Our civilization has reached a stage at which together we are extremely powerful and in our individual capacities nearly helpless. We (that is, we as a body) can solve the most complicated mathematical problems, but our children no longer know the multiplication table. Since they can use a calculator to find out how much six times seven is, why bother? Also, WE can fly from New York to Stockholm in a few hours, but, when asked where Sweden is, thousands of people answer with a sigh that they did not take geography in high school: it must be somewhere up there on the map. There is no need to know anything: given the necessary software, clever machines will do all the work and leave us playing videogames and making virtual love. The worst anti-utopias did not predict such a separation between communal omniscience and personal ignorance, such a complete rift between collective wisdom and individual stultification.
For centuries English-speakers have tried to make English spelling less chaotic. These efforts have now come to an end. Most children and adults spell dreadfully, but spellcheckers correct their mistakes. Although a spellchecker does not know the difference between principle and principal, and the horror of lose versus loose/choose, descendent versus descendant, and affect versus effect remains, it will not allow its user to write syllabus with one l or definitely with an a after n (both spellings are great favorites among college students of all ages). The idea of spelling reform is dead; the spellchecker has buried it. We will forever live with deign and disdain; proceed and precede; read (the infinitive), read (the past), and red (the color); lead (the metal) and lead—led—led (the verb), till and until. English words are almost like Chinese hieroglyphics: each is a picture in its own right and a pass to the world of culture: cough, tough, through, thorough, brought, doughty, and so forth. The statement “I am a bad speller” can be heard as often as “I did not take geography in high school.” To be a bad speller is natural and democratic. God forbid joining the vilified elite. It is therefore merely for information’s sake that I will say a few words about the history of spelling reform.
A common question is whether, among the European languages, English has the most erratic spelling. Indeed it does. French, Danish, Russian, Czech, and Hungarian, all of which are pretty awful (the last two because of their diacritics), have a long way to go in comparison to English. German is sometimes tricky but bearable, while Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, and especially Finnish are so easy with regard to spelling that it brings tears to one’s eyes. The ideal of all spellers is to have a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters. In English this ideal is unattainable, among other things, because a great number of regional variants would leave some people unsatisfied even if the most radical reform were carried out. Some native speakers distinguish between merry, marry, and Mary, whereas others don’t. In American English, tutor and Tudor tend to be homonyms; across the ocean, they are as different as foot and food. Those who pronounce yit will not allow yet-sayers to have their way. Any accepted spelling infringes on someone’s “rights.” Nor should spelling be consistently phonetic. The letter i has different values in divine and divinity, but it makes sense to preserve the unity of these words in their written form. One my even argue that benign looks better than benine, for benign and benignant are a natural pair. Proper and place names should preserve their spelling for historical reasons. Although Thames is pronounced Temz, it is too late to change the familiar image. Let Tom and Thomas celebrate their difference the way Tony and Anthony do in American English, and Messrs. Wild, Wilde, and Wyld go their separate ways (my spellchecker has not heard about the English linguist Henry Cecil Wyld, but I have). Therefore, I reject the efforts of the reformers who advocate the spellings Ingland and Inglish.
Those who have not studied the subject will be surprised to learn how strong the movement for spelling reform has been on both sides of the Atlantic, what great statesmen and writers supported it, how many books and journals promoted the reform. (I’ll mention only two books: English Spelling and Spelling Reform by Thomas Lounsbury, 1909, and Regularized English by Axel Wijk, 1959.) All the arguments against the reform are easy to refute. The opponents were horrified. If we begin to spell sea and see alike, how shall we know the difference between them? And what happens when we hear them? Just see what a sea of trouble we are in for. Countless other homographs do not seem to bother anyone. The sentence—When he walked into the hall, the musicians were bowing—is a joke made up for the purpose (playing away or making bows after the concert?). The same holds for Oxford is a whole and must be treated as a whole (allegedly pronounced by someone and viciously misconstrued: hole for whole). Aural and visual puns make life richer, not more miserable, while writing whole with initial w, a letter to which no sound has ever corresponded in this word, is an affront to intelligence. Conservative spellers were aghast. If we change traditional rules, we will lose our ties with history. Who needs those ties in spelling? And what period of history? The Elizabethan epoch, Middle English, Old English, Proto-Germanic, or even Proto-Indo-European? The protoforms of one and five must have sounded approximately like oinos and penkwe. Should we still count from oinos to penkwe? Or is King Alfred old enough for us? Then from ahn to feev (or feef). Steady, ready, go! And to be shure, the sky will fall if we replace telephone with telefone (compare the idiocy of phantom versus fantasy), six with siks, and quick with kwi(c)k. Italians may have their cominciare and even comunista. What do they know about Latin? We’ll never ever let those commies take away the second m from commence, communist, and their kin.
Other countries have had successful spelling reforms, even sweeping reforms (thus Russia after the 1917 revolution, though the project was prepared before the Bolshevik takeover). Only one reason stands in the way of change: the attitude of those who do not want to adjust to new conditions. They spent years acquiring (akwiring) a useless skill (skil) and will die rather than lose it. Imagine having an eg for brekfast and shuger in wun’s tee! No and again no. Give us an omelet and coffee for lunch. We constantly hope for change and give everybody and everything a chance, even a second chance if need be, but the line must be drawn somewhere, and we have drawn it at spelling. So what about the future of spelling reform in the English speaking world? The reform has no future. Long live the spellchecker!
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”