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Can English Spelling Ever be "Fixed"?

Last week in the first part of our interview with journalist David Wolman about his book Righting the Mother Tongue, he told us how he was inspired to set out on a journey to discover the origins of the maddening English spelling system. Now in part two, Wolman explains why ambitious spelling reforms are doomed to failure, and how 21st-century technology may be accomplishing what the reformers were never able to do. He also muses on the enduring popularity of the National Spelling Bee.

VT: In the book you talk about the popularity of spelling reform in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Why do you think it became such a big issue then?

DW: One idea that jumps to mind is that the can-do mentality was widespread in our culture, especially among the people in power in America.  Everything that we were achieving at the time helped inspire simplified-spelling enthusiasts into thinking that they could pull this thing off. Also, that's when you see some of the most influential names picking up the mantle for spelling reform, like Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, Melvil Dewey, and Theodore Roosevelt. And these are people with some serious financial and political firepower.  In that sense, they muscled their cause into the public realm, or at least into the pages of newspapers, and made the public consider it. 

For someone who's interested in that history, separate from the movement's success — or lack thereof — it's a really fun time to read about. As idiosyncratic as the topic seems now, emotions were firing and people were really charged about this topic one way or the other.  It was a central discourse at the time, with sub-cultures and individual passions and rebellious attitudes.  This is a real goldmine because at times, I still can't believe it happened.

VT: Why, when you even have the President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, being very enthusiastic about spelling reforms, did the movement fail so spectacularly?

DW: One reason is that no one can agree on what the fix should be. Phonetic? Well, phonetic to whom?  English has so many different speakers who have so many different accents that unless you are going to also reinvent the alphabet with 44 letters, so that each one corresponds to each sound that exists in spoken English, you are already facing an extreme uphill battle.

Even those people who have been the most enthusiastic about reforming the English spelling have never been able to agree on the fix.  They always set this issue aside during their most energetic periods of campaigning for the cause, arguing that first and foremost we must raise awareness about how terrible the code is and how urgent the need for repairs is. And once we've all figured out that this must happen, then we can sit some really smart people around a table and they can sort out what the fix will be. But even if they had their knights at the roundtable trying to steer English in a certain direction, it would have been impossible, because of its breadth and because there is no way to make it phonetic to everyone. 

Another layer is as much to do with the nature of the language and those of us who wield it as it is to do with a failure on the part of the reformers. English is too enormous and too powerful to be controlled in this way. Speakers of English have always resisted a language academy. Even though there were efforts to establish a language academy in England, they kept falling flat.  That says a lot about people who speak the English language, and their willingness to accept that the language is at some level an uncontrollable beast.

VT: Do you see the simplified spelling movement in the same situation as it was a hundred years ago, with no real chance for any headway?

DW: There's no chance for headway in the organized sense of movement — whether it's Melvil Dewey and his cronies lobbying for a high commission of English authority, or the Simplified Spelling Society members protesting outside the Scripps National Spelling Bee.  I think it's fairly safe to say there's no hope for that.  But where we are seeing a revival of this idea is on the Internet and with digital technologies. You're seeing, as David Crystal puts it, that we're voting with our fingertips for alternate spellings.

In that sense, you're seeing spelling reform, but it's not necessarily as deliberate, or done in the name of repairing literacy or making language acquisition easier for non-native speakers.  It's just because I'm writing you a quick text message and I want to write weekend as wknd, instead of writing it out with all the vowels.  It is a simplification of the spelling code.  It may not be permanent — some of these changes are a function of the input devices and may not, necessarily, last past the current generation of cell phones and so forth. 

But things are really changing and might change in ways that we can't imagine.  And the Melvil Deweys of the world might really love to see what's happening now that we, the public, are in control of the language, and we are making some changes.  It's hard to know how radical they are — but who knows, maybe rhubarb without the h is coming down the pike.

VT: With technology, you've got alternate spellings being used through texting and various other new forms of communication.  But the flipside of that is the prevalence of spell-checkers, which are a conservative force in preserving standard spelling.  Do you see a tension between those two technology-driven forces right now?

DW: I do at times.  I think it's especially complicated for people who haven't figured out how to train their word-processing program to accept their own irregular spelling, which I admit I never really do. I think some of this traces back to the idea that at the end of the day, people really want to do the right thing and to be correct.  And like it or not, the way we use language is a way that people judge other people.  It is probably not a good idea to turn off spell-check or to not proofread a job application cover letter, because people need a way to distinguish you from all the other applicants, and spelling is a kind of proxy for intelligence, rightly or wrongly.  So it is what it is, and that isn't changing tomorrow.

The other issue going on with spell-check that's pulling us away from language innovation is that spell-check is always going to be behind the innovators out there on the Web and in cyberspace, because there's just a handful of computational linguists and lexicographical whiz kids behind it.  It will keep being updated, but anyone will tell you that to teach a computer how to understand language the way a human being does is no easy task. 

VT: In the book you also discuss the Scripps National Spelling Bee and all the local spelling bees in the US.  Why do you think there's an enduring fascination with the idea of competitive spelling, taking spelling and making it into a "sport" that gets broadcast on ESPN?

DW: Even after my two years of delving into this, to a certain extent I'm mystified by that.  Talented spellers are not going to lead us out of the troubles of the modern-day economic crisis or wars or anything.

VT: Neither are basketball players.

DW: Exactly. I guess I should be indicting all sports events, but why equate spelling with a sport?  I think it's certainly a derivative of our love of the language, and that's all fine and dandy.  But I think it is also related to the not-so-great interest in pressure cooker situations and putting kids on the spot.  This may be too severe an indictment of the whole thing, but maybe what's lost is our interest in thoughtful people who want to shape sound ideas.  Maybe that goal gets swept aside a little bit when we are training kids so hard to memorize correct spellings of words. 

I see a good bit of recreational fun in it and in that sense, I don't think it's harmful, but I do find it strange that the National Spelling Bee is front page every year, no matter what, in every paper across the country.  And the kid who wins the Intel Science Prize for coming up with something that might be the next biofuel is buried at page 16, and no one can understand it anyway.  I think there's a tragedy of some kind going on there that for some reason, people see it as a greater flaw if you can't spell well, compared to someone who can't divide a restaurant check into three equal parts.  You do have to wonder, why is that?

VT: It does seem that spelling bees, especially the National Spelling Bee, crystallize a lot of the anxieties that we have about proper spelling.  At the same time there's genuine enthusiasm for it.  On the Visual Thesaurus website we've been able to tap into that enthusiasm with our own Spelling Bee. There's a real passion for the language there.

DW: Definitely. It's also wonderful to see people develop a love of etymology.  Then you're getting into some really nice messages about the world community of language, and that it matters to an 11-year-old kid at some level that we have so many words from French or Arabic or other languages. Then when they're moving into a social studies class and thinking about international relations and current events, they're making these connections about how we are all using languages that are related.

I think that is wonderful about the Bee, that there's this emphasis on and love for etymology.  And of course if you were to rewrite the spelling code, you could lose a lot of that. That's yet another reason why spelling reform is not going to happen!

(Click here to browse Righting the Mother Tongue. You can read the first three pages of each chapter, or up to twenty percent of the book, for free.)


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Wednesday November 26th 2008, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Magda Pecsenye
David, did you do anything with that study that showed that spelling was a genetic talent that you either had or didn't have? It came out maybe 10 years ago. If people can accept that some people just don't have mathematical brains, then what's the beef about spelling? You can use spell-check, just as people use calculators.

I've always been an easy speller, but never saw it as anything laudable or of note. I guess that's my speller's privilege at work.

And would we even think of this as a problem if we had a language with standardized spelling? I wonder if self-esteem levels are higher in countries with phonetic spelling systems? ;-)
Saturday February 2nd 2013, 7:22 PM
Comment by: Joe L.
David Wolman is funny, sez it'll never happen. Wolman the great orthographic prophet. He also sed, "the glaciers won't move" but they did and the change was huge. Slow but huge. Wolman is a status quo guy undaunted by the Ghosts of illiterates past, present & future. Just as we'll that he won't see the grand canyon when it's ready. Still in the superduper early stages of a likely accelerator called the internet; all bets are off, but i'v got a $1000 on the glacier & grand literacy!

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The first part of our interview with David Wolman.
Spelling it Out
Wolman recommends books about English orthography and people who have dared to modify it.
We're using the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee for a worthy cause.