Some of us have been waiting a long time for spelling reform…and we’re still waiting. We’ve won a few victories – “catalog” instead of “catalogue,” for example. But many thorny spelling issues remain.
Ten years ago the American Literacy Council and London-based Spelling Society staged a protest at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. “Enuf is enuf” was their motto: “Enough is too much.”
The standardized spelling we use today is a relatively recent development. In Shakespeare’s day, nobody worried much about spelling. Shakespeare, in fact, used several spellings of his own name.
In the 18th century, however, writers began to use uniform spelling, and calls for reform began to appear almost immediately. Famous advocates of spelling reform included Noah Webster, who convinced Americans to drop the “u” in honour and colour, and George Bernard Shaw, who left money for spelling reform in his will.
I’m all for spelling reform (I’m a Shaw scholar, after all). But there are two reasons why I think the spelling reform movement is futile.
First, the reformers haven’t had much effect so far (even Noah Webster accomplished very little).
Second (and this is much more important), the English language has a long history of simplifying itself, without the help of any organized movement. I expect spelling reform will take the same course, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
People who speak and write English have always adopted shortcuts. The conjugations and declensions that characterized Old English have largely disappeared. With the exception of words like “men,” “women,” “children,” and a few others, we almost universally use “s” for plural nouns. We no longer have masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns. (Did you know that “wife” was a neuter word in Old English?)
We get a little fancier with verbs, which usually have two endings (“s” and “ed”). But that’s about it. If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you quickly saw that English has a much simpler system for its verbs and nouns.
The rate of change dramatically slowed down when the printing press was invented, and electronic communication has slowed the pace even more. Experts say that we will not see the kinds of changes that used to be so common in English. (For example, the “Our Father” of the Lord’s Prayer used to be written “Faeder Ure.”)
But I think spelling reform is coming, and I can sum up my argument in one word: texting. The simplified spellings that the American Literacy Council yearned for are already standard for texters. What’s more, they’re rapidly moving into formal English. I often had to remind students that “you” has three letters, not just one (u) – and that “love” has four letters, not just three (luv).
The young people who spend so much time texting are the future of our language. They’ll be the ones to decide whether it’s really necessary to spell “enough” with all those unnecessary and confusing letters.
Nobody can predict exactly what course the future will take. My bets, however, are on the texters. I think it will happen soon enuf, whether we like it or not.