A spell of rough weather
The rhubarb started when Anne Trubek flung down the gauntlet with a suggestion in Wired that we abandon standardized spelling in favor of something more fluid: “Standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity. Period. There is no additional reason, other than snobbery, for spelling rules. Computers, smartphones, and tablets are speeding the adoption of more casual forms of communication—texting is closer to speech than letter writing. But the distinction between the oral and the written is only going to become more blurry, and the future isn’t autocorrect, it’s Siri. We need a new set of tools that recognize more variations instead of rigidly enforcing outdated dogma. Let’s make our own rules. It’s not like the English language has many good ones anyway.”
The copy desk at Wired promptly picked up trhe gauntlet and entered the lists: “ Let’s concede that the rules are ‘arbitrary contrivances’” as Trubek says. The problem is that she draws the wrong conclusion. No, it doesn’t matter how we spell any given word; what matters is that we agree on some particular spelling. Standards are what make communication possible—as any network engineer will tell you. The Internet itself is a set of standards. Our spelling system, for all its oddities, is a universal, inclusive code.”
Before this ruction turns into a donnybrook, let’s keep some things clear.
Ms. Trubek is correct that English got along fine for several centuries without standardized spelling, which dates mainly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the spread of public education. And a good deal of what has been written in the past century—personal letters, for example—fails to observe all the orthographic niceties.
And everyone can agree that English orthography is a large shaggy, ungovernable beast, the issue of Mother Tongue’s inveterate liaisons with other tongues. Noah Webster, George Bernard Shaw, and countless other reformers have imagined that they could tame it, but it has thrown them all.
Ms. Trubek argues, in part, that spelling conventions are just snobbery, shibboleths. But, as Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster observes, cultures use shibboleths to make judgments. The making of such judgments is inescapable in the social subtexts and supratexts of language.
Besides, she gave the game away by conceding that “standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity,” which is pretty much the point that the copy editors’ response makes.
So what we are left with after this afternoon’s shindy is this: If good spelling is the most you can boast of, you are probably entitled to our sympathies. But it is useful if you would like to make yourself understood. As to English’s chaotic spelling, it might help to think of it as you do of the family you were born into. There’s only so much you can do with it.