Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Worthless damn spell-checker

A friend of mine recently returned to school for her graduate degree. The other evening, she told a story about a member of her creative-writing class who is hell-bent on submitting his stories with a sort of neo-spelling: laff for laugh, enuff for enough, thru for through--or threw, presumably--and so on.

My initial incredulity wore off just enough for blatant hostility to set in.

Apparently the guy belongs to an organization that promotes the simplification of spelling, and he firmly believes that if people start submitting stories and articles with simplified spelling, the whole thing will catch on and spread like wildfire.

I immediately started planning to lose a lot of sleep fretting over this thing. I love English. I love our words, and their idiosyncracies. I love the funky spellings that make little or no logical sense to the modern mind; words that send me off to the dictionary, where I can lose hours--literally hours, I kid you not--looking up etymologies.

I started looking for someone I could send my donation to, someone who was standing on the wall, in the gap, dictionary in hand--someone to halt the barbarians clamoring at the gates of civilization, demanding that we all start ignoring silent letters as if they'd never existed.

Information is power. Besides, I'm ever curious, and with too much time on my hands that I would only otherwise only spend constructively, I did some googling.

One web site tells me:

"The Simplified Spelling Society was founded in 1908 in Great Britain. The Society first proposed a fully phonetisized system. Its outcome was a basis for
the Initial Teaching Alphabet. This is a regularized spelling system which was used in several schools throughout the 1960s to the 1980s. The Simplified Spelling Society does not offer only one proposal to reform spelling. The
Lojikon (1995) proposed a reformation of consonants only, whereas Cut Spelling (1996) removed the 10% redundant letters."

The site lists George Bernard Shaw as one of the movement's early proponents. That bit of knowledge put an end to my original thought that these people obviously just hate the language, and/or are congenital bad-spellers, and bitter about it.

I've actually always sort of liked Shaw. I've read a couple of his plays, and perhaps an essay or two. I'd never found his spelling to be particularly eccentric. I'd have a hard time believing he hated the language. I felt oddly betrayed.

So I felt I must dig a bit deeper to make sense of the motivation behind the whole thing; because, frankly, spelling just doesn't seem that damned hard to me.

Turns out this is far from a new thing. Organizations promoting the simplification of spelling have been around for quite some time. Better than a century, in fact. It also turns out that hardly anyone but me is particularly worried about the simplified spelling movement. Far fewer sites exist, promoting the preservation of archaic English spellings.

Turns out the movement has actually gained some ground over the last century or so--just a bit.

This site informed me that "Webster's plan for reforming English spelling centered on 10 main classes of words":

1. "-our" to "-or"
2. "-re" to "-er"
3. dropping final "k" in "publick," etc.
4. changing "-ence" to "-ense" in "defence," etc.
5. use single "l" in inflected forms, e.g. "traveled"
6. use double "l" in words like "fulfill"
7. use "-or" for "-er" where done so in
Latin, e.g. "instructor," "visitor"
8. drop final "e" to give: ax, determin, definit, infinit,
envelop, medicin, opposit, famin, (others)
9. use single "f" at end of words like "pontif," "plaintif"
10. change "-ise" to "-ize" wherever this can be traced
back to Latin and Greek (where a "z"/zeta *was* used
in the spellings) or a more recent coining which
uses the suffix "-ize" (from Greek "-izein")

I don't have a primary source for this assertion about Mr. Webster--only what the website tells me. They drop a bunch of other names, too--Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt, for example. Mark Twain, I don't worry about, so much. He might well have had his tongue in his cheek--and I've seen some of the fun he poked at the language. And Teddy Roosevelt...well, I'm just not all that surprised.

But having gotten this many concessions, the philistines are only emboldened: This site has a list of proposed new systems.

Strangely, many of the links don't work. Heh. Imagine my pleasure that so many of these pages have already vanished into obscurity.

I suppose I don't really think the language is in any real danger. I suppose there is no burning need to actually pick up arms and defend the "s" that sounds like a "z"--but that guy in my friend's creative-writing class is awfully lucky I'm not teaching the class.

Also, this whole strange excursion resulted in the unwelcome discovery that my MS Word spellchecker recognized "thru" as a legitimate spelling.


I already knew the damn spell-check was next to worthless.


.:J.r.A.:. said...

Tisk tisk've always known spell checkers are useless...Using MS Works spell checker as a dictionary for Scrabble, remember?

Ms M said...

Worse still, MS Word spell checker keeps defaulting to US spelling despite having set it on Australian English (like there is an Australian English - perhaps this is the problem) and saved as default about a dozen times. Next time I see my correctly spelt words corrected by MS (Massively Stupid) Word to US spelling I may have to scream. What is the deal with dropping the 'u' out of significant numbers of words anyway, and putting z's in instead of s's. OK so I may be treading on thin ice here...

Mac said...

Heh--I turn the spell and grammar checkers off, on my defaults.

That saves me no end of headaches.

I'll run a spell-check on the thing when I get all finished, but I hate those wavy red lines under words that the spell-check just doesn't happen to know.

I want an OED spell-checker. Now THAT would be cool.

Kay L. Schlagel said...

I hate to spell. I'm sorry but I seem to have brain farts when it comes to the spelling of even simple words. That aside, however, I could just imagine the confusion of trying to convert the english language which has already been almost slaughtered, as is, with the advent of email and instant messenging. I am red with shame when I admit to depending on the spell checker to at least get me in the right ballpark when it comes to spelling. I too, have notice inconsistencies when it comes to the spell checker but put it down to my own defiencies in that particular area. That's probably my problem with getting my books accepted by publishers. I have my husband edit them because he loves the grammar, spelling, and sentence structure but won't write a letter on a bet. I, on the other hand, love the story telling process but once I get it into the final draft (as far as content) then I'm ready to hand it over gladly.