Over the past decade, I have marked the end of each high school term with the same ritual: swearing quietly under my breath as I attempt to extract meaning from the maze of spelling and grammatical errors which wind their way through the final essays and exams I must grade. The swearing is knee-jerk, but once I have calmed down, I force myself to consider the implications of and reasons for the state of the written word.
The first thing that I must accept is the fact that English, perhaps more than any other language, is an exceptionally malleable mode of communication. Indeed, its success and richness are largely predicated on its willingness to borrow, repurpose, and create entirely new words. The Oxford English Dictionary contains well over 600,000 words, and publishes quarterly lists of new entries. The OED estimates that each of its quarterly reports contain upwards of 2000 new entries. And as English teachers love to point out, Shakespeare alone contributed hundreds of commonly used words by adding or subtracting suffixes and prefixes to existing words, and by creating entirely new words to fit within the rhyme scheme and meter of his writing. It is also interesting to note that Shakespeare himself spelled his own name no fewer than five different ways. (Interestingly, the modern spelling seems to be one of the spellings he did not routinely use.)
The second reality that I must come to terms with is the fact that, as a result of this malleability, English spelling has acquired some very arbitrary characteristics. The extensive list of homonyms that pepper our language is just one example of the wackiness built into our system of spelling. “I’ll”, “Isle”, and “Aisle” are as differently spelled as they are similar sounding. At the root of this baffling system is a love of fusion which underpins our language. The tendency for written English to incorporate the verbal shorthand of spoken English is demonstrated in its multiplicity of contractions. “I will” was long ago deemed too inefficient to leave unmolested, so the verbal slurring of “I’ll” found its way onto the page. Of course, if English was content merely to fuse its verbal and written forms, its phonetics would make a lot more sense. However, English also relishes the opportunity to adopt words from other languages. “Isle” comes from the Latin word “insula”, which incidentally is also where we get the words “Island” and “Insulate”. “Aisle” comes from the Old French word “Aile”, meaning “wing”.
As a result of this spirit of inclusion, English developed as a patchwork of disparate and constantly evolving rules and spellings. It was not until the Enlightenment, when the English speaking world was ascending to a place of political dominance, that this dynamic mosaic started to be formalized. The combination of the hegemonic forces of English colonization, and Enlightenment ideals of scientific rigour and uniformity led to the publication of the first comprehensive English dictionaries in the 1700s. Perhaps the most famous speller of this time was Noah Webster (1758 – 1843). He published A Grammatical Institute of the English Language in 1783, the year the American Revolution officially ended. Commonly referred to as The “Blue-Backed Speller”, this formalized account of rules for written English would sell 100 million copies in the century after it was published; a literary reach second only to the bible.
So, if the success of English has historically rested on its malleability, and its system of arbitrary rules was codified at a time bearing little resemblance to our own, why should I get upset when my students can’t spell? Aren’t text messages and emoticons simply the next phase of English evolution? After careful consideration, I can say with great confidence that spelling needs to be a continuing area of focus in education. However, the methodology with which teachers present this skill is in need of change. Rote memorization of arbitrary rules is antithetical to the creative demands of the post-industrial work place. As is, I must concede, my knee-jerk anger directed towards students who don’t see the logic in this system. Instead, spelling and grammar must be explored for what they really are: windows into a fascinating history of cultural exchange and evolution. The English language needs to be taught using discussions of word etymology, and analysis of both how and why written communication changes. Students should consider both the benefits and the drawbacks of communicating 140 characters at a time, and apply the same level of critical thinking when considering why teachers continue to ask them for formal essays and reports.
As with all significant areas of human endeavor, language is a process rather than an end point. To be fully valued, therefore, we must learn to appreciate its past, present, and future.