Spelling And Why Not


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.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

22 thoughts on “Spelling And Why Not”

  1. An excellent and very important post. The lay person does not understand how ostentatiousnessocity can lead inexorably to untowardsmanship … or worse, dry heaves. I forgot where I was going with this, but I remember the take-away. Holland has a lot of explaining to do.

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    1. I have to be fully honest, and admit that I can forgive Holland almost anything thanks to it having both the Efteling amusement park and bunches of places with names that go like ‘s-[REAL NAME HERE]. It’s so very charming. Also they have this kind of hot pocket-like thing that’s all cheese.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. They turn out to be pretty sweet! Really they’re a pretty good answer to the problem of getting reasonably fresh-made hot food. It’s just easier to expect people to take something frozen and put it in a convenience store’s dubious microwave. Shame.

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        2. I admit all the weaknesses of it as a human achievement but, so help me, I still like getting a tube of some cheese-based substance that’s encrusted in some dough-based substance and left on a heated roller for a couple hours. I can’t defend any of this.

          Liked by 1 person

      1. I think ‘randomness’ is a bit too harsh a word. There’s usually a fair logic behind the spelling of any particular word. It’s just that there are many different blocks of spelling-logic for different words, and there’s generally few ways to guess, on hearing a word for the first time, which of those blocks it falls in.

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        1. I say randomness with a lot of fond annoyance about spelling them onstage. I see your point but I refer to the more obscure words that have an unknown origin or come from languages where there only are a few loanwords in English to be a standard of comparison. The vast majority of English words that are used in daily life on the other hand are fairly logical.

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        2. Ah, yeah, there are a lot of mysterious pieces. But at least while English exports words to other languages they can get weird anomalous spellings to mess them up too.

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        1. I have heard the claim that non-English languages just don’t have spelling bees. I’m not sure that isn’t more a matter of not having a culture of spelling bees rather than there not being enough oddly-interacting spelling rules. Granted there are languages where some body has the power to set an authorized spelling; that there is a need for an authorized spelling indicates there’s multiple ways that a word could sensibly be written down.

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        2. Yes, that makes sense. Though I had never thought of it before, I think English is uniquely suited for spelling bees. Our bizarre and cryptic and often conflicting “rules” make us the “final level” of spelling challenges.

          Also, I suppose there are some languages where even the concept of a spelling bee is nonsensical. Such as languages that use character-based writing.

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        3. English is very well-suited, yes. I’m not sure about uniquely, though. It’s not like other languages are immune to the code-swapping or the pronunciation shifts or the orthography changes that affected English. English has got a more even balance of language types going into the common word set, though, and much weaker authorities able to regularize spellings.

          I think at some point English-speakers started trying to think of the language’s spelling weirdness as something to brag about, the way people in lousy climates will talk about how awesome it is they get sixty feet of snow in a season or whatever.

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        4. You’re definitely right about that! English-speakers take an odd sort of pride in the oddities of our language. It’s like the more exceptions there are to the rules, the better we like it. Or maybe that’s just me.

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        5. I don’t think it’s just you. I think there’s something where the harder it is to deal with a thing the less its enthusiasts want to give it up. If there were a language where you had to finish every sentence by whacking your palm with a hammer, it might not have a lot of speakers but they would all insist there wasn’t a better tongue.

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