Spelling Reform for Wayward Words.

Chi Luu (see this post) has a JSTOR Daily piece about a much-discussed topic, the English spelling system and the many attempts to reform it. It begins with Gerard Nolst Trenité’s “The Chaos,” a poem showcasing the absurdities of English orthography which I posted about almost a decade ago; continues with Patrick Groff’s 1976 paper “Why There Has Been No Spelling Reform,” his own preference (which I share) for keeping the historical forms of English spelling in place, and Anatoly Liberman’s cranky opposition to that view (“What sentiment? What value?”); and finishes up with a paean to the orthographical playfulness of the internet:

So are these deliberate misspellings a sign of English orthography simplifying organically, or deteriorating rapidly? The early constraints of mobile phone text messaging gave rise to short form spellings–which inevitably gave rise to a moral panic about literacy rates decreasing in young people. However, studies have shown that text-speak actually improves literacy, as users receive more exposure to language and different word forms, improving their reading development. According to David Crystal “there is no evidence that texting teaches people to spell badly: rather, research shows that those kids who text frequently are more likely to be the most literate and the best spellers, because you have to know how to manipulate language. […] If you can’t spell a word, then you don’t really know whether it’s cool to misspell it. Kids have a very precise idea of context – none of those I have spoken to would dream of using text abbreviations in their exams – they know they would be marked down for it.”

In Young People’s Everyday Literacies: The Language Features of Instant Messaging, the analysis of a 32,000 word corpus of college students’ instant messages shows how IM users employ rich linguistic features to convey paralinguistic cues and clarify conversational contexts. One of the main features was eye dialect spellings and other simplified spelling forms. So deliberate misspellings are being used all the time, not because users are necessarily illiterate but because they know how to manipulate language in the right contexts. These new spellings are productively used and widely shared, quite unlike a spelling reform drafted by committee and applied by edict.

Lots of good stuff in there; thanks, Paul!


  1. Your JSTOR link goes to an article on taboo words, not on spelling.

  2. Not to pedant at you, but the link to Chi Luu’s article appears to be pointing to their fantastic taboo article from June? Still an excellent, but not the one you intend?

  3. Thuh JSTOR Daley peace lynk currantly goze too ther Kebbek peas, knot 2 http://daily.jstor.org/yas-queen-its-the-spelling-reform-school-for-wayward-words/

  4. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m of the opinion that there are plenty of English words (a small percentage of the whole, but still a large number) that could benefit from moderate spelling reform, along the lines of what the French Academy does for French. The “sc” in “scythe” is as silly as the former “sç” in French “sçavoir,” and in my opinion should go the same way to the dustbin of orthographic history. The silent “p” in “receipt”, besides being unnecessary, breaks the pattern of “conceit” and “deceit.” And of course “island” is notorious for the stupidity of its spelling. For me, the same instinct that makes me enjoy the true etymological relics makes me irritated by the fake ones.

  5. David Marjanović says

    The “sc” in “scythe” is as silly as the former “sç” in French “sçavoir,”

    Specifically, it was created by incompetent etymologists: scythes have nothing to do with Scythians, and savoir is from sapere, not from scire.

  6. In some cases the pronunciation has caugh up with the artificial spelling (like the pseudo-learned th in author, ph in nephew for many speakers). What they did to poor scythe in the 15th century was nothing short of orthographic vandalism. There are more words in need of repair: whelk (OE weoloc), could (the false l has never been pronounced), delight (from earlier delite), aisle (another victim of the contagious s in isleisland), etc. But there is often an interesting story (or a real mystery) behind the mismatch of sound and spelling (cf. such oddities as colonel and the UK pronunciation of lieutenant), and it would be a pity if an orthographic reform wiped out such time-honoured curiosities. It isn’t likely to happen anyway.

  7. D’oh! Thanks, everybody; I have no idea how that happened (ay chek my links!), but it’s fixed now. And I agree about reforming “scythe” et al.

  8. I don’t. On aesthetic grounds, I hold that mistakes that old have the same right as actual etymological relics to a place in the the cabinet of curiosities that is English orthography. (As a compromise, I would be fine with adding “sithe” as an acceptable spelling of the word, so that people who don’t care about pseudo-Scythians can live free of their tyranny.)

  9. Even better!

  10. I don’t like this idea of rational spelling in English. It will leave those of us who are (inexplicably) good at spelling with nothing to brag about.

  11. those of us who are (inexplicably) good at spelling

    I am one of those people. It is not inexplicable: it depends on having a good visual memory. Poor spellers tend to depend on their auditory memory, which for English is not reliable as a basis for spelling.

  12. I remain in favor of moderate reform.

  13. it depends on having a good visual memory

    Ahh. That explains a lot. I studied French for seven years in junior high and regular high school. My biggest weakness was conjugating verbs; my greatest strength was spelling. I almost never lost a mark for a misspelled word. Not sure that I could do it today, but back then you could have given me a chunk of French text sans all the accents, and I’d merrily plunk them back in again with nary a one out of place.

  14. The same shortened spellings that appear in sms messages have also appeared independantly in other situations where English needs to be conveyed in a limited number of characters. E.g. the early talker programs attached to the bulletin boards of the ’80s which were the predecessors to muds, IRC and later instant messaging services.

  15. JC: I remain in favor of moderate reform.

    Surely it’s just to begin writing the ones you like. I love sithe, iland etc. It might be useful as well as fun to have more spelling variation rather than less.

  16. Sacrilege, Mr Creown! It would not do to have variations in spelling! What would we teach the children? It is common knowledge that children must be taught a single invariable rule; the alternative is to confuse their unformed minds. They need guidance, not choices!

  17. Don’t worry — the original spellings will be preserved fully intact by the upper class as a vast network of interlocking shibboleths. Parents from less privileged backgrounds will scrimp and save to afford the after-school tutoring their children will need to have any chance at getting into one of the professions, schools hoping for a more prosperous clientele will find ways to test for this knowledge by proxy, etc. etc. (Pretty much exactly how it would play out if you removed kanji from the official curriculum in Japan.)

  18. I don’t know if variant spellings were useful when sending telegrams — since they had to go through an operator, that sort of money-saving tricks might have been disallowed. The operators of course had their own set of codes (CQ and all that), but that’s another thing.

    Telex machines, on the other hand, were often operated by people with no special training, and at 10 characters per second and 10 – 20 dollars per minute (1970 dollars!) when talking to Singapore and places like that, incentives to briefness were strong. My father worked in shipping, and I remember watching messages tick in on the Teletype machine — but the only specific thing I remember now is ‘asap’ which of course is an acronym/initialism. (There was no provision for letter case in the code, and punctuation also tended to go missing, as I remember).

    Good practice for anything over a few words was to compose off line, to paper tape, and then run off the message at line speed to the other end. Lost technologies… but there might actually be archives of such tapes somewhere, and I wonder if anybody has looked at the usages.

  19. since they had to go through an operator, that sort of money-saving tricks might have been disallowed.

    From what I’ve read, you were allowed to send whatever combination of letters you wanted, subject to the laws about pornography, subversion, etc.; I’ve seen some pretty incomprehensible telegrams quoted. But of course I will be happy to be corrected.

  20. Telegraph companies varied over time with what to allow: sometimes only words that could be pronounced, which led to books describing how to create millions of satisfactory character strings, eg


    (no preview, Google only knows why)

    along with code books mapping then-common phrases into single words; for example, the (now) rather startlingly-titled “Unicode” from 1886


  21. @dca – Some quite grim occurrences catered for in that version of Unicode:

    Causatio: Wife died to-day, particulars by letter.

    Another age…

  22. From David Kahn’s The Codebreakers, pp. 851-53 of the unabridged edition:

    The rise and fall of an industry is not a new story in the history of the world. As a business, the making of nonsecret codes is as dead as armor making or buggy-whip making. Did it have any aftereffect on civilization, after fulfilling its function of helping that civilization advance? Did it leave anything beyond hundreds of dusty tomes filled with outmoded references to ships being coaled and defunct names like St. Petersburg [ha!], and some lessons in codeword construction?

    There is one thing that may be distilled from any human experience because it represents the universal, and that is art. Commercial codemaking stimulated the best humor in cryptology — a small contribution to the store of the world’s art, but one that gives lasting pleasure nonetheless. The author, Jack Littlefield, offered some “Melancholy Notes on a Cablegram Code Book” to the readers of the July 28, 1934, issue of The New Yorker [subscribers only, alas] — the code in question being the Acme.

    Every time I receive a cablegram in code, I have the same feeling of pleasurable excitement. There is the familiar envelope lying on my desk, marked “Cablegram: Urgent.” I rip it open and discover inside the single mysterious word BIINC. The message is from our Venezuela office. Visions at once loom of secret documents, beautiful women, and dark Latin-American intrigue. Then I turn to my code book and find BIINC: What appliances have you for lifting heavy machinery? This sort of thing can be very debilitating.

    It is not the fault of the code book, either. That handy volume is full of interesting messages that my correspondents never seem to get around to sending. For years I have been on the watch for wires like NARVO (Do not part with the documents), OBNYX (Escape at once), ARPUK (The person is an adventurer, have nothing to do with him), or BUKSI (Avoid arrest if possible), but they never seem to arrive. And yet, if the code book is to be believed, they are fair samples of the kind of thing with which our telegraph wires are humming daily.

    Not all the code-book suggestions, of course, are on this high level of adventure. Our telegraph-users, it would seem, have a wide range of concerns. At this very moment a perplexed customer in some distant part of the globe is inquiring URPXO (For what use was the mixing machine intended?); in the next town, perhaps a ship’s captain is reporting diffidently ELJAZ (Will have to get bottom examined before proceeding); while somewhere a new parent is voicing his elation in the form of AROJD (Please advertise the birth of twins).

    The dominating note of the code book, however, is one of resigned melancholy. Its pages are replete with such gloomy sentiments as ZULAR (Unfortunately too true) and CULKE (Bad as possibly can be), expressions that seem only too justified when we consider the extraordinary series of disasters that has been stored up for users of the code. Every possible variety of mishap has been foreseen and embalmed in a group of doleful entries ranging from the comparatively trivial AIBUK, which describes the bursting of a donkey boiler, to the truly cataclysmic PYTUO (Collided with an iceberg). […]

    [A one-page lacuna in Google Books here. I remember a series of similarly gloomy codewords meaning Captain drunk, Captain not to be found, Captain refuses to leave vehicle, Captain insane, and (none too soon) Arrest the Captain.]

    [… The above code word] is a monument of utility beside the picturesque YBTUA, which deals with the transportation to Mecca of pilgrims — at the prevailing price per head! And however much I may regret my inability to send a message like WUMND (Have every reason to believe oil will be struck), at least I feel certain that I shall never rise, Phoenix-like, from my own ashes to cable that most fantastic of all code words, AHXNO: Met with a fatal accident.

  23. David Marjanović says

    Was there no code for My hovercraft is full of eels?!?

  24. No, for the Acme was written in 1923, and the first practicable hovercraft didn’t exist until 1959, though a prototype version existed as early as 1915, and it wasn’t really commercialized until 1968.

    The Hoover Constellation is particularly fascinating: “Hovercraft!” “Vacuum cleaner!” “Hovercraft!” ….

  25. I’m sure, however, that there was code for My brougham is full of eels, My landau is full of eels, etc.

  26. And My postillion has been bitten by an eel.

  27. David Marjanović says

    The Hoover Constellation

    …Far out, man.

  28. “Compression, Correction, Confidentiality, and Comprehension: A Look at Telegraph Codes” by Steven Bellovin (once a demigod in the Unix dharma line at Bell Labs) says that Kahn was mistaken: the code was the A B C Telegraphic Code, Sixth Edition. Even those not interested in the technicalities of cryptology may enjoy some of the code word meanings: my favorite is now REVERE, from the private Stoneham &amp Co. code book of 1910, meaning ‘Wires being down, your telegram did not reach us in time to transact any business today, and as your orders are good for the week, we will try to execute tomorrow.’

  29. Oops, reread it. A theatrical code used DORIAN (my grandson’s name) as a code for “Jew comedian”.

  30. Anatoly Liberman’s cranky opposition to that view

    This seems like a good thread in which to post this example of why I can’t stand Liberman:

    This post owes its existence to Valerie Fridland’s book Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English (Viking, 2023). The book deals with some processes in Modern (American) English, and the author is very much on the side of “progress in language.” If I am not mistaken, her main point is that as long as some widespread phenomenon can be explained, it should be accepted. This approach does not convince me. For instance, I have read numerous interviews with celebrities in sports and music, and almost every noun in them is accompanied by a single epithet, namely, f—ing. I can easily explain why people speak so: the word is nowadays on everybody’s lips from the age of three, and many Americans don’t know any other equally expressive qualifying word. This argument does not make me look “for the good in [their] bad English.”

    To which I say: Oh, f— off.

  31. I think you mean put a f—ing sock in it.

  32. David Marjanović says

    and almost every noun in them is accompanied by a single epithet, namely, f—ing.

    Pish and tosh, sir. It’s not a f—ing epithet. It’s been f—ing grammaticalized as a f—ing intensifier. (And the b—y competition has sorted itself out to other b—y topolects.)

  33. Interestingly, playwright Eugene O’Neill is the source the earliest attestation I have ever found for the exact sentence: “Go fuck yourself.” (“Go and fuck yourself,” is older, and to be complete honest, and am not one hundred percent sure that that wasn’t what O’Neill wrote.) He was replying to a racist letter he received attacking his 1924 play All God’s Chillun Got Wings, which was about an interracial romance. So I sometimes like telling people off by saying:

    In the words of Nobel-prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill: “Go fuck yourself.”

    It’s not quite as funny as

    In the words of Nobel laureate Bob Dylan: “I can’t even.”

    but it’s in the same vein.

  34. Stu Clayton says

    It’s astonishing how perfucktory many people are as to how they speak.


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