Will the Internet be the death of spelling and maybe the English language? Sometimes it seems so. A quick look at much that is sent or published online leaves the impression that the most powerful communications tool the world has ever seen is populated by people who did not complete fifth grade.
The homophones were the first to go. Anyone hoping to preserve “there” “their” and “they’re” is steeped now in despair; likewise “your” and “you’re” and “hear” and “here.” Nor is it as if keeping the differences straight involves much thought or effort. (This presupposes that all things posted to the Internet or sent in email involve thought or effort, but let’s leave that for another day.)
As it turns out, the corruption of the language we see on the Internet is nothing new.
I noticed this recently when I returned to something that was once a popular activity in this country: reading for pleasure.
Yes, it’s true and I freely admit it. A couple of weeks ago I intentionally turned off the television and the radio and the music, sat in a platform rocker that has been in the family for more than a century, heated up a large mug of apple cider with a little cinnamon, put on my horrible reading glasses, and absorbed a book.
A couple of them, actually. One was On the Edge, television presenter Richard Hammond’s account of the rocket car crash at more than 250 miles per hour which nearly killed him and which happened during filming of a Top Gear episode. It’s a bracing read, especially for those who enjoy that program in its preferable BBC incarnation.
The second was Joseph J. Ellis’s First Family, an easily read account of the lives of John and Abigail Adams. John Adams, and his longtime friend and sometime rival Thomas Jefferson, have long interested me. One of my most absurd vanities is that I shall someday write a history of the friendship they shared, so new books that figure into their tumultuous saga interest me. Ellis’s book inspired me to pull from the shelf a more difficult volume, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, a 650-page compilation of all the correspondence between each of the Adamses and Jefferson that still exists. It is tough to read in part because when the letters were written it took weeks, sometimes months, for them to be delivered. This meant that there were usually several overlapping “conversations” going on at the same time.
It is difficult, also, because these great and educated persons did not appear to give a whit about spelling!
In the space of a few pages, I find Adams saying that work “draggs” on, that Jefferson’s work is “extreamly” needed, that only time will “shew” the results of an action, that “vessells” were sailing, and that shippers on “Avarage will be loosers” instead of winners.
Meanwhile, Jefferson speaks of “knolege” of the “feild” of battle, and so on. It can be argued that there was no standardized spelling at the time, yet in formal documents they seemed to do well. They were certainly not alone among the founders in choosing whatever spelling popped into their heads when writing more casually.
It should be noted that there have been efforts over the years to “reform” and simplify the spelling of English words, the idea being to change spelling to where whatever pops into one’s mind is most likely the correct spelling. The arguments in favor of this were sometimes humorously compelling. In 1855, for instance, the publisher Charles Ollier wrote of his son’s discovery of the non-word “ghoti,” which he said was pronounced “fish.” How could this be? Use the pronunciation of “gh” from “enough,” the “o” from “women,” and the “ti” from “nation,” and there you have it. (This has long been attributed to George Bernard Shaw, the playwright and notorious meddler in language, but he had nothing to do with it. It is also claimed — maybe accurately — that someone approached Shaw one day and asked him if he were aware that “sugar” is the only word in the language in which “su” was pronounced as “sh,” to which Shaw is said to have replied, “Sure.”)
The language has survived the assaults of reformers. It was not until reading the Adamses and Jefferson in their uncorrected words, though, that I realized how well the language has withstood assaults from just about everyone for centuries. It has been well defended, of course, and I hope it will continue to be. But I am a little less concerned that the language is in crisis, because looking back I can’t find any time when it wasn’t in crisis, yet it has somehow survived.
This leads me to think that the English language might even survive the Internet (where, we must remember, many writers are not native English speakers but who write English far better than I write their native languages). English might even survive “texting.”
So let us relax, sit back, and, who knows, maybe even read a book.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.