Sue Littleford, an advanced member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English language. Here is part three:
In part one, I wrote about mob rule in English, and how the internet has delivered the largest mob ever. In part two, I talked about coping with changing norms of language. One of those changing norms is surely spelling.
David Crystal OBE, in his lecture to the 2013 conference, spoke of how he has tracked the dropping of the h from rhubarb over the last few years by simply googling the word from time to time. Who needs the h, anyway? Rubarb sounds just the same without it. Why not agree it’s time it went and update the dictionaries? Wouldn’t that be nice and neat and logical?
Ah, yes, spelling reform. I’m agin it. In detail-less brevity, English spelling shows its breeding. It doesn’t reflect how some words sound now. It doesn’t reflect, necessarily, etymology. Some of our words were taken out to a dark alley and given a wedgie by language bullies who were afraid that good old English was simply not good enough (wedging the b into debt, the p into receipt, the s into island), some of them tripped over their own feet and had a nasty accident (smooshing an h into ghost, for example) and some words were mugged for political purposes (Nathaniel Webster springs to mind). It’s all a dreadful mess, spelling isn’t logical, it’s hard to learn and Someone Ought to Sort It Out. Well, again, no. There’s no Someone to do it. There are millions of someones. (See what I did there? We’re back at the internet.)
I suspect that, quite possibly in my lifetime, there will be natural and inevitable spelling reform based on the weight of opinion on what works best for one speaker of English to communicate with another, regardless of their backgrounds. Globalism demands it. Changing spelling wholesale is contrary to the way language actually works. And if you don’t believe that, count up how many Esperanto speakers you know, or writers of Shavian. Language grows – or, rather, is grown by its users – to meet demand. What starts as wordplay, or slang, or code becomes widespread; those words that are found useful become embedded, at least for a while. Those words that aren’t are dropped. Words come into fashion, go out again, maybe they come back, maybe they don’t. It is usefulness that drives these effects.
Spelling reform will happen, as it has happened constantly since we started spelling, but not as a programme imposed from above, by some ineffable body outside language telling us how things are going to be from now on. Yes, we must be taught how to use our language with facility, we need to learn the norms for spelling, punctuation and grammar that apply to our time; we need to learn about register, about appropriateness, so that the English we use in our school essays and job applications will be different from the English used informally. This isn’t new. What is new is the ease with which so many people of so many points of view can debate, declare, deride uses to such a huge audience. Some memes go viral, others don’t. Some memes have longevity, some burn out quickly after only sporadic interest. Just as general suffrage gives votes to people you don’t agree with, and to people you suspect shouldn’t be trusted with something as important as choosing the government of the country, the internet allows people less educated than me and people more educated than me, on a spectrum that runs from crackpot through people who think just like me and onto a whole other kind of crackpot to use English and to publish constantly.
Consider, though, the impact of spelling reform if it happens any other way. There have been so many schemes, mostly criticising the fact that words don’t look how they sound. So – you’re going to devise a spelling scheme and have it adopted. Upon whose accent do you base spelling? Received Pronunciation? Brum? Scouse? Welsh? Highland Scots? Belfast? Estuary? Then it already doesn’t look like it sounds to anyone with a different accent, or who speaks a dialect. What do you do about homophones? Homonyms? Will you sort out the mess of contronyms, too? But let’s gloss over that and speed on.
A new English spelling system is introduced. Time passes. Not much time – ten or twenty years is more than enough. The literature of the last four hundred years or so is now unreadable to the younger generations who only know the New English. A common enough problem now – Shakespeare is troublesome for many, Chaucer for most. Given the exponential growth of publishing since their day, though, it’s a vastly bigger problem. But it’s not the biggest problem. That is that our young people are cut off from the English of the rest of the globe. A few basic words will survive the revamp, of course: bat, dog, bawl, idiot.
So do we cut off our kids from our culture? Or do we transcribe and republish everything? Or just bits of it? (Which bits? Is the rest of our literature, our history, kept for the comparative handful who learn the Oldies English as a separate, elite, subject?) And what about the internet? The mass of material so huge it’s impossible to imagine?
The difficulty with spelling evolution now, of course, is dictionaries. We used to spell how we spoke, so we all spelled differently. Then came the printed word, which brought about a bit more standardisation, then the spellers, then the dictionaries. How can spelling move away from the monolith of the dictionary? Well, it can and it does and the dictionaries play catch-up. I sometimes amuse myself by checking a spelling on Googlefight before going to the dictionary. The people are speaking, and they’re not all speaking dictionary.
Sue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller. She is on Facebook and Twitter.
Proofread by SfEP associate Patric Toms.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.