Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How do you spell "change"?

Sandra Parshall

I think Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster would approve of Twitterese and online language in general. Both were enthusiastic proponents of a flexible language and believed that words, when written, should look the way they sound. I doubt that either man would be moaning about internet-fostered illiteracy and young people who prefer phonetics (ur) to standard words (your).

The greatest strength of the English language, especially the variety spoken in the U.S., has always been its elasticity. English readily absorbs useful foreign words, sometimes changing the pronunciation and spelling. Old words acquire new meanings, and every year we create and rapidly begin to use words that never existed before. At the same time, English is a hodgepodge of archaic spellings, some with more than one definition and a different pronunciation for each definition.

When a language contains such spellings and pronunciations as borough, cough, tough, slough, through, and dough, it’s amazing that any child learns to speak, read, and write it fluently, and even more astounding that anyone can learn it as a second language. We have words with different spellings and meanings but identical pronunciations, such as borough and burrow, through and threw. We have words like ghost and aghast, with inexplicable silent letters. And can you tell me the difference between learned and learned? You can speak English all your life and still trip up when writing it.

Benjamin Franklin recognized the problem as early as 1768, when he published “A Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spelling.” He proposed several new vowels and wanted to abolish some troublesome consonants. His views didn’t have much impact on practices, though.

Noah Webster shared Franklin’s views, and he was in an ideal position to take direct action: he
That wild and crazy guy, Noah Webster
compiled the English-speaking world’s most widely used spelling guides and dictionary, and if he thought a spelling should be changed, he changed it. He created American versions of such words as centre, theatre, honour, colour and programme. His ideas about the language scandalized social conservatives, who called him radical and mad. But you will notice that center, theater, honor, color and program are today’s standard spellings in American usage.

Standardized spelling, however, is an obstacle to innovation. Since the printing press was invented in the 1440s, language conservatives have been trying to make us toe the line and ignore the allure of simplification and clarity in spelling. Even as we continually add new words to the language, many of them spawned by the technology industry and communications media, publishers demand standardized spelling and adherence to “house style” and writers run spell-check and comb through their manuscripts for slip-ups. Nothing, we’re told, will make a worse impression on an editor or agent than a misspelled word. Use “threw” when you should have used “through” and you’re toast.

But the people are the ones who shape their language, and in this time of rapid change English can't remain static. In the current issue of Wired magazine, writer and Oberlin College associate professor Anne Trubek states, “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.” Note that she uses past tense in referring to the print era.

I’m all for letting the language evolve on the street and the internet, in everyday use. Why should we let scholars who are heavily invested in the past and staid tradition restrict the flexibility that has always been the hallmark, the inherent value, and the greatest charm of English?

What do you think?


Sheila Connolly said...

The attitude toward flexible spelling is literally "written in stone" in 18th-century cemeteries. You will find family plots where the surname is spelled three different ways, with the stones side by side.

Don't get me started on spellings in the Irish language, but that I can blame on the Engish, who "improved" the spelling as late as the 1960s, mostly by adding a lot of letters than aren't pronounced.

Sandra Parshall said...

The few surviving specimens of Shakespeare's signature are all spelled different ways by the owner of the name himself.

I'm in favor of retaining the standard spellings of last names because there are so many legal issues involved, but I wish we could do away with constructions such as the "ough" I mentioned. What's wrong with coff (or, better, koff, because the letter c can also be pronounced like an s), ruff, tuff, sluff, etc.? Aren't the phonetic spellings clearer?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I still react badly to certain misspelled words, but I believe the reason English has won out over French as the global language of commerce and diplomacy in the past half-century or so is that English is inherently flexible, while French is not.

Sandra Parshall said...

So true about France, Liz. The French government doesn't even want citizens to give their children non-French names.

Kaye George said...

I love the fluidity of language and the way English, especially, adapts and changes. I did a blog on it awhile ago, too, Sandy.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Meriwether Lewis's journals spell "mosquito" more than a dozen ways. And I got in the habit in college of writing "Shaxper" -- one of Mr. S's most oftenly used variations. Had to be careful not to do that in a paper, though!

Sheila, didn't some of that Irish variation happen when immigrants came to the US and officials transliterated the Gaelic in different ways? Brothers who came at different times might have found their names changed to Doherty, Dougherty, Dockerty, and more.

I'm sure variations in texting and email are here to stay, though when I asked my 33 y.o. niece for a texting abbreviation my protag might use, she said she rarely abbreviates b/c the newer smarter phones have autocorrect that fills in the spellings for her. I wouldn't have thought of that myself.

Edith Maxwell said...

Really interesting post, Sandra. I think we need to be very careful to distinguish spoken and written language, though. You wrote: "it’s amazing that any child learns to speak, read, and write it fluently." All children learn to speak the language around them with no problem whatsoever.

And all languages have always been flexible and changed over time. That's how we got a half-dozen sister languages out of Latin, which nobody speaks at home anymore, among many other examples. A government - now that's where inflexibility comes in!

Sandra Parshall said...

No language has expanded and changed as much as English, because it more readily absorbs foreign words than any other. The French have raised protecting/preserving their language to the level of a government program, and foreign words are not welcome. English is expansive, welcoming, and should remain so. But I would like to see some of Benjamin Franklin's suggestions adopted to make better sense of our written language.

Julia Buckley said...

And yet it's not necessarily as flexible as we think; there's an article floating around on Facebook which is taken from a magazine dated 1911, in which various "experts" made predictions about 2011, 100 years into the future. One of them was that three letters--C, X and Q--would be eliminated from our alphabet, saying "They will be abandoned because unnecessary." The article also suggested that "spelling by sound will have been adopted" and "Russian will rank second."

So it seems you never know.

Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, the spelling is the only aspect of English that has remained inflexible for the past 100 years. I think what accounts for that is the explosion of mass communication -- including the spread of newspapers and magazines and increasing numbers of books being published -- along with the growing number of educated citizens. We got locked into spellings that were used most commonly across all platforms. When "cough" is spelled that way 100 million times in print, it's harder to get people to consider spelling it "koff" -- even though the latter makes more sense.

Susie said...

Interesting post! Language is meant to evolve, but in order to communicate effectively some standardization is helpful! But the grammar police can be annoying. Some people seem to get so upset when "impact" is used as a verb, but I think it makes sense, even if its not grammatically correct :-)

Sheila Connolly said...

To respond to Leslie's comment (which may well apply to immigrant surnamess), in the 1950s there was a countrywide decision to introduce An Caighdeán Oifigiúil (the Official Standard) to "fix" Irish spellings, eliminating the use of the old typeface and the all-important dot over certain consonants that indicated a change in pronunciation of the word without changing its spelling. The language itself is still struggling to survive, whatever the spelling.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sheila, interesting. Didn't know about that. I guess I'm thinking about earlier, non-systematic changes that happened when Irish came to the US.