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The spell of spelling

The spell of spelling

English spelling can be endlessly frustrating. From its silent letters (could, stalk, salmon, February, and on and on) to its nonsensical rules (i before e except ….), to the pronunciation of ough (in cough, through, though, and thought). The messiness comes from layers of history, by way of the Anglo-Saxons and Norse and the French, with the help of Renaissance wordinistas and a slew of printers, typesetters, and spelling reformers. And from about 1400 to 1750, the Great Vowel Shift played musical chairs with the long vowels: the pronunciations shifted even though spellings were already locked into place.

It’s still possible to find some regularities: the silent e often signals the length of the vowel in a preceding syllable, yielding kit and kite, led and lede, fat and fate, dote and dot, cute and cut. Double vowels tend to be long as well: read and red, laid and lad, road and rod. But while it is important to understand the patterns of English spelling, we should celebrate some of the quirks and creativity of orthography. 

In that spirit, here are five things about English spelling worth knowing.

1. Nouns used to be capitalized if a writer wanted to emphasize them

Take a look at the Declaration of Independence, for example, which capitalizes Life, Liberty, and Happiness, among many other words. But the first-person I is the only pronoun we capitalize. Some people imagine that this capitalization is an act of self-importance. But the more likely explanation involves typography. The one-letter I developed from earlier ic or ich. When the consonants dropped away, the remaining letter was elongated to give it more visibility and eventually became a capital. It’s only egocentric after the fact.

2. Writers have endless license to add letters to intensify sound effects

A comic book KABOOOM has capitals, and a surplus of O’s to make for a big, loud sound. Similarly, an ooooh or wheee is a more intense exclamation that a mere ooh or whee. An ummm is more hesitant than an um, and an aah is a happier sound that ah. The more letters the more feeling. And don’t forget brrrr, zzzzz, and aaargh.

3. Rhetorical respellings can highlight a word’s intended effect in other ways as well

The waggish respelling of ass-backwards as bass-ackwards reinforces the meaning of the term while also providing a bit of cover—a tiny bit—lest anyone be offended by the word ass. There are plenty of such rhetorical respellings from the political (the Yippie movement’s Amerika or feminists’ grrrl and womyn) to the commercial(Netflix, Kwik Kopy, eBay, or lite anything).

4. The apostrophe is more a matter of spelling than grammar

Linguist Geoffrey Pullum considers the apostrophe the twenty-seventh letter of the English alphabet. We see this spelling function clearly in contractions and in eye dialect forms like goin’ and workin’, L’il Abner, ‘cause, and ‘nuff. When and is reduced to n sometimes only the first apostrophe is used and sometimes both are. The market Shop ‘n Kart in my town has a single apostrophe but gets points for wordplay since shop’n sounds like a reduction of shopping. Maybe they got the idea from Dunkin’ Donuts.

5. Finally, let’s celebrate the hyphen

That’s the mark used to indicate compounds. The rule for using hyphens with compound adjectives is straightforward (though not always observed): compound adjectives before a noun get the hyphen but after a verb they do not (so This is a fragrance-free building has the hyphen, but This building is fragrance free does not). 

For compound nouns, the situation is more fluid. Just as spelling becomes simplified over time, compound nouns tend to lose their hyphens: bumblebee, crybaby, lowlife, and email. Some words resist the de-hyphenization, like ice cream and snow cone. But snowball has lost its hyphen as have most sports: baseball, football, basketball, even volleyball. Superman and Batman are hyphen-less but Spider-Man and Ant-Man have the hyphen. Iron Man has a hyphenless space.

Spelling can be frustrating. But for my money, the best way to approach it is to enjoy and explore its quirkiness. Let yourself fall under the spell of spelling.

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