Sunday, January 16, 2005

Against Uniform Spelling Rules

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.


Glen Whitman said...

First, I wouldn't downplay the usefulness of spelling as a social marker, or more broadly as a signaling mechanism. In my experience, good spelling is highly (though imperfectly) correlated with academic strength in general. Someone with good spelling probably went to a decent school, attended class, paid attention, and worked relatively hard. Also, if a paper has many misspellings, it's a good bet that it's not logical or well organized (again, based on my personal experience grading lots of paper). Usually a paper with bad spelling is one that hasn't been edited at all. So spelling provides a relatively simple mechanism for sorting good from bad material when reading time is scarce.

Second, I don't think the issue is just comprehension -- it's *speed* of comprehension. Sure, I understood what you meant in those sentences where you misspelled words or left out vowels. But each time, my reading slowed by just a fraction of second. I had to sound out each word, rather than recognizing each word as a whole. Cumulatively, this could slow down reading a good bit.

Third, alphabetized lists would not be as functional. Before I could conclude that an encyclopedia lacked an entry for any given subject, I'd have to check under several different spellings.

Tom W. Bell said...

To both of you, Jacob and Glen, I observe that I do not expect that *anything* would go in a world where uniform spelling rules got less respect. Rather, I think we would generally see only a couple of spellings for a few words. "Dog" would remain spelled the same. "Cat" might also get tried out as "kat," but "qat" would never get any serious play. And, importantly, "enough" would face competition from "enuf."

At worst, then, the situation would not be much worse than the one presented by the use of both "grey" and "gray." We've pretty quickly figured out how to accomodate that subtlety, and I have little doubt we could easily handle more of the same. Besides, keep in mind that in the long run the older, less efficient spellings would drop out. So I should hope, at any rate; hence my suggestion that the mania for rote spelling imposes on us the opportunity cost of not finding new and better spellings.

That deals with every counterargument except Glen's first one, concerning spelling as a status symbol. I briefly raised the point, initially, as a *critique* of spelling mania! In other words, I was crediting the obsession for good spelling to monkey politics, rather than to good, solid, efficiency. Granted, though, Glen presents the social angle in a much more favorable light. But let us admit that it remains an empirical question whether good spelling really does signal hard work or intelligence very reliably--especially in a world with ready spell-checking. And let us also keep in mind that, again, I trust the spontaneous ordering of language to generate merely a few more alternative spellings of especially dicey words. Spelling will thus remain a standard, albeit a somewhat more flexible one than at present.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I get it. This article is in Hungarian, but it's really, REALLY badly spelled, right?

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I want to argue that good spelling necessarily signal hard work or intelligence. I know so many brilliant engineers who can't spell. Coding and using logic all day doesn't really require good spelling. Thank goodness for spell-check. If you're not literary or just don't pay attention to spelling it's not uncommon to make these mistakes easily.
But it is true that you can probably weed out the papers that were typed last minute by the number of spelling and grammar errors.


Glen Whitman said...

I think the advent of spell-checking software has changed the signaling character of spelling. Before, good spelling signaled how well your brain remembered patterns, how much you read, how much you studied in English class, etc. Now, while it shows those factors to some degree (especially with regard to the spelling of homophones like 'there' and 'their'), it's a better signal of whether you've put in minimal effort, as SK indicates. I'm still amazed when students turn in papers with spelling errors that were assuredly underlined in red zigzag on their word processors.

Tom -- in what sense is the status quo *not* a spontaneous order? We don't have any single authority on spelling; instead, we have competing authorities (OED, Merriam-Webster, Random House, etc.), which individual users of the language are free to accept or reject as they please. Yes, there are some authorities with more influence than others (e.g., teachers and editors), but that's perfectly consistent with a spontaneous order. Otherwise, we'd have to conclude that markets are not spontaneous orders because of the existence of firms with hierarchical management structures. Perhaps you think the influence of public schooling has had an especially pernicious effect on the spontaneous order of language?

See my related comments here:

Tom W. Bell said...

I've had the same experience in reading students' papers, Glen, and experienced the same aghast surprise.

Two points about spelling as a spontaneous order: 1) Sure, it largely is. But spontaneous orders change in part by the conscious efforts of reformers. My protest against spelling mania, and my observation that relaxing spelling standards might have underappreciated benefits, aims at spontaneous re-ordering. 2) Yet, for all that, I *do* think that compulsory and statist K-12 schooling has made spelling more uniform than it would be in a better, freer world. So I am not only to make writing more efficient, but to correct inefficiencies imposed by institutions to which I object.

Gil said...

I think that the look-up problem with differently-spelled words is easily solved by indexing words using algorithms like SOUNDEX that normalize words to their gross phonetic components. Of course, it will be hard to look things up in physical books, but who'll be using those in twenty years?

One nice advantage of flexible spelling that I can think of is that many jokes that only work out-loud now will work in text, too, if words can be spelled ambiguously.

On the other hand, perhaps I'm just prejudiced in favor of what I'm used to and towards my current competitive advantage, but I think there's something nice and clean about having a right way to present text.

Anonymous said...

I also like the nice and clean feel about having a right(uniform) way to present text. I also like reading nicely written sentences too, especially when they're witty.
Although I am guilty of the e.e cumming's style of non-caps sometimes for stylistic reasons when i am doing something design related on the web, but mainly b/c i'm too lazy to press the shift key everytime i start a new sentence.
But, dun'T U HaAte PeEpS hOo Do ThIs WiT ThEir RitInG? AiIGhT...xoxo
I want to wring their pre-pubescent necks. Shockingly college kids do this too.


Anonymous said...

Spelling rules and the requirements of some teachers often times impose unnecessarily on students. Although it is important to enforce technical writing skills that include proper spelling and so on, a balance between informal writing --that is allowing misspellings and capitalization mistakes, etc., serves a very important purpose; even more so than to learn better ways to spell through the natural phenomenon itself. I say this because I know, through my own personal experience; children will avoid the use of a word they cannot spell in the papers they write. Only would this happen if there be some penalty for the use of misspelled words. More importantly, when children restrict their vocabulary it is affecting the rest of their lives, in that years of practice making associations and interpretation of the context placements is lost. As an example is just as we see today in national spelling bees. The word is read aloud, next it’s meaning, and the use of it in a sentence. If Math is more important than Spelling, we could agree the utility of uniform spelling is less the utility of number calculating. I’m not sure I’d agree, but it is no more important either. Not to mention, there, their, and they’re would lose symbolic logic build into our method thus far.

Anonymous said...

I can often guess the meaning of unfamiliar words (particularly in medicine) by recognizing one or more roots of the word. This becomes far more difficult if spelling is not uniform.