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English spelling



Cameron Sawyer sends a long piece on spelling. He discusses English before taking up other languages: "Whence comes the logicalness or illogicality of spelling in different languages? Contrary to what one might, think this has nothing to do with the structure of the language itself, but depends rather on history - on how the language came to be written down in the first place. The English language, like the English common law, evolved organically, apparently without any serious attempt at any point to reform the spelling along logical lines. England never had a dictator, and without a dictator, it's difficult to force people to change their traditions about spelling. A certain amount of standardization took place, but that is all. Remember Thomas Jefferson's (or was it Franklin's?) word about how a man is not really literate if he only knows one way to spell a given word?"

My comment: Caxton's printing press did a great deal to fix English spelling. However, until the 18th century, spelling was largely a personal affectation. Samuel Johnson's dictionary was the first to be established on historical principles, and spelling has changed little since then. There are slight differences between English and American spelling., but our spelling is still a chaos which drives foreigners to despair. The standard US spelling book, which has gone through many editions, is now called 20,000+ words, the + having been added to indicate that the number far exceeds the original one.

It is true that the Spanish Academy, which "cleans, fixes and give splendor" to the Spanish language, has given Spanish spelling its admirable clarity. Some languages owe their logical spelling to changes in script, as when Turkish abandoned the Arabic script for our alphabet. Democracies are capable of action, as then for example when England adopted the metric system or the EU countries adopted the euro. In both cases it took government action. Language is a more tricky matter,

Ronald Hilton - 2/16/02


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