Students at one British university may soon be told that spelling doesn’t count. Writing in the well-respected Times Higher Education Supplement, Ken Smith, a criminologist at Buckinghamshire New University, wants to turn spelling errors from misdemeanors into civic virtues.
If Smith gets his way, instructors at Bucks will stop punishing students who use “variants” like arguement, Febuary, truely and occured. After all, Smith claims, thier meaning is absolutely clear (perhaps he means, ‘there meaning is clere’?).
Smith teaches a large introductory course in criminology, and year after year he’s had to cope with the worst in human orthographic behavior. Now, instead of waterboarding students who misspell, he wants to spend his time helping them deal with real crimes, like murder, identity theft, insider trading, and the split infinitive.
Critics have complained about the irregularities of English spelling since the Middle Ages, when few went to school, spelling was relatively lawless, and the monk Orm proposed a system where single and double consonants indicated vowel length. His suggestions were soundly ignored by the few other monks who knew how to write.
By the 19th century, speakers of English had become aware of the troubling discontinuity between written words, whose spelling had by then been standardized, and their pronunciation, which remained in flux.
George Bernard Shaw was one of many reformers who sought to replace the rigid but illogical spelling system in which fish could be written ghoti – gh as in laugh; o as in women; and ti as in nation – with a phonetic system in which each sound had one letter to represent it, and each letter symbolized but a single sound.
Mark Twain was another spelling reformer, though he favored simpler spellings rather than strictly phonetic ones. Twain insisted that using fewer letters would lead to significant reductions in printing costs and reduce the time it took children and foreigners to learn to read and write English. Andrew Carnegie, for whom time was money, underwrote the Simplified Spelling Board in 1906 to the tune of $250,000, close to $6 million in today’s dollars.
Despite the outpouring of cash, simplified spelling was no more successful in the 20th century than it had been in the 12th. Theodore Roosevelt, another simplified spelling fanatic, ordered the Government Printing Office to adopt 300 spellings advocated by the Simplified Spelling Board – forms like catalog, thru, tho, and thoro. Catalog is still favored by librarians, tho Congress refused to pay for simplified spellings, and T.R. had to quickly back away from his big-stick approach to language reform. But Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, imposed simplified spelling on the newspaper, a practice that made the Trib unique among its peers. The paper finally abandoned the practice in 1975 under the headline, “Thru is through, and so is tho.”
Members of the Simplified Spelling Society picket the annual spelling bee
But Ken Smith doesn’t want to replace an unphonetic system with something more rational and orderly. He just wants us to accept whatever random spellings writers throw our way. That’s a position guaranteed to alienate both spelling reformers and supporters of the conventional orthography.
He needn’t have bothered getting everyone so upset, since our spelling choices actually include more than memorizing irregular forms, rationalizing orthography, or accepting random stabs at correctness. Writers today have another option: the spell check.
Our computers won’t let us get away with spelling “variants” and they frown on any intentional misspellings. My word processor automatically corrected the variants of Smith’s that I typed, as well as my examples of simplified spelling, and it underlined ghoti, which suggests mild disapproval but a willingness to suspend judgment (it doesn’t like judgement).
It’s true that spelling-lovers – there are more than a few, and they’re not all English teachers and spelling bee champs – think that learning to spell is “good for us,” like eating broccoli and practicing the piano. Spell checkers, to them, will lead to mental flabbiness if not a life of crime. On the other hand, fans of spell checkers argue that they free us from one of the drudgeries of writing so we may pay more attention to its content and style.
But in the most practical terms, letting machines spell for us levels the playing field for the many writers who confess to having problems remembering i before e and the double letters in accommodate. Even good spellers make typos (I’d call them computeros, but that could short-circuit my word processor), and they have learned to rely on the spell check as a backup.
The casualties of spell checkers won’t be mental acuity or writing proficiency, but spelling bees, crosswords, and board games like Scrabble, which turn conventional spelling into recreation.
Anyway, the spell check is just an interim utility. The next big thing in word processing promises to be a speech-to-text processor so efficient that it will eliminate the keyboard, the pencil, and any other hand-held text input device except the microphone. The major casualty of speech-to-text will be having to learn to spell. In the future, that will become a frill or curiosity, much like handwriting has become for those of us who write on screen instead of on a legal pad.
In the mean time, spelling reformers will remain on the linguistic lunatic fringe, alongside those who want to rid English of foreign words or restore grammatical case, and if the angry law-and-order responses to Ken Smith’s essay in THES are any indication, so will the inventive spellings of laissez-faire orthography. Nor is it clear how Smith himself will deal with students who spell his name Smythe or Psmith.
Speech to text, still fairly primitive, will eventually render learning to spell a skill of interest only to antiquarians and word-gamers.