English goes where it will
The first thing to remember is that English was created by illiterates. Peasants who ripped apart respectable Anglo-Saxon and turned it into some ungodly goulash mixed with Norman French and Latin. English has been lifting promiscuously from other languages ever since, and its mongrel nature makes its spelling a dog’s breakfast.
I suppose we all knew that about English orthography, but David Wolman has looked into the matter more extensively in an entertaining and chatty book, Righting the Mother Tongue.*
Moving chronologically from the Norman invasion to the present, he traces struggles over English’s irregular spelling. You can read for yourself about his “orthography-themed road trip through England” with the distinguished linguist David Crystal; his visit to Merriam-Webster’s word hoard in Springfield, Mass.; his chat with Les Earnest, who has a sound claim to be the inventor of spell-check; and his trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee,** along with a side trip into the scientific investigation of dyslexia.
I don’t think I’ll be giving the game away by summarizing some of the crucial points.
First, speakers of English have been steadfastly resistant to attempts by authority to regulate the language. There is no English Academy determining an official English, and there probably never will be. Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster had a limited effect on regularizing some aspects of the language with their dictionaries, but even Johnson acknowledged at the end of his great effort that the language goes where it will.
The multitude of efforts to simplify English spelling, some by solitary cranks, others by societies of notables, have gone nowhere, and probably never will. Imposition of reform from above simply does not work.
The Internet, he speculates, with its millions of writers, professional and amateur, wielding and transforming the language, may be as hugely transformative as those generations of Anglo-Saxon peasants who laid the foundation of modern English.
Not everyone will be pleased, which is to be expected. People have been complaining about English falling into corruption since the Tudors were on the throne, and we will have people harping on that string as long as we have viewers-with-alarm and things-were-better-when-I-was-a-boy grouches.
For the rest of us interested in language, English is a mighty river, and we are lucky to be able to navigate it to see the channels into which it flows.
* David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling, Smithsonian Books, 211 pages, $24.95.
** Any suspicions you may have entertained about spelling bees will be confirmed when you read the remark by one of the Scripps champions that math and science are interesting but spelling is "just a bunch of memorization."