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Spelling: The Agony, the Ecstasy and the History

A few weeks ago, after some violent rioting at a demonstration in my hometown of Toronto, the following shocking news appeared in the National Post: "8 patience were sent to hospital." Really, Canada's national newspaper? Has it come to this? No, not the violence and the rioting, the spelling! Why, why? I was deeply offended, and thus inspired to look in this blog post at the whole business of spelling.

Language changes, of course, and with it spelling, with the movement of peoples, the influences of different languages, and changing societal conditions and conventions. Through the centuries English has gone through at least three recognizable periods, and it took a long time before spelling was standardized. A brief history:

Old English, spoken and written from about 600 to 1150 CE, still used many Latin words left over from Roman times. The bulk of words, and the accompanying grammar, were Anglo-Saxon. The Anglo-Saxons were a mix of tribes from Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands; the land they settled in became known as 'Angle-land', or England. Did you have to read Beowulf in school? This epic poem, written around the year 1000 by an unknown author, tells the story of the Scandinavian hero Beowulf, who gains fame as a young man by vanquishing the monster Grendel and Grendel’s mother. If you had to read at least part of it, as I did, know that we, the mistreated and unwilling fourteen-year-olds, read a translation into modern English. We would not have understood this (neither would the teacher): Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum/ þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon/hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon/Oft Scyld Scefing/sceaþena þreatum/monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah/egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð/feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad/weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah/oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra/ofer hronrade hyran/ scolde/gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.

Etcetera (early 15c., from Latin et cetera, literally "and the others." Thank you for asking).

English, huh? Old or not, it's hard to recognize. Icelandic is the modern language that most closely resembles Old English.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, Old English flowed into Middle English, spoken and written until about 1500. Chaucer wrote in the Middle English of his time. We can actually (pretty much) understand Chaucer. The knight in Canterbury Tales was "a veray parfit gentil knight," and in the knight's tale we read that "May wol have no slogardie a-night/The seson priketh every gentil herte/And maketh him out of his slepe to sterte." This, too, was abject torture to the high school student in mandatory English literature class. (But looking back, I'm glad I got a classical education.)

From Elizabethan times onward, we have Modern English. Shakespeare wrote in early modern English. We see occasional spelling differences from conventions we know today, but in general, Shakespeare's English is the English we know. Interestingly, people during this period often spelled their own names in several ways. Shakespeare (the spelling we use today) signed his own name as Shakspere and Shakspeare.

Modern English came about as a result of what linguistic historians call The Great Vowel Shift (Wow. The modest vowel led a revolution). The Great Vowel shift, between 1400 and 1700, led (reasons unclear and hotly debated – these linguistic historians lead exciting lives) to the pronunciation of all Middle English long vowels being changed. The standardization of English spelling began during this period, and the Great Vowel Shift is the major reason English spellings now often deviate considerably from how they represent pronunciations. Spelling reformers (More intrigue! More excitement! And you thought this would be dull.) have argued periodically for spelling reform, in order to match spelling with pronunciation in a rational way. Think of any of the tens of thousands of words that you and I struggled to learn how to spell, because their spelling is not "rational," that is, not matched neatly with pronunciation. Because, bought, bright, mortgage, colonel, queue, squirrel… and the word language itself. You can certainly come up with many, many more.

Benjamin Franklin, a proponent of rational spelling, actually designed a phonetic alphabet for the sake of spelling reform, going so far as to commission a type foundry to make the new letters needed for typesetting in his proposed system. But no one was interested, so he lost interest as well. George Bernard Shaw was a passionate advocate of spelling reform and left his entire estate to the development of this project. Again, nothing happened. Perhaps it would be rational to align English spelling with pronunciation, but it seems to me (and not just to me; no one seems to want to do it) that this would mean erasing the history of words and their spellings, history that is in every way the history of a culture. Every weirdly spelled word tells of explorers, conquerors and visitors; of French, Latin, German, Scandinavian and a host of other languages; of the whole fascinating, confusing, complex flow of life across the centuries.

What about spelling today? Social media, the smartphone and other apparently necessary accouterments of modern life, have led to the Age of Abbreviation (capitalization mine), for fast typing and quick thinking (shallow thinking, says the old curmudgeon on my shoulder). Spell as you like; make new words out of abbreviations; and above all, if you must spell correctly, use spell-check.

Sigh. I just don’t have much patients – oh sorry, National Post, am I confusing you? – patience, I mean – with the lazy abandonment of the rich, annoying, wonderful, beautiful beast that is modern English spelling.

W.H. Auden said that, "A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language." Poets can play with spelling, grammar and punctuation, as e e cummings did, but they must first deeply know language. Then the rules and apparent strictures empower them and set them free.

Till next time, my friends.

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05 Σεπ 2023

Thank you for a fascinating journey through the history of English! I agree with you that each word is a unique cultural treasure. And like you, I always enjoy exploring more meanings in words by reading them backwards :)

This reminds me of a poem by one of my favorite authors, with a palindrome for a title, showing just how fascinating life can be: (last stanza):

Pam's Map*

So you never know where a day might go

Or when mysteries come in sight

Even if it's Gran with a clever plan

And she makes a dull day bright.

*By Deborah Court, in: Summer's Lie (The Maggie Dunn Books Book 1), 2020.

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Dear 😊Nili, I also love reading words backwards, and there is more to your comment than meets the eye. "Reading words backwards" is a metaphor for reading language backwards, that is, looking at the history of language, and thus culture. One of the saddest things about modern life is that we have lost our sense of history. And how sneaky of you to quote Summer's Lie! For any of my wonderful blog readers who have not read the Maggie Dunn Trilogy - you can order these three books from Amazon.

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