Spell Check This!

Posted on November 25, 2009


Correct phonetic spellings replaced by absurd relics of imperialism

Why does “one” spell “won” and “through” spell “threw”? If  “knight” spells “night” then why doesn’t “tough” rhyme with “bough”? What is this obsession with inconsistent spelling in English? Next time you ask yourself that question (if you still bother to), think how you are yourself implicated in this whole ridiculous waste of time.

Could you tell me the origins of the word?

Most of us have long given up wondering. We enjoy playfully pointing out the various inconsistencies in English spelling. Those who lament them are often the first to correct the spelling mistakes of others. Teachers place an enormous emphasis on them. Students make themselves crazy avoiding them. There are nationwide spelling bees. Thousands of kids divert attention away from meaningful learning and youthful cognitive development to cram for them. Just to spell words correctly.

This would not be an issue if there was a logical consistency to spelling. In French, and most other languages, there are no spelling bees. All words are spelled by a logical set of rules. Each letter makes a sound, and letter combinations make other sounds. In English even our rules don’t make sense. C is a K, but sometimes an S. T is a T but sometimes a SH. Sometimes it makes no sound at all. The list goes on. So long that we don’t even bother with it.

The Turks got it right. In the 1920s, Ataturk the great unifier of the Anatolian people decided to bring his tired, crippled country into the modern age. In an massive campaign, he nationalized the population, banned the veil, enforced new hat laws, and standardized the language. Then, with everyone still gasping stunned and gobsmacked,  he boldly announced that  everything henceforth would be changed from Arabic script to Latin script, immediately. Phonetically the Arabic script did not suit the Turkish tongue, and Ataturk (who liked all things European) decided the Latin script was more becoming. In order for it to fit the Turkish palette, a strict set of rules had to be established. He wanted to curtail the inefficiencies of the old system (and avoid problems like we have in English). The system that came out of it is so logical and perfect, that we should just go ahead and adopt it too.

Attaturk attending one of his hat-reform engagements

Well that’s all right for the Turks, you might say, but what does that have to do with me? Ataturks reforms probably didn’t come easily. Is it worth it, changing an entire language that, franlkly, hasnt really been standardized in the first place? Ataturk probably had to crack a few heads in the process, and besides, who cares? This is just another creative solution to a problem that doesnt really exist, right?

It will not comfort you to know that the countless annoying anomalies in English spelling are no accident. They were actually placed there on purpose. English, having its roots in so many ancient languages, spanning such a broad range of regional dialects, invaders and adoptions over the centuries has had to cope with its fair share of square pegs and round holes. I do not intend to bore you with a history of phonology, detailing the yew-hew mergers and yod droppings. Suffice to say, these pesky spellings were once gilded permanently by the scholarly elite as a legacy to their archaic language origins. For your enjoyment.

Correct phonetic spellings replaced by absurd relics of imperialism

That enjoyment must be immense. Still today, in the 21st century, the Stickler Conspiracy, the Templar Knights of Spelling, the Orthographers Cult defend the cause. As we speak, term papers are being flung back at students faces, compositions are being defaced with red ink, volumes of copy are being sent back to the printer, marks are being deducted, machines are making suggestions, cell phones are making predictions, people are rifling through dictionaries, all because some English scholars thought it would be fun.

There have been efforts to change this. As early as the 1870s, in the heat of revolutionary gusto, the newly United States proposed a whopping 3500 English spelling corrections. That was eventually whittled down to a few hundred. When they realized how much work it was going to be to change everything, they decided to just go with a few “u”s being dropped and switch ‘lorry’ with ‘truck’. Besides, America had its own intellectual elite, and they didnt want to be left out of literary circles over a few “gh”s and silent “t”s.

America’s founding fathers no doubt discussing spelling reform

Here’s the problem I have with it. Historically valid or not, these spelling anomalies are culturally based. They are important to the English. Its their language, as they will remind you, and they can spell it any way they see fit. That might be all right for the English, but what does that have to do with me? Most people who speak English aren’t English. And those who are, aren’t even that English anyways. Most British people aren’t even English. I decree henceforth: Anyone who doesn’t identify themselves as English, is not subject to English cultural rites. They are therefore exempt from any archaic spellings. I even go as far as to propose that we call the language we speak by another name. The English may freely exercise their perfectly admirable and legitimate traditions as they need to.  But let the domination of English culture upon others cease, and may we free ourselves.

Spell check this!As mad as that may sound, texters have already started. Many SMS users and online chatters by-pass the spelling suggestion doctrine hardwired into their devices. They have adopted a handier more efficient way of communicating. Academics routinely scoff at this so-called misuse of the language. But ultimately, out of reach of the hobbling tyranny of academics, it thrives. It goes by no other rules than common sense, efficiency and expediency. Through a series of acronyms, the cryptology even extends to body language and idiomatic expressions. In your face, English.

Do not wait for a leader to show you the way. Do not wait for the academic fossils to make it mainstream. Even if you are an adoptive speaker of English, this is your language. Use it as you wish. The point of a language is to communicate and be understood. So do whatever it takes to communicate better. Dropping archaic usages will save you time, free you from the binds of English Imperial domination and improve your life at the same time.


Also check out this recent article from The Guardian