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The Twisted History of English Spelling

In his engaging new book, Righting the Mother Tongue, journalist David Wolman sets out to discover how the English language ended up with such an infuriatingly unpredictable spelling system. His journey takes him from the birthplace of Old English all the way to the spelling reformers who picket the national spelling bee. In the first installment of our two-part interview with Wolman, he tells us how -- as a self-professed poor speller -- he might have felt more comfortable a millennium ago, and how orthographic correctness became so important to speakers of English.

VT: What was your motivation to write about the crazy story of English spelling?

DW: An editor friend introduced me to the Simplified Spelling Society, which he had bumped into on the Internet. This is a collection of people here in North America and in England and other parts of the English-speaking world who are the modern-day torch-bearers of the centuries-old campaign to remedy the English spelling code. He mentioned them to me half as a quirky aside and half as a germ for a possible book idea. We were both instantly drawn to this idea of spending some time with the Simplified Spelling Society members while they protest outside the Scripps National Spelling Bee. That of course is not quite enough substance for a whole book, but it was a great place to get started.

After ending that conversation and thinking more about these people and spelling in general, I began to realize how much spelling had played a role in my life, and how not being a good speller had caused me a little more difficulty in life than I wanted to admit. It never warranted psychotherapy, but it was troublesome. I think it impacted my self-confidence as a kid. So then we started to shape the idea of a book where I would be chasing down answers to the question, "How did this system get to be so tangled and twisted and difficult?" That of course does not take away from how enormous and glorious the lexicon is. But how did the spelling code, specifically, get to be so tough? That's how it began.

VT: So that set you off on making a historical road trip of English spelling?

DW: Yes. One of the challenges was to try to stay as close to spelling the whole time as possible. I think there are a couple of things going on there. One is that I didn't want to just do a travelogue-style history of English, because books about the history of English are out there. That's a more crowded space to enter into, or a more crowded shelf in the library. I also did not want the book to be dry. Personally, I find that the travelogue style is a good way to give a piece movement. It's a way to infuse storytelling with tempo, when the topic is in danger of being prejudged by people as dry or boring -- because spelling is not skydiving. That was something that was on my mind in following English through history and visiting landmarks where the spelling code made significant twists or changes.

From a personal standpoint, I like to go places and see things live, and I like to see people in their element. So to understand the early printing houses, it made a lot of sense to go to the printing museum in Antwerp and see the presses and talk to an expert about what that environment must have been like. And it made sense to see the first English-language Bible with my own eyes, and to protest out on the sidewalk with the Spelling Society people, and meet the progenitors of spell-check software. Maybe because I'm a journalist, I really believe you have to get out there in the world and fill your notebooks with stuff on the scene, and then come back and put it together.

VT: Your tour guide for your trip through England, the linguist David Crystal, made an interesting comment to you when you were investigating Old English. He suggested you might have been born a thousand years too late. What did he mean by that?

DW: That was well before the advent of printing and well before there was ever even an idea of "correct spelling," because the language at that time was being written out by hand, by scribes in monasteries throughout the countryside. Their charge when it came to shaping the words on the page was to just make those words as readable as possible to the client, to whoever was going to be receiving that document. They were really just sounding things out. On the one hand, it was a much more phonetic language then, but it also had tremendous variation when it came to the spellings.

So you can see through history ten or sometimes twenty different spellings for a word like fish or knight. This was really of interest to me, not only the fact that there was so much variation before the spelling code "settled down" after printing, but also that this was a time when the idea of judging people based on their correct or incorrect spellings didn't exist. That was enticing and interesting to me. Crystal clearly understood early on, because I'm not bashful about it, that I'm not a very good speller, and this troubled me as a kid. He was quipping that I belong to a time when people were more relaxed about correct or incorrect spelling -- if you spelled vacuum with one u or millennium with one l, nobody's going to come after you with a billy-club.

Having said that, is he right at a fundamental level? Do I belong to that era more? Probably not, because I like central heating and penicillin and all these other things that go with the modern era. But it was certainly a thought-provoking way to think about Old English. And not just spelling, but attitudes about spelling. This book is about words, but it's as much about our attitudes toward them as it is about the actual shape and the order of letters in the words.

VT: Would you blame the growing irrationality of English spelling on the French influence after the Norman Conquest?

DW: That's a huge piece of it, but even before that, English is essentially a mutt from the very beginning. Well before the French arrived, the lexicon was already building off of words from Celtic languages, Norse, Latin and Greek. And then of course once the French come, all bets are off and it's an absolute inundation of new vocabulary and new spellings. I don't think I could spell hors d'oeuvres correctly if you held a gun to my head.

VT: So it's only much later on that we get the idea of "correct spelling." Could you explain the difference in your eyes between "standard" spelling and "correct" spelling?

DW: Exploring that boundary is one of the themes in the book. It's not a very clear-cut boundary, but once printing comes along -- not instantly, but gradually -- the spelling code settles and words in a certain form are hardening into a concrete shape. Maybe there are a few different spellings of a word for a hundred even two hundred years after printing comes along. But as it's settled down, you see a class of people emerge who see the lexicon as a devastating mess. Most of these people are the elite in Oxford, Cambridge, and London, who feel that the language is really being violated and abused by people in the countryside not pronouncing words the way they, the aristocrats, think they should be pronounced. So you see a group of people emerging saying, "We need to regulate usage of the English language. Things have gone off the deep end and this is wrecking our culture and the potential power of the British Empire." And that's where we begin to see this idea of "correct" spelling emerging.

I should say right off the bat, and I probably can't emphasize this enough, I am not a spelling anarchist. I have fairly conservative tastes about language. "Between you and I," "I did good" instead of "I did well," I bristle at that stuff. On the other hand, learning about the history of how we have standard English versus correct English, and standard spelling versus correct spelling, you do start to see that this boundary is a little bit murky. For example, the fact that debt has a b in it, that b was put in there by people who wanted the word to look more the Latin root debitum. They felt that it somehow enhanced the reputation of English as a whole if it looked more Latin or Greek.

VT: So you think there was a strong element of elitism or classism in those early efforts at instilling correct spelling?

DW: Absolutely. I think there are a few forces at play there. One is that people just want to be correct. Who doesn't want to be doing things correctly? But another thing that's happening is that we as humans have a tendency to judge other people. Language, like it or not, is a very front-and-center way to judge people. And spelling perhaps even more so, because back in the day this was a clear distinction between the haves and the have-nots, the educated class and the poor and uneducated. If you were not schooled, then of course you wouldn't be able to correctly spell all those irregular words that by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries English had acquired in huge numbers.

Without making this sound like I'm calling for some kind of march on Washington, there were absolutely class and race and gender issues going on with our early attitudes about correct and incorrect spelling. Even though I have some conservative tastes about language, I definitely believe that we need to stop and reconsider just how much we associate correct spelling with virtuous behavior. I mean, it's just spelling. You might have some serious crooks out there who are very careful about spelling words correctly, but I suspect there are lot of pretty decent people out there who don't care too much that they're leaning on spell-check all the time.

VT: You write about how correct spelling then gets codified in the form of dictionaries, with Samuel Johnson in the UK and Noah Webster in the US. Do think that the advent of authoritative dictionaries encouraged the idea of bowing down before the enforcers of spelling rules?

DW: I think so, because dictionaries are really the most authoritative sources we have. Proper spelling was never handed down to us on stone tablets. There aren't rules to follow that are like rules in the natural world, like the law of gravity. But we kind of wish there were. It would be easier if there was absolute right and absolute wrong. And dictionaries brought us pretty darn close to that. Dictionaries, without shortchanging how magnificent and brilliant they are, became a tool for language police to use. In fact, dictionary editors and lexicographers will be the first people to tell you that they are never going to be able to get their arms around the entire language. They're always just playing catch-up. It's a really fun game of catch-up, but their job, generally, is more descriptivist than it is prescriptivist.

You see this evolution in Samuel Johnson's thinking. From the start he said, "We've got to fix the orthography first and foremost. It's a nightmare." He insisted on keeping the k at the end of words like publick and musick and critick. He later realizes that the English spelling code was so far out of whack by then that there was no righting the ship completely, nor was he ever going to make it consistent across the board or pleasing to every user of English out there, because the language was just too variable by then.

The people who are behind the dictionaries understand, to a certain extent, that language policing is impossible and kind of ridiculous. And yet the people who do a lot of the language policing use the dictionary first and foremost as the tool with which to carry it out.

Next week in part two of our interview, David Wolman describes the many quixotic efforts at English spelling reform, and how modern technology may be accomplishing what the reformers were never able to do.

(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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Comments from our users:

Saturday November 22nd 2008, 12:06 PM
Comment by: Philip W.
Fasinating storee! This topik has bin mi intrest mini yeers! I plan tu by it!
Saturday November 22nd 2008, 6:07 PM
Comment by: Tanya A. (Wampsville, NY)
Especially interesting right now since I am trying to help my 8 year old with spelling. An "A" student with terrible spelling. What does one do?
Throw my arms up and declare that English is a difficult language to spell! It's all the classics...when to use w or wh - c, k or ck, ee or ea, or just plain e - and so on. Tearing our hair out and tears streaming.
Friday March 27th 2009, 7:33 AM
Comment by: Carla M. (Huntersville, NC)
My son, identified gifted, especially in language, is a *terrible* speller too. He has a t-shirt that says, "It's a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word."

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