There’s nothing quite like watching my friend Anne Thrope go off on a rant about something that really irritates her (which, fortunately for me, happens to be most things). She was kind enough to write one of those rants down for me, and I here submit it for your reading pleasure. I’m not sure I agree with her, but it’s an interesting ride, to say the least.
AN OPEN LETTER TO PEOPLE WHO ARE UPTIGHT ABOUT SPELLING
R u uptite about sp3lling? Duz it bothr u wen p33ple mess about with ure well-manicured universe of 26 letters arranjed just-so? My friend, I repsektfully submit to you that it iz time you got over ureself.
What is the source of this rant, you may ask? Very well, I shall tell you. As a single 27 year old girl living in the big city, I decided to join a dating site. Mostly on a lark. But also on the internet. And every now and then, I’ll get an email from some no-doubt witty young fellow addressed to “hey pretty ladi,” or “sup grrl” or some other such nonsense. At first, I paid this no mind. But several of my lady friends, who are also on this dating site, would complain of this. In most whinesome tones, I might add. One day at a happy hour1 my girlfriend asked me if I ever received a correspondence addressing me as “Ladi” and isn’t that obnoxious. Well of course I had. And naturally I suggested that this was perhaps a very clever subliminal message on the sender’s part, as “ladi” is obviously an anagram of “laid.”
Friend: Hmm, maybe. Wait. What’s an anagram again?
Me: Waiter, another Bellini please.
Waiter: But miss, you haven’t finished –
He didn’t bother to complete his thought as I managed to drink my entire (2nd) Bellini while he was registering his protest. But the point is this. You’d better believe that my friend now knows what an anagram is. No, hang on. That wasn’t the point. The point was that it got me thinking about spelling, and why people are so hung up on it.
Now in her case, I think the answer is obvious. She was making a character judgment based upon this poor fellow’s spelling. People do this all the time, don’t they? Whether judging an intentional idiomatic usage such as “grrl” or “ladi” and extrapolating a Jersey Shore lineage therefrom or noticing a failure to correctly differentiate homophones like their/there/they’re and concluding that the writer, however well intentioned, is demonstrably your social inferior, people will make character judgments based on spelling. And it’s time to stop. Like, now.
Because what is spelling, really? It’s just the visual representation of sound. Shadows dancing on the wall of the cave, my friend. It could look like anything. Hell, it does look like anything. There are pictographic alphabets. Weird triangle-y shit like cuneiform. Asian characters, Norse runes, Semitic right-to-lefties, Roman left-to-righties, and so on and on and on. And look, people can only make so many sounds. So the whole thing is arbitrary to begin with. Trick question hotshot. Does the letter x look anything like the sound x? Of course it doesn’t. Because sounds don’t look like anything. If they did, people would write about music instead of dancing about architecture. Or something. And anyway, x is a bullshit letter. It’s a digraph. It’s just ks for lazy people.
But let’s stick with alphabets for a second. Because I’m going to suggest to you, my uptight friend, that you have a rather narrow and parochial view of your very own alphabet. Alphabet. Is that alpha-beta? Is it aleph-bet? Whatever it is, it’s just some super-evolved version of whatever the Phoenicians (or Phoinikians if you want to be pedantic – and the whole point here is that you apparently want to be pedantic) were peddling around the Mediterranean three thousand years ago whilst trading their red dye for olive oil and feta cheese or whatever the hell they were doing. So you’re2 26 letter sing-song alphabet didn’t spring fully formed from the brow of Zeus. Or anywhere else for that matter. The Romans didn’t bother with j or v or w. Those all came later when people started pronouncing things differently or couldn’t be bothered to figure out when i or u were meant to be consonants, or when they started hanging out with Germans and Saxons named Wilhelm and William and Waldorf and Wall-E. And if we were really on our game, we probably should have bothered to make up new letters to fit the sounds of our Russian friends or our Chinese friends. I mean, the fact that the West couldn’t figure whether to spell the name of China’s capital Peking or Beijing should say something about the adequacy of our alphabet in the global economy.
Hey! Wake up! Sorry to bore you, but it’s sort of to the point here. Our alphabet has evolved. So has the way we spell words. Now look, if you want to be pedantic or a wise-guy, go ahead. You can have lots of fun with spellings. The editor of this site does it all the time. And he’s both a pedant and a wise-guy. I noticed a post or two ago that he dropped the phrase “inlegal inmigration” on us. Now, for my money, that’s pretty slick. Buy3 using the archaic Latin trick of unassimilating the prefixes, the natural but otherwise hidden alliteration is revealed.4 Or you could go all 18th century and spell economic as œconomic. And of course if you want to be a real bastard about it, you’d spell it oikonomik. But once you start doing that, the only person reading your bloggue5 is the crazy cat lady down the street who thinx6 that 9/11 was an inside job pulled off by a secret cabal within the state department whom she used to be convinced were Martians, but now realizes that due to a typographical error in her conspiracy-theory newsletter was actually just a bunch of guys all called Martin.
Ok, so maybe now you begin to get the idea that there are hundreds and even thousands of years of history behind the spellings of certain words. And you can show off how much of that history you know by Hellenizing or Francifying or Latinizing or Anglicizing or whatever the hell you want to do. But really nobody cares. I promise you that much. In fact, if they themselves are ignorant of this history, then they’re likely to look at your unorthodox spelling and think you’re either an idiot or…well, they’ll probably just think you’re an idiot.
But this is all backward looking navel gazing. It’s academic. It’s pedantic. And it’s really only cut for dinner parties. The kind of dinner parties nobody likes going to because they just know they’re going into run into you and have to hear all about how the English word work is obviously derived from the German werk, itself obviously an Indo-European cognate with the Greek ergon, which originally started with a w sound, but of course Greek lost the digamma rather early on and…NOBODY LIKES YOU!
So instead of looking backwards, let’s look forward. Because let’s face it, that’s really where your problem is, isn’t it? You just hate when you get a text message asking “what time u get off wrk,” don’t you? What’s wrong with this? No, tell me. Please, I’m dying to know. It’s efficient. It’s utilitarian. It is, or at least was at its inception, vaguely clever. And it’s tweet-friendly. So what then? Does it just reek of a certain lack of effort? Do you read it and just think to yourself, “this punk couldn’t be bothered to spell out the word you, why on Earth would I ever want to bear his children?” Or maybe you tolerate that sort of shorthand in text messages where each extra thumb action might mean another day of arthritis later on, but when it comes to email and your real life QWERTY keyboard you demand a higher level. Because email now is apparently the last bastion of class and culture in our mile-a-minute-and-anyway-it’s-only-a-matter-of-time-before-they-stop-delivering-mail-on-Saturdays society. So the least you could do is spell out Y-O-U!
Just a minute ago I said u for you might have been clever. And that’s where the beauty of this stuff is, if you want to take the time to notice it. Like I said before, spelling – particularly in English – is arbitrary insofar as there are multiple ways to represent the same sounds. To the extent that spellings are fixed and codified, you’re really just running up against historical weight and inertia.7 I’ve got this friend who works with computers. Bright guy. Deals with Indians a lot. And these Indians speak a rather heavily accented English. For example, the pronounce the word we as vee. So what do they do? You guessed it. They spell the word we simply as v. I think that’s brilliant. I mean, it only makes sense in a very narrow context, but within that context it’s perfect. A single letter carries all the phonetic information you need. So what if that phonetic information is technically wrong? So what if an outsider couldn’t piece it together? It perfectly represents the usage. What more can you really ask for from writing? Spelling should be unambiguous and representative of the way people speak. Unless your French. Then apparently you could give fuck all about the relationship between the way you spell you words and the way you speak them. But they make nice bread, so we’ll give them a pass.
Let me put it another way. Do you work for your alphabet or does our alphabet work for you? I can tell you that my alphabet works for me. It does my bidding. Sometimes I look backwards with my spellings. I like to find connexions between words and times and cultures. Sometimes I look forward. I tweet. Characters in a tweet are like Manhattan real-estate. There’s never enough, but if you think outside-the-boxily you can do some really clever things in very small spaces.8
And context matters. Let’s go back to homophones for a second. Have a look at there and their. More than one of my friends has written into their her dating profile something to the effect of “if you don’t know the difference between their/there/they’re, don’t bother contacting me.” Now maybe I’m just thick. But what’s the problem? Is a failure to differentiate between these a character flaw? I’m going to put aside they’re for a moment, because it’s a contraction and so is really two words. Their is a possessive adjective (or pronoun) and there is a preposition. Ten times out of ten, context will make clear which is intended. So why not spell them both there. Or their. Probably somewhere along the line they were pronounced differently. And they probably have their own unique orthographic histories. Now personally, I don’t know anything about Germanic historical linguistics. And I bet you don’t either. So I doubt you’re getting upset about somebody trouncing on 1500 years of history by using the wrong spelling. So then what is it? I’m dying to know. One is “right” and one is “wrong” and woe betide the idiot that missed that day in school? I think – I hope – there are more important things out there. Certainly more important traits in a human being you would consider dating. For instance, does the bastard chew gum with his mouth open? I don’t care if he’s godsdamn Nobel fucking laureate. Close your mouth or move along, pal.
Has this little rant changed anybody’s mind? Probably not. Do you walk away thinking Anne’s a real bitch? Not my problem. All I’m saying is, open your mind a little. Ask yourself who gets to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. How long has something been right? Where might it come from? Where might it be going? Go listen to recording from the 1940’s. The way people talk sounds a little funny to our ears, doesn’t it? And that’s only 70 years ago. That’s living memory, and people are pronouncing things differently. Now go look at a page of Chaucer. That tells you something about how things were pronounced in his time. Can you imagine how people will sound in two hundred years? I can’t, but I’ll bet you ten thousand dollars of Mitt Romney’s money that they’ll sound different. And they’ll probably spell differently to. So go ahead and try to lock down whatever “rules” you learned in school. But bring a towel. Because you, my friend, are spitting in the wind.
Miss Thrope is the author of several books including Please Lower Your Voice, which was not reviewed by the New York Times Review of Books, although an excerpt did not appear in the New Yorker. She lives in New York City and is, surprisingly, still single.
- Happy hour is whatever hour I am drinking; though it may coincide with after work drinks at a discounted rate, one really has nothing to do with the other. So it’s entirely possible that this conversation took place at 11am on a Sunday over Bellinis. If that’s not a happy hour(s), I don’t know what is. [↩]
- Ha! [↩]
- Ha! [↩]
- Also for my money, he needs to get out more. [↩]
- The word blog is actually an anglicized spelling of the French bloggue. Not a lot of people know that. Ok, of course it’s not. But by noodling with the spelling a bit, you can totally make up faux histories for words! [↩]
- Well, why not? [↩]
- And classism, but that’s a whole different kettle of fish. [↩]
- Also, they probably have air rights. Once we get 3-D smart phones, hopefully we’ll be able to tweet up off the screen. Imagine whole skyscrapers of mindless thoughts piling up out of the phone. It’s all about light and air, people. Light and air. [↩]