I want to talk about spelling as we know it. I don’t mean the kind of spelling where, like, you end up with a potion of eternal width or with magic shoes that won’t let the person wearing them stop dancing. I mean the kind where you end up with a word, by putting together word components. You know, consonants, eyes of a vowel, gizzard of gerund endings, that stuff. Please adjust your expectations accordingly and report back when they’re settled down.
Spelling as we know it began in 16th century France, where the regular consistent coding of words served as a way for persecuted Hugenots to acknowledge one another without detection by the King’s agents. With the Edict of Nantes temporarily resolving that whole fight about how much everybody loved God more, the need for the secrecy faded. So the idea went looking for more exciting spots. It spread first to Holland. Then to Poland, where it got lost and ended up back in Holland. Next time around it set out for Italy, but misunderstood the directions through the Swiss Alps and ended up right back in Holland. Having had enough of ending up in Holland, spelling jumped into the English Channel and swam furiously west. Fourteen days later it washed up in Holland, where it threw up its arms and said, “Fine, then,” and got all sullen.
Spelling might have remained in the United Provinces forever except for the Great Fire of London of 1666. Samuel Pepys, renowned for his diaries and how fun it is to say his name and probably other stuff I’m guessing, realized the use of regular, consistent spellings during this disaster. His first warning of the fire came from a young boy of laddish age who ran past yelling out, “Taike kare! Taykke kaire! A graette Fyren cowmes here frum Puddenge-Lain!” Pepys had no idea what the kid was talking about. He asked the kid to repeat it, and it didn’t get much better. The child added, “Rayce the allarum! Phire raigges throo the Citty!” This left Pepys feeling awkward. So he let the child go and figured if it was all that important he’d hear about it.
The still-smoldering Pepys figured nobody needed that kind of brush with death. So he figured maybe the city could be built fireproof. Also maybe write things down in consistent ways so it doesn’t take four tries to understand people. His friend John Evelyn considered this series of events, pointing out that if the child had said all this, the spelling shouldn’t matter. But why would the child have written out such a message about the Fire when he was running around and talking to people about it? Pepys eloquently shoved his friend into the Tyburn river. Evelyn conceded the point.
And so consistent spelling caught on in English. It did well, thanks to early breakthroughs like “silent E” and “n-apostrophe-t” charming the population with their elegant whimsy. “Onk” was also a big selling point. We still live in a world where it would be fun to see many people get a bonk on some appropriate bonk-absorbing part of their person. For a while there was a market in switching out “ks” for “x”, or vice-versa, but that’s gotten to be seen as old-fashioned. And don’t get me started on how you can’t just write “connexion” anymore without being accused of cheating. Also everybody follows the “q is followed by a u” rule, but they don’t understand it. It’s a pun. Once you see it, you’ll never un-see it. I hope to see it myself someday.
This is not to say that spelling in English is perfectly consistent. It couldn’t be, not given the need of aristocracy to show itself as better than real people. Thus would Spelling Book authors compose all sorts of new and exotic letter patterns. This led to many never-before-suspected innovations, like “hiccough” or “untowardsmanship”. Long after the fad for ostentatiousnessocity had passed, we were left with the remains. Most of the worst offenders slid out of the English language, owing to foreign tourists taking oddities home with them. And the rest are a reminder of how far we have come, or have yet to go, or have ended up where we are. Granted this describes many things, but only because they are like that.