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Creative spelling (posted 2012-01-14)

I ran into a post on the Vanity Fair website called "Should Vanity Fair Be a Spelling Vigilante?" which asks the question whether the Vanity Fair editors should deviate from regular spelling of strange-looking words and names. Unfortunately, most of the commenters on this post can't seem to take this topic very seriously. That's a shame, because people learning English waste a decade of their lives learning the truly bizarre spelling of that language. In all other European languages that I'm familiar with, except perhaps French, spelling is much, much simpler.

At least one commenter makes the point that language is a living, breathing thing that should be allowed to adapt over time. This is a very good point, but when people say this they usually do so to justify their own lazy grammar or spelling.

In Dutch we have spelling reforms every few decades. Sometimes those make a lot of sense, sometimes they're pretty misguided. But the good thing is that even though Dutch spelling is not entirely without its complexities, you can pronounce a word as it's written and get the pronunciation right 99% of the time. In English that's not possible, there are usually several different ways to pronounce a word based on its spelling. That's nice when reading Shakespeare, because the spelling is still the same as 400 years ago. Of course the words are all pronounced differently and often mean something else or at least have very different connotations, so it really doesn't buy you much.

So I applaud Noah Webster's attempt to reform English spelling in his dictionary in the early 1800s. We have him to thank for the fact that a neighbor is not a neighbour and a theater is not a theatre anymore in the United States. This simply makes much more sense and is one of the main reasons I use American spelling when I write in English. (Although organise rather than organize makes more sense to me because the Dutch also uses an s rather than a z here.)

It is my opinion that writers have the obligation, when they have the opportunity, to select simpler and more logical forms of the language in their writing rather than blindly conform to historic rules. For this reason, I usually avoid writing weekdays, months, planets and the like with a capital. On the other hand, it's easy to go too far and have your style call attention to itself, to the detriment of what you have to say. It doesn't really make sense to write "I" with a capital, but if you use "i" instead that looks very, very strange.

Of course such judgments differ widely across different groups. I know there are many people who have no trouble writing "see you" as "c u" even outside the context of instant messaging or the like. I hope they're smart enough to realize that if they do this in a cover letter or résumé, they're very likely not going to get the job. That's because "c u" for "see you" is not an attempt to free the language of obsolete constructs, but laziness. There's a big difference.

Then there is the issue of creative spelling of names. Ironically, the author of the Vanity Fair post suffers from this: Juli Weiner. Apparently some parents think it'll make their kid more unique to have a fairly common name but then spell it differently. As far as I'm concerned, it's just a waste of our collective time for no good reason, and if I were in that position I would simply adopt the standard spelling. Of course that means that I should really spell my name as Ильич...

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