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?


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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 more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 1st 2012, 1:22 AM
Comment by: Kitty S. (Brooklyn, NY)
...but when Noel Coward writes "Heigh-ho, if love were all" it's pronounced "hay" not "hi". I think.
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 1:58 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
>Why not just make the small effort it takes to remember the correct way to spell words

I think this might be the salient point -- that many people cannot (or are not willing to) make this effort. This is not, I think, because they're stupid or lazy. (Both are oft-heard accusations.) It's that for many people under many circumstances, the extraordinary effort required isn't worth it. The number of times in an average person's life when perfect spelling is essential is ... very small. (In fact, there's a stereotype, not flattering, associated with the kid at school whose accomplishment is to be a great speller.)

Historical evidence is that people have always been imperfect spellers. This was masked to a certain degree in the pre-digital age, because any individual's skills (or lack thereof) were not widely exposed to people beyond, for example, his or her immediate friends and family. However, peeking at caches of old letters or reading old diaries (my favorite of these being the journals of Lewis and Clark) suggests that the kind of spelling we see online these days is not really worse than that of the averagely educated person 50 or 100 years ago.

If we do see spelling reform, it seems to me that it will be a bottom-up phenomenon. We've seen a little bit over time -- "donut" and "lite" are, I believe, examples of simplified spellings that we're getting used to. I can imagine spellings like "tho" and "altho" becoming widespread. (I have a personal mission to evangelize the spelling "thot" for "thought"; my boss at work will now use that spelling with qualification, e.g., "As Mike says, any thots?" Heh.)

I guess I agree that the chances of systematic spelling reform are minimal. I agree also that our odd spelling system reflects our odd linguistic history in interesting and useful ways, and certainly agree about the disambiguating value of spelling for readers.

To me, the compromise with respect to Trubek's thesis is that maybe we should at least relax a bit about spelling -- grant that it's devilishly hard to master English spelling and that in most casual/vernacular contexts, it simply doesn't matter that much. The computer-industry pundit Reg Braithwaite went so far recently as to note that he doesn't even care about spelling on someone's resume, not as long as the person can do the job (programming) that Braithwaite is hiring for, and that imperfect spelling is not indicative of any particular deficiency. It was a startling thesis, but I'm beginning to come around to his point of view.
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 7:20 AM
Comment by: Fergus M. (Edinburgh United Kingdom)
There is at least one aspect of modern technology that actually introduces a new argument for enforcing spelling rules, namely search. If I search for a word in a document or on the web, I'm liable to miss any instances that are not spelt [or spelled!] the way I expect. Web search engines often cope with this by automatically checking for known variants ("recognize" as well as "recognise", etc), but if I'm just searching through a document then the text editor or word processor probably doesn't have that refinement but just does a literal search.

Re computer programmers' spelling, I'm often surprised by how bad the spelling in comments is, given that in the actual code the programmer has to be very precise. Presumably this is a case of concentrating on what matters for the program to compile and run correctly, and neglecting the spelling in the comments because (for that purpose) they don't matter. This might seem to support Braithwaite, but I'm not convinced, because a computer program needs to be read and understood by other programmers, and bad or random spelling can detract from that.
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 8:15 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
A thoughtful argument has been presented here.
It is not true that spelling is changing or will change in near future, it is the acceptance of our view. The society was severely conservative one thousand years back, the English men in the elite society, all of their outlook for language and spelling was too tough and full of rules.
The younger generation teens are so open minded and care free that they care only for texting message, not the other way around.
This care freeness is the aptitude towards change in the practice of unusual spelling behavior. We the grown-ups love the young generation's style and efficiency and their open minded ideas. It means we are progressing by learning the truth that right and wrong can live side by side as long as they do not crash each other's core meaning.
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 8:44 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
Changing spelling of words is like the change in our systems of measurement. (feet to meters etc.) It should have been done a hundred years ago, then I wouldn't have to learn it all over again in what seems like a foreign language! Neither would we need two sets of tools and two bins full of bolts.

I remember in the 4th grade, I was the expert oral reader. In oral reading class we could read until someone caught us mispronouncing a word. The teacher always had to just stop me and call on someone else. Until, one time in about the 2nd sentence the word 'aisle' appeared. I hadn't read the material before class. Not the brightest student in the class had the honor of stopping me before I could finish the sentence, and by context, know that I had mispronounced the word.

Those who don't believe in evolution aren't very observant of our language. English pronunciation and spelling will continue to evolve until it dies.
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 9:16 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
Another issue: we have over 40 phonemes in spoken English. We have only 26 letters. Complete reform, involving a one-to-one correspondence between character and phoneme, could not be attained without inventing several new characters. (Think of the expanded keyboard.) Further - whose English would become the standard? Many regions in both Britain and North America omit a terminal /r/ in speech. Is that the pronunciation the new spelling should reflect? Is the first-person singular pronoun represented as /ai/ or /aa/ or /oi/? Perhaps we're better off with the present mess and a small class of pedants who know most of the rules most of the time.
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 9:39 AM
Comment by: Jayna M.
During Shakespeare's time I believe spelling was pretty fluid, including the way people spelled their own names. I do not believe we really wish to go back to those days.
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
"...have as great an influence on English spelling as the age of print did, more than half a century ago." What happpened in the "age of print," ca.1950, that had a great influence on English spelling? Who agrues that English spelling hasn't changed over time and will continue to do so as natural process. But it sound to me that what Trubek wants is to include (change to?) is the jargon of texting and tweets. We don't need to cobble English spelling to accomodate such jargon.
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 10:40 AM
Comment by: William C. (Carbondale, IL)
Trewbecque is wrong on oh-so-many levels.
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 10:47 AM
Comment by: sigrossman (Chevy Chase, MD)
I recently learned the truth about Ralph Vaughan Williams and Ralph Finnes. Both names are pronounced "rafe" I have no idea why.
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 12:54 PM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
Your write.
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 7:58 PM
Comment by: Karen A.
I agree with Mike P. We need to make the effort to spell words correctly. Having said that, someone will probably say whose rules? We do have standard spelling rules. According to Ms Trubek, we should have looser rules and accept spelling variants. I wonder when was the last time she read or wrote Old or Middle English?
Wednesday May 2nd 2012, 5:51 AM
Comment by: Frank H.
”Language is power.” (Don’t accept the rules of the mighty!)
”Language is identity.” (Write the way you you feel is right for you!)
Undeniable truths and seemingly logical prescriptions for a liberal language policy - if it hadn’t been for a third truth: ”Language is communication.” And, alas: Making grammar and spelling optional would only benefit the mighty and resourceful, those with roots and relevant cultural capital. To a foreigner and less privileged (like myself), English is difficult enough with rules. Besides, a thousand flowers will inevitably blossom as a complement; local dialects, subcultural jargons etc. I’m convinced they actually benefit from a clear contrast to a more steady standard.
Wednesday May 2nd 2012, 7:10 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
It's interesting to me that spelling ability carries so much value-judgment baggage with it. If you spell very well you're a pedant; very badly, you're an ignoramus. The latter judgment might make sense in a language in which spelling was completely logical and predictable, but it doesn't really work for English. I'm not sure that spelling ability has any correlates in other areas of achievement, but I'm hard-pressed to think of any spelling champions who also distinguished themselves in other fields. Thanks to all for your insightful comments.
Wednesday May 2nd 2012, 3:37 PM
Comment by: MAry M. (Saint Paul, MN)
The most important fact about language is that IT CHANGES. Any linguist can tell you that spelling is an unstable aspect of any language (just like pronunciation), and has been a route for language change in cultures around the world. It's a losing fight to try to maintain stability....
Thursday May 3rd 2012, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Peter L. (Columbia City, OR)
Hear! Hear! (pun intended) Perhaps when the Gutenberg Galaxy (Marshall McLuhan) devolves back to reading signs like our intrepid ancestors in the forest thanks to "electronic all at once-ness", and we're no longer in our right mind (brain, that is), we can all forget about spelling anything. In the meantime, let's not be lazy.
Pete L.
Columbia City, OR
Tuesday May 15th 2012, 3:32 AM
Comment by: Marjorie D.
Well, all those canings from childhood were a waste of time?
Tuesday August 28th 2012, 4:26 PM
Comment by: Mary W. (WA)
Very interesting post!
A small point: you say that the print era began half a century ago. Perhaps you meant half a millennium?

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Sunday February 24th 2013, 3:24 PM
Comment by: Elizabeth Bennet (United Kingdom)
It's ridiculous. What does it say about us when we misspell out own language? Are we lazy? Are we ignorant? Do we care? Just deal with it, pick yourself up and learn.

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