The 275 spellers who gathered in Maryland this past week for the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee are well beyond “i before e, except after c.” They’re top-notch orthographic athletes, able to rattle off, in order, the letters of words such as “tchotchke,” “schottische” and “aryepiglottic” without a second thought. But what if correct spelling — a standard ordering of alphabetic characters, used to represent spoken words — didn’t exist?
At one point, English speakers lived in a world without standardized spelling. According to the Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English, in the late Middle Ages a word such as “through” could have as many as 500 variant forms, from recognizable formulations such as “thurgh” and “thorough” to more inventive combinations such as “orowe,” “drowg,” “trghug” and “trowffe.” There were pecuniary reasons to use inventive spellings: Lawyers’ clerks were often paid by the inch, and they added superfluous letters to words to pad the bill. Typesetters, on the other hand, might spell the same word several different ways in the same text to save space.
But not everyone was happy with a free-and-easy approach to spelling. In 1582, an English schoolteacher named Richard Mulcaster put together a book of “the right writing of our English tung,” including a list of 8,000 words. More than half (“elephant,” “gunpowder” and “glitter,” but not “tung”) are spelled the same way today. Mulcaster was moved to set down his list because he thought that “forenners and strangers . . . wonder at” English speakers “both for the uncertaintie in our writing, and the inconstancie in our letters.”
There are plenty of folks today who would like to see a world without spelling — or at least without what they see as the quixotic, inconsistent spelling of modern English. Spelling reformers have pointed out the illogic, ambiguity, overcomplication and general messiness of English orthography for nearly 500 years, and their lack of progress in solving any of these issues has not dissuaded them from trying. The last person to have any significant effect on the spelling of standard English was probably Noah Webster, who in 1806’s Compendious Dictionary of the English Language managed to shift “mould” to “mold” and “masque” to “mask” — though he lost the fight on “women” vs. “wimmen” and “ache” vs. “ake.”
Such battles don’t happen everywhere. Speakers of quite a few other languages inhabit a world without correct spelling. Spanish, Italian and German have much more regular orthographies — and not coincidentally, don’t have national spelling bees. But a world in which every English word could take any form would be a strikingly different place. In a best-case scenario, we would write every word exactly as we pronounce it. If orthography faithfully reflected pronunciation, new English speakers would have an easier time, and linguists could more easily track changes in the sounds of English across regions and centuries.
Without a recognized system of standard spelling, elementary education would be turned upside down. No more spelling books, spelling tests or “points off for spelling,” and perhaps a decline in sales of red pens and pencils. Children would learn the simplest possible spellings, such as “Goodnite Moon” instead of “Goodnight Moon.” In place of spelling bees, perhaps we’d see contests for the most creative, beautiful or evocative formulations of words, turning spelling from a chore into an art form. Making ambigrams — words that read the same right side up or upside down; they take center stage in Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” — and palindromes would be much easier, too, and English would have even more onomatopoeic words such as “oink” and “meow.”
In a world without standard spelling, writers would pledge allegiance to different spelling schools. Some would fancy double letters; others would dispense with the silent “e” or add decorative umlauts; romance writers would gravitate toward faux-French endings such as “-eau/x”; and science-fiction writers would use even more of the letters “x” and “q” than they do now. Fans would copy the spellings of their favorite authors, and your letter choices would identify you as a loyal reader of particular publications. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds: For more than 40 years, the Chicago Tribune advocated the simplified spelling of words such as “hemloc,” “iland,” “tarif,” “rime,” “philosofy,” “photograf” and “burocrat.” Some were dropped, but the spellings “thru” and “tho” were used until the mid-1970s.
Computers, however, might have a harder time. Search engines would struggle to retrieve the right links, although phonological spelling might make it easier to provide relevant results when a Southerner is looking for somewhere to eat in Worcester, Mass. On the plus side, though, we’d have no more problems with the Cupertino effect — spellcheck software’s tendency to suggest inappropriate words to replace misspellings and words not in its dictionary, such as suggesting “Cupertino” for “co-operation.” We’d have near-perfect dictation software, and no one would complain about weird words being added to their phone dictionaries through predictive texting. Meanwhile, dictionaries would become both easier to use and used less often.
But a world without spelling would also rob us of the pleasure we get from mastering the complicated, illogical English language. There’s a certain satisfaction to sticking the landing on a difficult word such as “silhouette” or “subpoena” or “surreptitious.” English spelling is messy and difficult. As this past week’s spelling bee competitors understand, that’s what we like about it.
Erin McKean is the founder of Wordnik, an online dictionary, and a former editor in chief for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press.
Former Oxford University press dictionary editor