I thought it was only me, but the latest issue of Wired reveals that there is something called Phantom Vibration Syndrome in which it feels like your cell phone is vibrating in shirt pocket even though no one is calling. Nobody really knows why this happens (apparently to a significant number of us); theories run from cell phone radiation causing muscle fibers to flutter to gastrointestinal distress causing it to that old standby, stress. And, if you turn off vibrate and go with good old ring tones, indications are that the issue fades away in a week or two.
I love Wired. In every issue there are two or three things that make me think, tell me something that not only did I know know, but didn’t even know that it was something I didn’t know (if you know what I mean), or, now and again, change my mind about something that I never thought I could see any differently (or at least set me onto a path where that might be possible). And most issues contain some piece of long-form reporting which is second in style and informative only to that which I get in the weekly New Yorker.
This current issue had one of those periodic mind-changers. Proper Spelling? Its Tyme to Let Luce! by Oberlin College professor Anne Trubek offers the sort of argument for loosening the reins on grammar and spelling that would normally inspire to express my outraged disagreement and an impassioned plea to maintain literacy. This time, though, the lady has got me to thinking:
Consistent spelling was a great way to ensure clarity in the print era. But with new technologies, the way that we write and read (and search and data-mine) is changing, and so must spelling.
English spelling is a terrible mess anyway, full of arbitrary contrivances and exceptions that outnumber rules. Why receipt but deceit? Water but daughter? Daughter but laughter? What is the logic behind the ough in through, dough, and cough? Instead of trying to get the letters right with imperfect tools, it would be far better to loosen our idea of correct spelling.
The notion that words can and should be spelled only one way is a fairly recent invention. “The phrase ‘bad speller’ rarely appears in English-language books before the 1770s,” Jack Lynch notes in his book The Lexicographer’s Dilemma. Until William Caxton used a printing press in 1475, English words were reproduced by scribes in scriptoria. There were no dictionaries (or Google) to check for “proper” spelling. Most words were spelled several different ways—there were at least 114 variants of through. (Even the spelling of something as personal as a name was inconsistent; there are six surviving instances of Shakespeare’s signature, and they’re all spelled differently.) Even after the advent of print, variant spellings were the rule. Typesetters would alter spellings to help them justify type (perhaps this is how deceit lost its p?).
And it’s not like things are set in stone—in fact, advocating for a more sensible English spelling system is a noble American tradition. In 1768, Benjamin Franklin published “A Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spelling,” a treatise that laid out a detailed plan for making spelling sensible. He invented three new vowels and removed c, j, q, w, x, and y from our alphabet. Noah Webster (of Webster’s Dictionary) agreed with many of Franklin’s suggestions and came up with more of his own, some of which were accepted: Webster is why the American spelling of color has no u. Mark Twain placed the blame for spelling errors on “this present silly alphabet, which I fancy was invented by a drunken thief,” and proposed a “sane, determinate” alternative with “a system of accents, giving to each vowel its own soul and value.”
So who shud tell us how to spel? Ourselves. Language is not static—or constantly degenerating, as many claim. It is ever evolving, and spelling evolves, too, as we create new words, styles, and guidelines (rules governing use of the semicolon date to the 18th century, meaning they’re a more recent innovation than the steam engine). The most widely used American word in the world, OK, was invented during the age of the telegraph because it was concise. No one considers it, or abbreviations like ASAP and IOU, a sign of corruption. More recent textisms signal a similarly creative, bottom-up play with language: “won” becomes “1,” “later” becomes “l8r.” After all, new technology creates new inertia for change: The apostrophe requires an additional step on an iPhone, so we send text messages using “your” (or “UR”) instead of “you’re.” And it doesn’t matter—the messagee will still understand our message.
I’m not totally on board, understand, but I’m not appalled and apoplectic either and that’s a big shift.