We are living in the middle of a language revolution, and as with all revolutions, there will be gains and losses, according to David Woman in his book, “Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling.”
A poor speller in his youth, Wolman sets out on a geographical journey to discover just why English spelling presents such enormous challenges, crossing the English Channel just as Anglo-Saxon soldiers did in the sixth century. One of his first discoveries is that his use of olde in his book’s title has a story: Olde is the invention of 19th century advertisers trying to mimic archaic English spellings. Wolman says that old has had many other forms in its evolution — alde, auld, awld, ole, and others, but not olde.
To illustrate that Old English has echoes of Modern English, he cites Caedmon’s Hymn of the seventh century:
Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard,
Meotodes meahte and his modgepanc,
Weorc wuldorfaeder, swa he wundra gehwaes,
Ece drihten, or onstealde.
Translated, this passage reads, “Now we must praise the keeper of the heavenly kingdom / The power of the Measurer and his mind-thoughts, / The work of the glory-father; as he, each of wonders, / the eternal Lord, established from the beginning.” Even in this snippet from the poem, Wolman sees the “DNA of modern English.”
The guide for Wolman’s road trip to trace the origins of English spelling was language expert David Crystal and Crystal’s wife, Hillary. They drove Wolman to sites such as Winchester in the heart of Wessex where King Alfred made important contributions to the development of the English language as we know it today — the translation of the Bible, sermons, and legal texts from Latin into the West Saxon dialect.
Wolman’s next stop carried him to the battlefield where William the Conqueror defeated the English under Harold’s leadership at Hastings; it was a political and language victory in that 10,000 French words were introduced into English, words which influenced law, military courts, cuisine, fashion, and social classes. Wolman says even the word “spelling” derives from the Old French espelir, meaning “to set out”; only in the Middle English period do the words converge as spellen, meaning to speak and spell.
The next influence Wolman explores, Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” of the late 1300s, impacted the “shape of English unlike any other book in history, excepting the Bible.” Even Chaucer’s work contained inconsistency in spellings, work, for example, appearing as werche, worke, werke, and other variations. But equally important as an influence is John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible from Latin into English. These two works helped to standardize the language, after which standardization of spelling would become easier.
Eventually Wolman discusses those writers who set themselves up as reformers of spelling, beginning with Noah Webster, who argued that the American language needed to become distinct and separate from the Mother Tongue — British English. As he promoted his spelling book in 1785 and 1786, traveling around the country and lecturing about language, he met Benjamin Franklin, a fellow reformer. Franklin wrote a pamphlet in 1779, “A Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spelling,” in which he suggested eliminating letters which have variable pronunciations: c, j, w, q, x, and y. He added new combinations such as ts as a substitute for “ch.” If our alphabet were truly phonetic, it would have 44 letters, each one representing a sound.
Another American, Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System of classification of books, established The Spelling Reform Association Board in 1876. Other countries depended upon authorities about language use, notably the French L’Académie Française, but Dewey’s group needed financial support before it could effect changes in spelling. He changed the spelling of his surname to Dui to signal his determination to simplify spelling. He wrote this sentence to a colleague: There ar so fu ov us that ar foloin this thin up thoroli that we must kip in close tuch.”
In the 1850s no less than Brigham Young entered the fray of spelling reform, being pulled into a new system by an Englishman, George D. Watt, who had learned a shorthand code which he developed into a 38-character alphabet — the Deseret Alphabet. The characters were used on Mormon coins, and classes were held to promote the new code. This invention didn’t take hold, however, but it was typical of “constructed languages” of the era, including Volapük, Esperanto, and in 1903, Latino Sine Flexione.
Of these three innovations, Esperanto is the only one flourishing today, with its own web site, but Wolman says these constructed languages have remained curiosities rather than have had any real influence in spelling reform.
Spelling reform, if it ever happens at all, will happen only gradually, and the phenomenon that may encourage it is the language of texting: Wolman argues that “people become more sophisticated in their understanding and usage of language, not less, as a result of increasingly digital lives. After all, you have to know what the code stands for.”
Wolman’s point is clear: the English language has always been in a state of evolution and always will be. Once a people agree that a specific symbol or sound will carry meaning, then change happens. TBH (To be honest), FWIW (for what it’s worth), change that means we can still communicate may be just what matters.
Liz Meador is an adjunct instructor at Wayne Community College. Questions or suggestions for column topics may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.