Watching my daughter, Jade, study for spelling tests has led me to question the utility of uniform spelling. Clearly, learning and hewing to "proper" spelling imposes costs on writers. Does the enterprise offer compensatory benefits? I wonder.
I think we can pretty quickly dismiss the claim that effective written communication requires uniform spelling. Americans understand British spellings quite easily, and vice versa. Whether you write grey or gray has no impact on comprehension. For that matter, fone would serve just as well as—if not better than—phone. Studies have shown that consonants matter quite a bit for reading comprehension, granted, but those same studies shw tht vowls ar not vry imprtant. Most readers of Hebrew, for instance, seem to manage pretty well without vowels. I tentatively conclude that spelling could vary pretty widely without materially hindering comprehension.
Please understand that I am not arguing for a program to reform the spelling of the English (or, more precisely, American) language. There exist many arguments for and against spelling reform. Although I'm sympathetic to the goal of establishing new and better uniform spelling rules, I don't mean to defend that project here and now. Rather, I mean to question the benefits of any uniform spelling rules, whether pre- or post-reform. My point, on the benefits side on the inquiry, is simply that clear riting does not rekwire uniform spelling.
On the costs side of the inquiry, we can all easily recognize that teaching, learning, and following uniform spelling rules comes at some significant cost. Think of the time my daughter could spend learning math equations instead of the arrangements of letters! I won't belabor that obvious point. I'd rather focus on arguing that spelling rules impose a more subtle and long-term cost on us—an opportunity cost.
As students of English have ample occasion to note, its spellings often don't make much sense. Clearly, English spellings could stand some improvement. I suspect that English writers would converge on much more rational spellings—receve instead of receive, for instance—but for the over-awing influence of spelling rules. A mania for uniformity discourages entrepreneurship in spelling. That means we lose the opportunity to find new and better spellings.
I propose that we would benefit from regarding spellings like accents. We readily accept that different people pronounce words differently. True, at the extremes, some accents get in the way of comprehension. By and large, though, variations in pronunciation strike us as charming and harmless. I'd argue that, more than that, they prove beneficial. They reveal a great spontaneous order at work, one that over time helps us to discover the optimal pronunciation (or, more likely, pronunciations) of words that admit to different interpretations.
There remain some interesting follow-up points which I may or may not get around to discussing. There remains the mystery of why spelling has proven so much more rigid than pronunciation, for instance. (I credit statist schools, the use of spelling as a social marker, and the relative ease of enforcing spelling rules.) Also, a skeptic might counterargue that we tolerate wide varieties in pronunciation because spelling provides a relatively invariant safeguard of meaning. Lastly, I suspect that we could learn some interesting things from considering how new words, such as al Queda, end up being spelled and pronounced. But the boy naps for only two hours, and I have other things to do in that rapidly closing window.