Tuesday, August 10, 2010

a dizzy spell

i've been meaning to write a response to Helen's LemonHound post on spelling & misspellings. Well, less a response than some musings sparked by the idea that all English readers are snobs who enjoy catching someone else in a written error. This is an issue i feel strongly about; English speakers have been resistant to spelling reform because there is an elitism associated with mastering the treacheries of our archaic writing system (a system that has letters representing multiple sounds, sounds represented by multiple letters, and combinations of letters representing single sounds; basically, in English, there is no reliable one-to-one correspondence between the way something sounds and the way it appears). Never mind that many generalizations taught as firm rules are not always helpful particularly because regional variety in English means that the ways words are pronounced vary from place to place; what works as a rule in, say British RP might not work for Canadian or American speakers.

So why do spelling mistakes make English speakers so angry? Is it a form of elitist gate-keeping to separate "good" speakers from "bad" speakers? To help keep class divides visible, since there is a closer correlation between standard spoken English(es) and written English? To make it more difficult for adult learners to spell well? i think it's important to investigate why native speakers of standard Englishes (and i include myself in this category) get so emotionally invested in spelling: why are we angry about people who use chatspeak, haughty when an error appears in a professional publication, and upset when someone suggests perhaps a change is in order?

Errors in spelling don't really bother me. Sometimes they're funny, and that's okay (i own a version of Joseph Andrews where "gaol" is always corrected to "goal," probably because of the intervention of an American spellcheck; i imagine the editor has suffered some embarrassment over this). When errors interfere with communication, then they are problematic and need correction. But when the occasional mistake creeps into a published work? Why get upset? Why feel superior? Most of us have words we consistently misspell. Our orthography pretty much guarantees it.