Why Words Matter – and Why They Do Not

Why Words Matter – And Why They Do Not

They tried to do it in the United States. They tried to do it with British school children in the 1960s. In 1897 an Association was set up just to do this: simplify English spelling. Now, according to linguist Professor David Crystal, it will happen in the next fifty years without any intervention.

The problem is, as we all know, that the rules for spelling in English English (as opposed to American English or Australian English, for example) are complex. The reason for this is that the language, along with spelling, has evolved from many sources. The Roman alphabet we use now only became the writing system in the seventh century when the missionaries brought the Latin scriptures over. The peoples before then were mostly illiterate although some religious leaders or nobles could interpret a strange, linear system known as futhorc, or runes. The Celtic and Gaelic peoples on the periphery of the British Isles developed their own languages. Then came the Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavian Vikings, Normans, each with their own culture, words and spellings, and in some cases extra letters too. Add to that dialects that grew from a lack of contact and uniformity and no standardised spelling – there you are – confused.

Like everything else, spelling evolves. Just look at the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. The first time I read Chaucer I wondered what language it was as it was so alien to me. But it was English and after a while I could decipher the words by considering the stems and origins until I believed that yes, it was my mother tongue.

However, according to the linguist Professor David Crystal, speaking at the 2013 Hay Literary Festival, it is not a natural evolution that will ease the spellings, but the internet. Search engines now recognise misspelled words therefore rendering them acceptable. Words such as receipt with the p missing and necessary spelled with an s instead of a c demonstrate that silent letters are on their way out. ​

He said: “The internet will influence spelling. It will get rid some letters that irritate us, the letters that instinctively we feel shouldn’t be there. But it will take time.” He suggests that it will take around fifty years.

Twitter came under fire for the most misspelled words and many people joined the debate on how dreadful spelling and grammar standards are. People write in text speak and children think that this is the normal thing to do because they are only exposed to this way of writing, some have argued.

The interesting point here is that Facebook mainly does not comply with this trend of misspellings and abbreviation. Why is that? Of course people do not communicate on Facebook as they would with a solicitor or potential employer, but it is better than Twitter. The reason is that we simply alter our methods of writing, thus spelling, as we see fit. Twitter has a character limit, which I found infuriating when I first joined. I left after a week or so because I couldn’t cope. Then I went back. Now I use abbreviations and leave off all punctuation so that my character limit is not reached. Likewise, when texting I use as few letters as possible to get my message across. I think I have fat fingers because I hardly ever get the message right first time. txt u l8r. Adequate.

Children, even if brought up texting and tweeting before they can speak, will come to know the appropriate occasions when writing needs to be formal or when ‘text speak’ is acceptable. Shopping lists, texts, essays, application letters are all different forms of writing and often spelling too. (Shop list – T; catfud; looroll…)

The question is whether it matters how words are spelled as long as the meaning is clear. The answer is that it depends on the context. On the whole, I think people know where the borders are. Nobody would expect to read an encyclopaedia in the style of a tweet. I’m not sure if Professor Crystal is right in his prediction of the death of the silent letter. It could go the same way as the comma in addresses, I suppose.

It seems to me that English will come full circle and we will be using runes again one day. As for the silent letters – will anybody notice?

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