Friday, 9 August 2013

A brief history of English spelling; or, 5 reasons why we should just chill

Call me ridiculous, but when I visit a company's website, I'm a lot less inclined to trust them if I spot a spelling mistake on their page. On Twitter or Facebook or in texts I really couldn't care less because I put it down to an honest mistake, and I get that for a lot of people spelling isn't a strong point, but when I see it in a corporate context it just makes me rage inside. Yesterday I visited the site of a catering company who insisted on spelling the word barbecue, 'barbeQue'. In my head I kept reading it as 'barbeck', which sounds like some kind of medieval dance.
But why does it annoy me so much? When I think about it, it's completely irrational. I mean, I know exactly what they meant to say, it's not a barrier to my understanding of the sentence. Where on earth did this concept of 'good spelling' and 'bad spelling' come from? After a bit of research, here's what I found:
English only became the official language of England in 1430. This was about when the Hundred Years War ended with France. Before this, French was the official language of the court, and so when the language switchover took place, many monks and scribes had trouble with spelling. You can blame them for the illogical 'o' in 'people' - it was their attempt at anglicising the French peuple.

The printers at the first English printing press were Belgian. When William Caxton set up the first English printing press in 1476, he brought printers from Belgium to help him with his endeavour. Unfortunately, these printers didn't speak any English, and so they often made spelling mistakes - that's why we spell 'busy' with a 'u', and not an 'i'. Additionally, these printers were paid by the line, so they sometimes added a few extra letters - frIend, heAd, seAson.
In the sixteenth century, the spellings in the first English Bible became corrupted. The translation of the Bible from Latin had been banned by the Pope, but when Martin Luther questioned his infallibility, everyone wanted to read the Bible for themselves, to check what was really in there. William Tyndale translated the first English Bible, but he had to go abroad because government spies were out to catch him, so his printers often didn't speak English. When Tyndale was captured and burnt at the stake in 1536, rogue copies of the Bible were still being made, with many spellings changed to disguise the authorship. Since many people learnt to read using the Bible, spelling in the sixteenth century went a bit crazy.

Teacher Edmund Coote attempted to standardise spelling using the most popular spellings of each word. In 1595, Coote published The English Schoolemaister, which was a spelling list. He cut out some of the unnecessary letters that had been added over the years ('hadde' became 'had'), but in general he stuck to popular consensus - so we still have the 'u' in 'build'.

Sixteenth-century scholars changed words to reflect their supposed origin. Greek and Latin scholars changed words to make their links with the classical languages more obvious. Therefore the word 'dout' became 'doubt', to link it with the Latin dubitare. Sometimes the scholars got it wrong; they changed 'iland' to 'island', thinking it came from the Latin insulare.
So basically, it turns out the English used to be nice and simple and phonetic, but a load of people added unnecessary letters, making it the confusing mess it is today.

That's why it's probably time to chill about spelling - our whole language is just one big series of spelling mistakes anyway.

Images: Early dance, Linguistrix, Huffington Post

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