōl/ represents three different words — we can interpret three different senses of the verb, each going with a different pol. A correct spelling of /pōl/ will successfully disambiguate both the verb and its object here, where context and phonetics alone do not. In this case, orthography is informative about meaning when other language elements do not do the job.
Much as you might regard English spelling as monstrous, there is a lot of method in its madness. If we throw out silent letters, for example, we'll lose the connection in related words like deign and indignation. Everyone will want to get rid of the silly spelling weigh (even though it does rhyme with neigh but curiously not always with heigh in heigh-ho). Let's just always spell it way. There's no problem disambiguating "How much du u way?" Because way is not a verb, but then must weigh stations and way stations be conflated?
Although it would throw learners of English into eternal confusion (and remember, there are a lot more of them than there are native speakers) It would be a delightful wheeze to conflate the three homophones of /ðer/ (that is, there, their, and they're) so that you wouldn't have to think about them, or commit embarrassing gaffes in sentences like
They're visitors here. I'm comfortable with there being visitors here. I'm comfortable with their being here.
because we could spell them all as ther and be done with it. Native speakers, in their hearts and for a generation or so, would understand what each ther really resolved to, and the message to English learners would simply be "deal with it. "
Ms. Trubek is undoubtedly right that today's communication methods have resulted in new spelling; in text messages for example. But the argument that spelling should be reformed by letting spellers "make their own rules" is not compelling. All English spelling difficulties that do not answer to a rule — part of a pattern that multiple words instantiate — can be memorized as exceptions. People clutter their memories with all sorts of less useful information: the rank of hands in poker, the lyrics to pop songs, the phone number they had when they were seven years old. Why not just make the small effort it takes to remember the correct way to spell words and enjoy the weird baggage of English represented by its orthography as one of many interesting things that English words tell you about themselves?
Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website.Click here to read other articles by Orin Hargraves