At the beginning of June, on the technological campus of Coventry University the British Simplified Spelling Society, now called Spelling Society, with Simplified expunged from the title, celebrated its centennial (centenary). As the theme of the conference the organizers suggested “The Cost of English Spelling.” The society and its ally the American Literacy Council were founded at the peak of public interest in spelling reform. Between 1908 and 2008 many edifying publications came out, and some of the best linguists on both sides of the Atlantic showed the weakness of the arguments repeated again and again by the opponents of the reform. However, a century passed, and despite all those activities English spelling has undergone only a few cosmetic changes (like hyphenation in American English), so that there is nothing to celebrate. And yet there may be a glimmer of hope.
The cost of teaching English spelling is enormous. The money spent on drilling the most nonsensical rules in any modern European language and on remedial courses could have fed and educated a continent. (I have the statistics but will skip the numbers.) Although Spelling Society has lost the game, the world at large has not won it. The establishment refused to institute changes, and, as a result, speakers (native, immigrant, and foreign, both young and old) have become less proficient in reading and writing than ever. Now we are dealing with several generations of the illiterate offspring of illiterate parents.
Since the end of the Second World War life in the West has changed dramatically, partly for the better, partly for the worse. Today more than ever in the recent history of our civilization popular culture has the ascendancy over “high” culture. It is not only our age that witnesses the triumph of popular (low) culture: such is the law of all social development. If it were otherwise, we would still be wearing wigs and using declensions and conjugations of the type known from Latin. In language this trend can be observed in both big things and small. For example, the swift substitution of -s for -th (comes for cometh, and the like) signified the encroachment of vulgar speech on the time-honored literary norm. In Shakespeare’s plays, Falstaff’s boon companions use this ending. Even the Authorized Version of the Bible was unable to suppress this novelty. Today no one cometh and no one goeth.
In recent memory (George Babington Macaulay would have said within the memory of men still living) jeans with a prefabricated rent at the knee became fashionable and more expensive than elegant and unimpaired trousers (pants). The vilest language is allowed in songs, on the screen, and in printed production, whereas in 1908 one could not pronounce the words pregnant and underwear with women around. Highbrows made careers explaining to the eager public the profound goals of the hippies and the surpassing value of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Bras and ties were abolished along with other signs of bourgeois hypocrisy. Only our orthography stands like an impregnable rock in this ocean of change. But the “masses” did not remain indifferent to the preservation of this last relic of the past, and here I come to the subject of the moral cost inflicted on learners by conservative English spelling.
The first point on the list can be called serene resignation. When provoked by the most egregious misspellings in students’ papers, I chide the culprits gently (ever so gently), the answer usually is: “Oh, I know, I am an awful speller.” It is sad to teach people who have never taken geography at school or are, to quote one of my listeners, “lost in space and time” on hearing the word crusades, but the pilot will take passengers to their destination without asking them for directions, and the Middle Ages ended before we were born. In contrast, one has to write something all the time. Yet our orthography is such that people are happy to admit that they are dummies. A state-sponsored inferiority complex is a rather high moral cost for sticking to antiquated spelling.
Point two is the opposite of the previous one. The world in which college graduates are unable to distinguish between principle and principal and think that the past tense of lead is lead has produced its ugly antidote, namely the spelling bee. The contestants cram hundreds of useless words and come away empty-handed because in the last tour they may miss bogatyr “a Russian epic warrior” (the word is not in the memory of my computer). Wouldn’t it have been more profitable to read Russian fairy tales rather than wasting the brain cells on the words one will never see or use? It is an open secret that the most ambitious parents hire coaches to prepare their children for collecting bitter spelling honey. Prestige and prizes are involved in this losing game.
The masses, as I said, have been reduced to the state of blissful illiteracy and will support spelling reform. They have already abbreviated everything. University is simply U. I teach at the U. of M. (University of Minnesota), students in Salt Late City go to the U. of U. (the University of Utah), and if u (= you) want to move south, hire a truck with the sign “U Haul” (that is, “You Haul”) and go there (their) real quick. U Haul to the U. of U., jingling all the way! Text messaging (called texting in British English) and so-called emotics follow the same route. BRB “be right back” cannot be misspelled. Ads vacillate between two extremes: they play on fake nostalgia and invite us to visit their “shoppe,” as in good “olde” times, but also offer lite beer and donuts (curiously, dictionaries now recognize donut as a variant of doughnut—a revolution from below). Simplified spelling is with us, unless you have noticed it. If Spelling Society succeeds in harnessing the energy of popular culture and steers clear of its excesses, it may eventually turn the tide.
However, there is a fly in the ointment. The reformers have always tried to achieve all at once, forgetting the fact that educated people are averse to rapid shakeups of spelling. Any reform that writes giv and hav on its banner is doomed to failure: it will be rejected unanimously by the left and right. Initial changes should be almost surreptitious: first persuade the powers that be (I have no idea where, in the absence of language academies, such powers hide) to abolish the difference between till and until, spell and dispel. Then remove k- in knob and knock (but retain it in know, to preserve its union with acknowledge). Get rid of c in scythe, as well as in excellent, acquaint, and their likes. Dispense with final -b in dumb (pretend that it is a back formation of dummy) but retain it in numb and thumb because of their weakly sensed affinity with nimble and thimble. It is only the underhand “donut way” that may guarantee success: chip away at one word after another. The process will take several decades, if not longer, but, once people agree that change is needed, they will allow the reformers to introduce proksimity, telephone, and perhaps even krazy (not a Romance word!) and wipe out the difference between descendent and descendant.
Necessity has taught us to recycle all kinds of products. Pubs have gone smoke free. We are saving energy, albeit on a small scale. People do all such things, for they realize that they either comply or perish. There is no joy in raising children who know that they are dum(b) and see no means of improving their status. Nor do we want all words being reduced to capital letters. WBA (it will be awful). Investing money in teaching English spelling as it exists will have the same effect that investing millions in Soviet collective and state farms had. But drawing on the experience of that country, we should beware of repeating its other mistake. Post-communist reformers preached that one cannot jump over a chasm in two steps: democracy, market, and privatization—all overnight. A jump indeed presupposes a single effort. But why not build a bridge over a chasm? If spelling reform becomes reality, the English speaking world will emerge from a dark cell into dazzling daylight. This can be accomplished only by passing through many intermediate stages. Lite beer and donuts are the right sustenance on this way.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”