In a recent book published by OUP, I posed a controversial question: does spelling matter? By which I meant, should society place so much value upon correct spelling, and, is there anything intrinsically important about the particular set of spellings that have become established as standard English?
By tracing the history of English spelling from the Anglo-Saxons’ adoption of the Roman alphabet to write Old English to its use today in email and on the Internet, we can see that our current spelling system has evolved via a series of historical, social and technological developments, rather than through a teleological process of intelligent design. It’s also worth noting that a single, standard spelling system is a comparatively recent development, particularly associated with the introduction of printing technology — which brought with it rigorous spelling checks, policed by teams of editors and proofreaders.
The development and codification of a standard system did not mean the end of spelling variation, however; non-standard spellings have been tolerated for centuries in informal contexts such as journals, diaries and private letters. Even major literary figures such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen used non-standard spellings in their manuscripts. Today, the grip of the standard has begun to be weakened, since websites, blogs, tweets, text-messages and emails are not subjected to the same orthographical scrutiny as traditional print media. As a consequence, non-standard spelling is much more visible. As people are increasingly exposed to websites offering accomodation, guaranteeing miniscule prices, and receiving emails informing them that their goods have been despatched, it is inevitable that some of these variants will come to replace our traditional spellings.
This suggestion will sound scandalous to some readers, who view correct spelling as crucial to the maintenance of our language as a system of communication. But what would be lost if we began to spell accommodation with one m rather than two? For others, learning to spell correctly is seen as character-building, a rite of passage, a test of moral fibre, like taking cold showers or early morning runs. I suspect that there is a third, unspoken, reason why people wish to uphold the standard spelling system, that goes beyond appeals to communicative efficiency, literacy standards and character formation: namely, that those who have taken the trouble to learn it have considerable investment in ensuring that others are obliged to do the same.
The strength of feeling that correct spelling evokes was made especially clear to me when, having given a talk about my book at the Hay Literary Festival earlier this year, I found myself headline news. There was inevitably an amount of embellishment in the way the talk was reported by the press, most notably in the description of my audience’s reaction, which became more extreme in every retelling, from ‘gasps of shock’, to ‘howls of protest’. In Oxford, the press whipped up a row over educational standards, with Oxfordshire’s Education chief accusing me of undermining the Council’s attempts to raise literacy standards. But I’m not arguing that we should cease to teach our children to spell, nor am I advocating that we should directly interfere with our spelling system; history is littered with failed attempts to reform spelling, as I recount in my book.
What I’m suggesting is that we should accept changes in spelling as part of the natural evolution of our language. After all, we accept that words change their meanings and their pronunciations, but, for some reason, we insist that spellings should remain fixed. This might be defensible, if our standard spelling system were an ideal system designed by experts which was easily mastered by all speakers of English. But huge quantities of classroom time are spent rote learning an eccentric and inefficient spelling system, and for many people learning to spell is a lifelong struggle.
During my Hay talk I asked the audience whether the correct spelling is supersede or supercede. A show of hands revealed that only six out of some six hundred people could identify the correct spelling. Is this yet more evidence of falling literacy standards, and further justification for Michael Gove’s determination to invest more time and money in driving up spelling standards in primary schools? Or is it simply evidence that the spelling of supersede has been superceded?