last updated: 10 April 2018 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 992 words)
I’m going to take a controversial line for someone who makes his living by scribbling down words: Spelling doesn’t matter. At least, it doesn’t matter as much as people make out and it doesn’t matter for the reasons they think it does.
What matters is the ability to be understood.
Law of Spelling
There is no universally agreed law of spelling in the way we have the law of gravity. A word is not empirically spelled (or should that be spelt?) one way or another. Instead, we have a convention for how words are currently spelled and that convention is always evolving.
At no point in history has language been fixed and however hard anyone argues, language will never be fixed—it will continue to change. And it will continue to change for many reasons, some logical and others irrational.
Fundamentally, language is a choice. We choose to use certain words and we choose to accept that those words have certain meanings. Those decisions about how we spell a word and what a word means are then recorded in dictionaries and an orthodoxy is born.
But the recording of words follows human behavior—it does not lead. If we all, collectively, decided that cheese should be spelled cheez, then the dictionaries would follow soon enough.
Evolution of Language
Language evolves and continues to evolve because human beings oblige change.
One key reason for change is that human beings need a different way to express themselves. New devices and new practices come along and we need new words to describe them. The television is invented and we need a word to describe the box that sits in our homes—calling it a wooden box with moving lights powered by electricity is a bit of a mouthful.
But the word television has since become more than a way to describe a device. We now talk about people working “in television”, in other words, working in the industry around creating content to show on televisions.
English As It Was…
I was reading some extracts I found from around the 1700s.
”…all other bodyes, by a certaine Mole [he] had in his Neck, and by that marke…”
”…play’d some prankes, made me…resolve to pay him his arrearages.”
”…hee was so senceless…to neglect us and bee debauch’d with another lacquay…”
You’ll notice the odd spellings (for instance, bodyes instead of bodies, certaine and marke with an E at the end) and you’ll notice the capitalization of Mole and Neck. The spelling of senceless has a logic, but the word I find most interesting is arrearages. We understand its present derivation (arrears), but would likely employ another term (such as debts) if we were writing that sentence today.
Another catalyst changing language is immigration and cross-fertilization of culture.
Hearing familiar words spoken with a different accent and phrased with a rhythm which (to us) is new or unusual can be intriguing. Sometimes the new words/pronunciations/interpretations stick, sometimes they don’t. But in the same way that music from different cultures starts by being “exotic” but later becomes mainstream, so language assimilates new words and changes our understanding of existing words.
Language also evolves differently in different geographies and so, for instance, we have different spelling depending on whether you’re using English (as in the language spoken by the English) or American English.
That said, there are many variant spellings within British English and some of the accepted British spellings have more of an American flavor. For instance, many words can be spelled with either an S or a Z (as an example, energise and energize are both correct British English spellings).
Error and Ease
Other factors changing the language are the ease of error and the ease of speech.
I can probably best illustrate this with two words: embarrass and occasion. Both require attention to pronounce correctly and both are easy to spell incorrectly. I mean, seriously? One S in occasion, but two in embarrass…. What’s the logic 😁
While there may be linguistic logic and history, you can misspell either word by using one or two instances of the letters C, R, and S and the reader will still understand what is intended. That makes both words particularly susceptible to change.
And if you say the word embarrass out loud, you can probably drop the “em” sound at the start and still be fully understood. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the word evolves to become barrass?
If Spelling Doesn’t Matter, What Does?
First, let me address the implicit issue—spelling does matter. That said, while spelling does matter, it only matters to a limited extent. What matters far more is what the reader understands.
You can spell words in any manner that makes you happy, but if you spell them in a way such that a reader can’t immediately understand the word, then whatever is written is irrelevant (since the reader won’t be able to understand). Equally, if an unconventional spelling is adopted, the reader may think the author can’t spell, and if the reader has that attitude, then they’re likely to question everything the author writes.
There is wrong spelling. If you spell something in a manner that does not conform to any convention or logic (so if you take the word cheese and spell it apsdfjz), that is probably wrong since it will never be interpreted.
It’s Not Going To Get Better
The challenges we face with spelling and meaning will always be there because language will always evolve and develop. And for anyone who wants to suggest that English should cease to evolve, then let me ask one question: From which point should English stop evolving?
When, exactly, should the definitive version of English be set? Is Chaucer’s version the definitive version. Is Shakespeare’s version the unchangeable? Johnson’s? Or is it the version that you think is the right version the unchanging version?
Let’s all be brave together and keep learning those new spellings.