Over time, language evolves. If you want to see how language changes, read some Shakespeare and then read something published within the last few years. You’ll see a difference.
With language the process of evolution goes something like this:
- someone makes a mistake
- a lot of people make the same mistake
…and eventually, everyone decides that the mistake is correct and what was previously correct, is now wrong.
Knowing Right From Wrong
There is no empirical measure to test whether a word is spelled correctly or whether it has been used correctly—there is simply a widespread understanding about what a word means (recorded in dictionaries and style guides which are regularly updated) and everyone tries to keep up. Rightness or wrongness is simply a matter of what most people think—there is no governing body to enforce orthodoxy and there is no laboratory where spelling can be measured.
One difficulty with the English language is that it is the most widely spoken language—the number of speakers increases the number of errors which then go on to become those newly accepted versions.
As someone living in England, I am very aware of the attitude that—by definition—English is the language spoken by the English and therefore any other variation is just wrong.
British English has itself been subject to variation (again, see Shakespeare) and continues to evolve. Many of the variants to British English are influenced by non-British versions—most recently we have been very influenced by American English, but we are also influenced by other flavors, not to mention the number of non-English words that have been included in the language.
When we look at non-British English, it’s worth remembering that the United Kingdom only has the sixth largest English speaking population. In other words, five countries (United States, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Philippines) have larger English speaking populations than the UK. Put another way, over 95% of English speakers do not speak (or write) British English.
Now, of course, we Brits can always adopt the usual British attitude, and just expect every one else to follow us, but that will leave us increasingly isolated. If other variants of English start to move and we don’t change, then we will no longer be able to communicate to, nor understand much of what the rest of the world is saying and writing.
For those of you of a very purist mindset, I should warn you that I’m about to get heretical…
One of the most illogical aspects of English is that many words are not pronounced how they are spelled. There are many examples of this, but for brevity, I want to focus on two examples.
The first example is words with added characters that are silent. So, for instance: prologue, catalogue, analogue, and dialogue. The “ue” at the end of each word adds nothing (apart from confusion for those who do not speak British English).
Personally, I adopt the US English spellings (so: prolog, catalog, analog, and dialog) since to my mind, these spellings are far more logical.
The second example is words where a letter is used, but that letter should be pronounced differently…and it’s only if you know how the word should be pronounced that you pronounce the letter wrong and thereby pronounce the word “correctly”. So, for instance: apologise, organise, and recognise are all pronounced with an “ize” sound at the end, although under conventional British English they are spelled with an S (which would imply the end sound should be “ice”).
The solution here is even easier than for words ending with silent characters—there is a perfectly acceptable British English spelling for all these words which corresponds with how they are pronounced: apologize, organize, and recognize. This spelling corresponds with US English.
A Different Approach
These changes are simple and have no downside—everyone who speaks/writes English would know how to sound these words, even if they think they are misspelled. These approaches also correspond to how (almost all of) the rest of the English speaking world spells these words.
And making these small changes makes our words just a little bit more widely understood.
And yes, there are many spelling/pronunciation illogicalities in other English variants…it’s not just British English that’s odd. And, of course, there are many other aspects of English spelling that are troublesome.
But we have to start somewhere, so come and join me and start spelling words how they are pronounced. We’re going to start in a small way…but if you see a chance to spell a word how it’s pronounced—even if they say you’re spelling it wrong—then do it. Everyone else can catch up later.
That’s it for this month, I’ll be back in March.
All the best