spikɪn ɪŋglɪsh

by Colin Berkshire

I was asked by a Chinese student why English spelling is so irregular and complicated. It got me to thinking.

You know, English spelling was not “standardized” until the late 1800s. Before then, you could spell things phonetically. Just look at the US Constitution or early papers and you will see different spelling for words than today.

Once we standardized spelling it was good and bad. There was less time to “figure out” what a written word was. But then the spelling became rigid and couldn’t be changed to reflect modern pronunciation. So today, standardized spelling does the opposite of what it was originally intended to accomplish.

I explained this to the Chinese student. After a moment they told me a story:

In old China, during the Song dynasty, there was developed an “eight legged essay”. This standardized format became very standardized and rigid, and eventually the formalities of it grew to be very complicated and ritualized. The standard civil servant test was given as eight-legged essays. But the format was so structured that a commoner could not correctly format and present a proper eight legged essay. Thus, the test served more to weed out commoners who were smart and literate and to ensure that the civil servant jobs went only to the wealthy who were privately schooled in this type of essay.

Today’s English seems to serve the same purpose. The spelling is so ritualized and so inflexible that you can only learn it through formal schooling. A vast amount of time is spent on teaching the bizarreness of spelling that less time is spent on other, more useful topics. Companies ten test their candidates to see that they can read and write proper English.

The effect today is the same as during the Song dynasty of China: To ensure that the best positions go to the wealthy and formally educated, rather than to smart and capable persons.

I cannot help but be drawn to the notion that formal spelling today is racist, classist, and elitist.

Take the word “certificate.” It should be spelled “sirtifikat”. But if you spelled it that way you wouldn’t be hired. The only reason that it isn’t spelled sirtifikat must be to ensure that you came from an upper-class background and had a dozen years of schooling…the purpose of which was to help you pass a test that ensured that only upper-middle-class people are hired.

Just look at the way people text today and you will get a better idea of how spelling should work. Perhaps we should move more towards the style of texting today as a new formal English, simply so that we don’t continue to be a racist, elitist, classist society.