I Can’t Spel That

girl at a spelling bee

Autolatry? Umm, could you repeat that?

How many languages do you suppose there are in which the spelling system is so inextricably tortured that if you are good at spelling words in your native language, you can become a champion? To put this another way, how many languages could have invented the spelling bee contest?

Even smart people bang their heads over spelling in English, and in school if you aren’t willing to bang your head, the teacher will probably bang it for you. In English classes we act as if of course everyone should be able to learn to spell all the words correctly, but c’mon, seriously, yu rilly thenk thatz possuble?

This past Monday while I was not at work I went to the town of Frederick, Maryland, where I was happy enough to slap my own self to find a museum of Civil War medicine. Both those topics interest me greatly, and there they were combined in one grim museum. Among the exhibits was a technique meant to bring the war onto a more human scale, with quotes from letters written by a soldier from Maine. Though I read his letters to learn what his experiences were like, I also noted the creativity he applied to spelling.

Naturally he didn’t realize he was being creative. He had acquired enough schooling to have a sense of sounds as applied to letters and letter combinations, and when he didn’t actually know, he was using what made sense to him.

He was doing what a great many people have done while writing English, probably especially since around the year 1500. Let’s don’t get too linguistic here, but around 1450 printing came along to Europe, and just as with the appearance of the Internet, people were stunned by this amazing invention and ran toward it with open arms. Within the first 50 years of printing, millions (yes, millions) of books were printed.

And you know how it is with print, things look right when they’re printed. So the invention of printing froze the spelling of English words, and darn the luck, just as the pronunciations of words were starting to undergo serious change. So take a ridiculous word like “night”—those letters used to be pronounced, and the spelling shows us the old way of writing it. There are other explanations than just sound changes, but that was part of it.

In fact, for much of the history of English, although it might have been common to spell a word a particular way, it was hard to point to an authority to back up your favorite spelling, and people spelled in all directions. The iron fist of English teachers and editors began to come down on this happy creativity in 1755. That was the year Samuel Johnson published the first widely popular dictionary (not the first dictionary, the first popular dictionary). From then until now there has been a place to go look to find out what the correct spelling is.

“Correct” of course is whatever the editor of the dictionary says it is. The editor is the authority, and every dictionary editor since then has been the authority. But I noticed something rather interesting the other day at work. I was editing an article, wondering if some word was spelled correctly, “pharmacogenetics” perhaps. I don’t have a dictionary in the office where I’m at—I don’t have a real office, as I’m just a temp, you know—so I stuck the word in Google to see how it looked on several websites.

Then I realized I’ve been doing this for quite a while, even when I do have a dictionary, because it’s faster than lifting an actual book and turning pages. It’s true that even looking up a word online this way I might go to an authority. There are dictionaries there, after all.

Yet at times something very different is happening. Sometimes I look at several websites to see how most of them spell the word. In effect, I’m looking to see which spelling gets the most votes. My one example doesn’t mean much, but if many people were to do what I’m doing, then it would mean something rather profound. It would mean that correct spelling will no longer come from an authoritative voice, but from broader popular opinion.

If the source of correct spelling (or punctuation, or language usage in general) comes from popular opinion, then a huge cultural shift is happening. From other things I’ve seen, I would suggest that such a change is indeed happening, as part of an even broader shift away from believing in The Authority. We all make this language, dude, not just old guys in offices.

And if we do stop believing in The Authority, then trouble is coming. Because at least since the invention of printing, we’ve gotten accustomed to relying on written authorities, not just dictionaries, but the Bible or the Constitution. If we start seriously questioning written authorities, that’s a revolution.

You see what happens when you ignore proper spelling?

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