In Defense of Spelling

Take a moment if you’re interested to read, “A Trewe Relacyon of the precedeings and ocurrentes of Momente which have hapned in Virginia from the Tyme of Sir Thomas Gates was Shippwrackte uppon the Bermudes Anno 1609 untill my departure owtt of the Cowntry which was in Anno Domini 1612” by George Percy. If you don’t have a moment, or you’re not interested, the title itself should be enough of an indication.

Is it a bit strange-looking and hard to read? Yeah, English has changed a lot since 1612. If we look at another document from the same time period, the third Virginia Charter, for the most part it’s similarly odd:

… we have by our lettres patent bearing date at Westminster the three and twentieth daie of May in the seaventh yeare of our raigne of England, Frannce and Ireland, and the twoe and fortieth of Scotland, given and grannted unto them, that they and all suche and soe manie of our loving subjects as shold from time to time for ever after be joyned with them as planters or adventurers in the said plantacion, and their successors for ever, shold be one body politique incorporated by the name of The Treasorer and Planters of the Cittie of London for the First Colonie in Virginia;

Notice one thing, though. They spell “time” like we spell it, not like George Percy’s “Tyme.” He even has strange capitalization, apparently capitalizing words at random. It leads me to suspect that spelling and grammar, even keeping in mind the odd rules of the time, were not George’s strong suits.

Our friend George probably didn’t have much education, or he would have been able to have a secure life in Europe instead of risking his life to wander around a remote land far away from anyone he ever knew and  populated by hostile native americans.

Then again, maybe his spelling wasn’t any more wrong than the Third Virginia Charter? Was there standardized spelling back then? Back in 1612, “dictionary” wasn’t even a household term (Neither was “dikshunaree,” in case you’re wondering). A Table Alphabeticall had been written eight years before, but no one considered it definitive. The first canonical dictionary would not be written until more than a hundred years later in 1755. Yes, a strong argument could be made that at this time, there was no such thing as generally “correct” or “incorrect” spelling. This means that an explorer and writer such as George had free creative reign to describe the response to Thomas’s demand that the chief Powhattan turn over his men as “noe other then prowde and Disdaynefull answers.”

It’s difficult to imagine language in this state, as having no existence outside what any given group of people think it is. I and many of my readers grew up in an education system that taught us “proper” and “correct” language. Really, though, somebody just decided that that was proper. I’m not any more intelligent for writing a blog entry and typing out “disdainful” rather than “Disdaynefull.”

But even if the specific spellings themselves are not important, it is of great value that we have standardized spelling that people are taught and expected to use. With entirely organic, free-form language in the past, peoples separated by some barrier would slowly speak and write more and more differently until they were legitimately different languages, leading to all sorts of challenges in these groups relating to one another, and, arguably, various wars.

So, if you feel prowde and Disdaynefull of the importance of spelling and other rules of language, remember that it is a bulwark against the natural entropy that characterizes fully organic language, and whether or not the spellings and grammars we’ve chosen as our standards are the best possible spellings, the fact that we have them helps us to maintain communication across borders and across time. If you’re ever Shippwrackte uppon the shores of, say, the cowntry of Australia, it will be nice to know that the entropy of language has been kept relatively in check. There’s still a lot they say differently, but it’s not a different language.

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3 thoughts on “In Defense of Spelling”

  1. Sam,
    I agree–atrocious spelling does create a barrier and prevent people from wanting to wrestle with the language to find the meaning. Standardization does have its limits though–even today, the British spell some words differently from Americans. Also, in terms of usage, if people do enough violence to a word, its definition can shift. I was told earlier this week that a secondary definition for ‘literally’ is emerging that is basically identical to ‘figuratively.’ This is apparently being recognized by some dictionaries. I guess my point is that we can’t hope to hold much of language in stasis.

    1. It is splendid to have grammarman back in town! I agree with you and Greg. Dry Ragnar’s help but they provide only so much of a bulwark. And some of the changes are painful. Literally = figuratively? Ouch!

  2. Does anyone know why things were capitalized so randomly in the past? Was it to show which words were to be emphasized when speaking?

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