Magic Spell Check

Tom Bell makes the case against uniform spelling rules: Brits have their colourful differences, written Hebrew doesn't use vowels, lots of words aren't spelled phonetically (case in point?), and regional accents are diverse. Learning and following uniform spelling rules are costly activities. We could reap great benefits if we loosened up a bit.

Tom closes with a few theories to explain why rules of spelling are more uniform than rules of pronunciation. Most importantly, Tom mentions "the use of spelling as a social marker." This is the strongest argument in favor of uniform spelling rules. Spelling is a signaling mechanism for intelligence, especially on the Internet, where most communication is written.

When we meet a stranger for the first time, we make judgments about them and try to classify them into various conceptual categories. Is this person a threat or an ally? Wise or incompetent? Hardworking or lazy? Whether these initial judgments are accurate or not, we make them based on generalized past observations of people with similar characteristics, or rumors we've heard about people with these characteristics. We prejudge.

I prejudge. When I hear someone with a Southern accent, my initial reaction is to assume they are a slack-jawed yokel, and I maintain this assumption until given reason to believe otherwise. When I hear someone with a British accent, I assume they are refined and intelligent, even though I know regional pronunciation has a tenuous connection to education level and innate intelligence.

Prejudice can be unfair, but it is cheap. It's surely a good thing to debunk false group generalizations, like my accent prejudice, but what about true generalizations? Women are more likely than men to take time off from work to raise a child (whether this is a sociological or biological construct isn't important for determining the truth of the generalization, although it may be important for changing it). Whites are more likely than blacks to be admitted to and graduate from law school and medical school. An airplane hijacker is more likely to be a Muslim of Arab descent than a Norwegian Buddhist.

Generalizations based on certain characteristics like gender, race, ethnicity, country of origin, and sexual orientation are increasingly taboo because of the connection between biological determinism and eugenics (another unfair generalization - although all eugenicists are biological determinists to some degree, all those who believe in some degree of biological determinism are not necessarily eugenicists).

Though intelligence may be just as much of a biological constraint as gender or race, it is still socially acceptable to discriminate against stupid people. And for good reason. Even the most zealous egalitarian doesn't want a simple-minded brain surgeon. Further, discrimination is even more acceptable when prejudging acquirable characteristics such as knowledge and skills, as opposed to innate intelligence.

So when I read something riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, lack of punctuation and capitalization, and conversely, when I read something flawless, I make an assumption about the intelligence of the writer. I know beforehand that these assumptions will often be wrong -- some people are lazy, some are non-native English speakers, and some who are not skilled writers are intelligent in other ways.

But my time is limited. I cannot read everything I come across. I must decide what is worth reading. Spelling is an imperfect but useful proxy for making that decision. And even when the proxy fails, it is easier and more enjoyable to read an error-free text than to plow through a sloppy, poorly written piece, translating and correcting the distractions as I go.

It is true that spelling need not be conform to a single set of rules. American English speakers know enough about British spelling to avoid making incorrect assumptions about the intelligence of those who live across the pond, and vice versa. But this diversity comes at a cost. Imagine if there were as many different sets of spelling rules as there are accents. Spelling in Boston would differ from Brooklyn would differ from Texas would differ from Minnesota. Although it would be nice to have a bit more flexibility in spelling rules to allow different sets of rules to compete -- let the best formulation win -- the benefit of a pluralistic spontaneous order must be weighed against the costs of having to learn numerous valid spellings, to distinguish those who follow a different set of rules from those who refuse or are unable to follow any.

At the risk of upsetting my Austrian friends, this is the kind of social theory that can be empirically tested. There are lots of different written languages. How many of them have uniform spelling rules? Does the evolution of language tell us whether the advantages of a common standard -- comprehension, recognition, and intelligence proxy -- outweigh the advantages of a loose, competing set of spelling norms?

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At the risk of upsetting my

At the risk of upsetting my Austrian friends, this is the kind of social theory that can be empirically tested.

As an Austrian sympathizer, it doesn't upset me at all, and I'm not sure why you think it would. I love empirical testing where it is applicable.

At the risk of upsetting my

At the risk of upsetting my Austrian friends, this is the kind of social theory that can be empirically tested. There are lots of different written languages. How many of them have uniform spelling rules? Does the evolution of language tell us whether the advantages of a common standard – comprehension, recognition, and intelligence proxy – outweigh the advantages of a loose, competing set of spelling norms?

What ramifications would such a study have? Aren't spelling norms and 'rules' driven by culture?

Jonathan, My Austrian

Jonathan,

My Austrian mention was made tongue-in-cheek.

If lots of independent cultures reach the same degree of uniformity in spelling rules, that would be evidence to support the proposition that the benefits of uniform spelling rules generally outweigh the costs.

You don't think standardized

You don't think standardized spellings make a language easier and quicker to read and a more transparent tool for conveying thoughts and information?

I do think that. I am

I do think that. I am defending uniform spelling rules against Bell's criticisms.