Some comedian once remarked that when he was a child, television led him to believe that quicksand was going to be a much bigger issue than adulthood revealed it to be.
Spelling is a bit like that. It is one of the first great obstacles we meet as children when we hit elementary education. First, you learn the alphabet and after mastering the awesome power to just draw letters correctly with your #2 pencil you then began the baffling task of learning how to spell the colossal range of words in the English language. You learn “rules” which, unlike actual rules, mean nothing to somebody who actually is trying to learn English. “Rules” like “ea” is pronounced with a long E sound as in “meat”, except for when it pronounced with a short E sound as in “sweat” or long A sound as in “great”. And “ae” is pronounced with a long E sound as in “Caesar” except when you are talking about Caesar’s praetor, which has a long A sound.
And that’s just scratching the surface. If you brought enough through your spelling class, you learned that “ough” could sound like aw, uff, and oo—and that this made no sense but was Just the Way Things Are So Shut Up. You learned that “debt” had a b in it for no reason other than that somebody thought it made the word look cool and Latiny sometime back when people cared about things being Latiny. You learned that other letters were there for the same reason your appendix is still there: because it used to do something but now it doesn’t but it still hangs around because it’s too much trouble to get rid of it. So all that ink spilled (or spilt, you can spell it both ways) on billions of silent e’s will just go on being spilled or spilt. Likewise, there will go on being mice, but not hice; oxen, but not moosen; many sheep, but not many goat; cow and cattle, but not sow and sattle.
For some reason, my brain had an affinity for learning spelling when I was a child. I can’t explain it because while I was learning it, I had the brain of a child and therefore had no capacity for meta-analysis of why spelling was so easy for me to pick up. I just kept my head down and learned it. Certain rules helped (“I before E, except after C, or when sounding like A as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh'”). But mostly I just internalized the cardinal rule that spelling “rules” were, as Captain Barbossa says in Pirates of the Caribbean, not so much a code as a guideline.
Spelling is one of those things we are supposed to transcend. You are to learn it so well that the day comes when you don’t think about it anymore, like getting potty trained. The goal is something else: being able to communicate. Being able to write, not in the sense of “having the ability to grip a pencil and form the word ‘dog'”, but being able to write in order to, say, pen a letter to your sweetie, or communicate with stockholders on the year-end profits of the National Widget Company of Australia, or pen, “If this be error and upon me prov’d/I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.”
But this leads to more conundrums. Because, as that line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 makes clear, spelling stays the same while pronunciation changes, resulting in lots of silent e’s and in things not rhyming anymore (“love” used to be pronounced the same as “prove” is today).
Now the thing is, spelling therefore occupies this weird grey spot in our social relationships. There’s nothing really essential about spelling. There’s no Church dogma about spelling. Nothing says that we have to spell words correctly. And when we are feeling frolicsome, spelling things wrong can be fun! So, for isnantce, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. Likewise, whole subcultures have built up dialects like L33T, 1n wh1ch number$ @nd 0th3r ch@r@ct3r$ fill in for traditional letters.
And, of course, with the rise of Twitter and the cell phone, splng hs srsly tkn a bak seat to pressure from tek. Sad!
But we still care about spelling in this strange way, as though the mere ability to spell is some kind of measure of everything from brains to social standing. It’s a very questionable assumption. Andrew Jackson remarked, “It is a damn poor mind indeed which can’t think of at least two ways to spell any word.” Thomas Jefferson said, “I have nothing but contempt for anyone who can spell a word only one way.” But in the age of mass communication, it was almost inevitable that spelling would become, if not universally standardized, as least standardized (or standardised, as you Aussies spell it).
Poor Robert Hiini, my editor for this column. Now he is face to face with a challenge: how to spell the words I’m writing. It falls to this tragic unfortunate, week after week, to render my Americanese prose into the Queen’s spelling. Why? Well … because. It’s the Done Thing. This is an Aussie paper and, by St George, the Yank is going to spell things the Aussie way, the English way, the correct way. So “nationalize” becomes “nationalise” and so forth. The reader in Oz thinks nothing of it because that’s the way things are spelled (or is it spelt?) by normal people.
But here in America, because spelling does carry with it a slight scent of class, I always wonder if my fellow Americans, when I write, “The flavor of American humor is rumored to harbor splendor” will think I’m being terribly precious when it appears as “The flavour of American humour is rumoured to harbour splendour” at The Catholic Weekly. Should I publish an explanation on Facebook that this is not what I wrote but that it is necessary for The Catholic Weekly to translate my backwoods Yankee orthography into the Queen’s English? Will my countrymen think I am taking on airs?
(Pedant’s note: not, strictly speaking, about spelling.)
Why, you may wonder, am I blathering about all this? Because spelling is a kind of metaphor, to me, of the trouble with trying to communicate the gospel in our world. Some things are really essential to the gospel and some things really aren’t, and the struggle the Church has always faced is figuring which is which. The Pharisees were totally certain they had Jesus pegged as a sketchy character because he ate with tax collectors and whores. Turned out they were wrong, because the heart of the law is not “hang out with respectable people” but mercy and love. Jesus had mercy and love—even for thin-lipped little inquisitors like the Pharisees. They thought life was about keeping elementary rules the way some folks think the point of writing is correct spelling. Jesus understood that keeping rules was only important as long as it didn’t get in the way of higher things like the love of God and neighbor (or neighbour): that the rules were made for man, not man for the rules.