The Latin alphabet was adapted to English in the 6th century by Christian monks. The Norman conquerors brought changes in pronunciation, adding suffixes, spelling practices, and analogies. When The Great Vowel Shift occurred in the 15th century, it altered the character of English spelling. This left the English language with more spelling irregularities and exceptions, and people began to look for rules to reform it.
The Internet Arrives
“A new source of spelling variation is the Internet,” says David Crystal in his book SPELL IT OUT: The Singular Story of English Spelling. “The influence of the internet on language joined the rest of the changes in the early part of the 21 century: cultural preferences (is it Muslim or Moslem?); variations in capitalization (is it bible or Bible?); variations in spacing and hyphenation (is it flower pot, flower-pot, or flowerpot?); variations in the use of the apostrophe (is it 1980s or 1980’s?).”
Crystal says the problem is partly one of language change. “The punctuation of words can change as time goes by. As e-mail became more widespread, people began writing it as email. Chat-rooms became chatrooms.” He reports that around 16,000 words lost their hyphen in the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary published in 2007. Previously hyphenated words were shown as one (such as leapfrog, touchline); others were shown as two words (such as ice cream, test tube).
“This is all part of a modern trend,” Crystal explains, “to omit word punctuation: graphic designers often say it adds undesirable ‘clutter’ to the appearance of a word. Thus, as well the omission of hyphens, the 20th century saw the gradual removal of periods (full stops in British English) in abbreviations (BBC for B.B.C., Mr for Mr.) apostrophes were left out of place names and signs (Harrods for Harrod’s, womens for women’s in the clothing department of a big store).” And of course, there are no standards. Different dictionaries, stores and designers make different decisions. Overtime, Crystal says, consensus can evolve, but new sources of variation are never far away.
“God, don’t they teach you how to spell these days?
“No,” I answer. “They teach us to use spell-check. ”
— Jodi Picoult
Social Media Flood
Witness not only the introduction of the Internet and texting, but social media: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, etc., and their influence. As Crystal says, “The future role of the electronic medium in influencing spelling is unclear, but it is likely that a simplification of the most irregular spellings will be one of the outcomes.”
Certain spellings have been popularized (such a ‘c’ for see, ’u’ for you, 2 for to; new ones such as lol), but Crystal feels, “Novelties, whose long-term effect on the language remains to be seen, include minimalist or zero capitalization in message (no sentence-initial capital, the use ‘i’ for the pronoun I, the use of repeated letters (I’m sooooooooo happy), and the replacement of normal letters by other symbols, as seen in @command, Micro$oft, d00dz (dudes) and c%%l (cool).”
He says recent name spellings are new with the use of a lower-case letters for a brand name, as in iPod, iPhone, eBay, jetBlue, and that it’s not clear what do to with those when they begin a sentence. Crystal believes that it is likely that variations will increase as the Internet evolves.
Novel Domain Names Required
“One factor will be the need to find novel domain names. All the common words in English, in their normal spelling, have now been used as URLs to identify websites, so anyone wishing to add a new file to what is available must now devise an address that is different. This is usually done by stringing words together (as in www.shakespeareswords.com), but the longer the string, the more risk there is of a typing error.”
One alternative is to explore the use of shorter words with non-standard spellings, Crystal says, as long as a deviant form is easy to remember. He gave the example of txt instead of text (txttools, txtloan, etc.), but suggests that the other possible cause of online spelling variation is the unconscious desire for simplified spelling. “This has been a recurrent theme in the history of English since the 16th century. …. Spelling conventions in the end come down to majority usage.”
1,000 New Words Every Year
Every year there are more than a thousand new words added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries. In September, they added 370 new business and technology words, including dumbphone (a cell phone that does not include advanced software features such as email or an internet browser) and clickbait (those tricky headlines and/or artwork that temp you to click on a hyperlink that generates income for advertisers).
Spellings are made by people. Dictionaries eventually reflect popular choices. And the Internet is allowing more people to influence spelling than ever before. — David Crystal
Crystal says that with such outputs as blogging, chatrooms, and social networking sites, there are no copyeditors and proofreaders checking that traditional norms are followed and introducing corrections. If someone deviates so much from the norm that a word or idea is indecipherable, people will object with either a scathing comment or in the future ignore your output.
Language Changes Anyway
“But,” Crystal says, ”if enough people individually opt for a particular nonstandard usage, eventually readers stop noticing it, and it becomes part of the standard language. That is how language change operates. … In 2012, there were over a billion instances of recommend found in a Google search, but there were over 68 million instances of recomend. One generation’s errors can be the next generation’s norms. …. And where the online orthographic world goes in one decade, I suspect the offline world will go in the next.”
People like to deviate from linguistic norms, Crystal says, for all kinds of reasons. Brand names change spelling to attract attention: Kleenex, Krazy Glue, etc. He says the origin of OK lies in oll correct (all correct), first recorded in a Boston newspaper in 1839 as part of a vogue for humorous respellings. Other variations include nu, lite, brite, eze. Trade names, as Crystal says, are not really part of a language, but he feels names do exercise a linguistic influence, especially on spelling.
The Internet and globalization affect English spelling, and their influence is likely to increase. Crystal feels simplified spelling is a real possibility. As he points out, who would have anticipated that one day Latin would cease to be a driving force in a child’s education? Twenty-five years ago, who would have thought that the largest collection of written language ever would be found in a location called an ‘Internet’? Or that a short-messaging system of 140-characters would be used to let people report on what they’re doing (Twitter), or speech-to-text messaging, or another messaging system that includes photos that magically disappears within a few minutes (Snaphat), or TikTok that allows people to create short-form videos to share?
A Standard Spelling System
For those who feel proper spelling is doomed, Crystal says to take heart. “The Internet is the best guarantor we have of maintaining a standard spelling system, in all languages, because it relies for its efficacy on the accurate orthographic representation of words. Even the smallest spelling error in a domain name means we will be unable to access a website.” And of course, there’s Google! If you misspell a search word, it asks: Do you mean ____?
Spell-check and Autocorrect
And that brings us to spell-check: the word itself now both a noun and a verb. Obviously, spell-check is not infallible, not just the correct spelling of a word, but the correct word itself. And autocorrect does the same thing in providing an incorrect word. A funny example is the postcard a husband sent to his wife while on a trip to a new city: “Having a fabulous time. Wish you were her.”
One of the consequences of the way the English system has developed, Crystal says, is that it has developed a huge number of words that differ only by a single letter. He feels that English will continue to change because of the Internet and where previously change would occur over decades, “a linguistic novelty can be around the world in a matter of seconds.”
He believes everyone needs to change the way we think about spelling: stop viewing it in negative terms and instead think of it as a voyage of exploration. “Approached in the right way, spelling can be fun.”
As my husband says, “Yeah, right!” Though brilliant in other matters (especially math), my husband and most men tend to do worse in spelling from grade school on. In a 2009 survey of 2,000 U. S. adults (no breakdown on male/female ratio), one out of four said they have a problem with everyday spelling. After the spelling test was administered, the results were dismal. Something like 60 percent of men had more mistakes.
That might explain why a study on dating profiles found that men prefer women with poor grammar and are slightly less drawn to well-written profiles. This was in stark contrast to female daters, 18-34, who were over 300% times more likely to go for a romantic guy who hadn’t made any grammatical mistakes.
But take heart, guys. According to The Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University, spelling is not linked to your IQ in general!