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U and I

On the rules of spelling.

No one I knew in school would be surprised to learn that I became an English professor. I spent every minute reading, won the spelling bee in fifth grade, and was the most officious of grammar pedants well into college. Such a personality has its benefits (I received a personalized Random House College Dictionary for winning the spelling bee) but does not come without costs. When I generously corrected the spelling of people on the internet, the most common response was, “I dont care about spelling!!” I would then observe that don’t includes an apostrophe because it is a contraction and the apostrophe stands in for the omitted letters. These helpful ministrations were seldom received with gratitude.

As an undergraduate in college, I began to focus my attentions on medieval England: merry old jousts and tilts, chivalry and kings, knights and squires. This opened up all manner of new topics on which I could correct anyone too polite to put my head into a toilet: did you know that the “ye” in Ye Olde Shoppe is actually “The,” because the letter Y was used in movable type to represent the letter thorn (Þ), which sounds th? One fascinating, fact-filled trip to the “Renaissance festival” was sufficient to convince my girlfriend never to go with me again. And, fair enough: being thus snubbed was insufficient to convince me to stop putting the words in inverted commas, where they belong.

Despite my proscriptive attitude towards spelling, when I began to study Middle English, I found it utterly readable. Perhaps it was my exposure to all of those badly-written A.O.L. instant messages in the Nineties. By modern standards, the spelling and grammar are more malleable than a bowl of instant custard. For example, in the space of a couple pages, Sir Thomas Malory spells King Leodegrance’s name as Lodegreaunce, Lodegraunce, and Lodegreauns. The trick, of course, is to read it aloud and to sound every letter, whereupon the differences largely disappear—at least, to a more accommodating Middle English ear. I was still further gratified by that capacious, accommodating attitude towards spelling when some of my professors penalized my grade for writing in British English. “I’ll accept the points off,” I said, explaining that, if there were to be only one English, then it should be the English of the English, and all the while hoping that my attitude would be perceived as good-natured but principled, rather than truculent and obstinate. More often than not, I got my wish. But not always.

Thus I found myself on the wrong side of the law of spelling, thanks to the advent of regional dictionaries. Hadn’t I been awarded one? Hoisted by my own p-e-t-a-r-d! But how did it come to this? The standardization of spelling had begun innocuously enough. The dictionary, originally created to provide definitions of words, eventually became the arbiter of how to spell them as well—a connection maintained by that tradition of awarding dictionaries to spelling bee champions. Was that why Doctor Johnson had slaved away, so that I could be persecuted for putting a U in honor? I began to think of Middle English as offering a tantalizing alternative: why not have more copious spellings? It would certainly add a degree of skulduggery to the afternoon round of Scrabble.

Andrew Carnegie might have agreed. He thought that English could become the language of the world, if only the complexity of its spelling could be simplified. In this, he managed to convince the president, Theodore Roosevelt, and from August 27, 1906 the United States executive office was directed to use simplified spelling. President Roosevelt (Prezedent Rusevelt?) was ultimately unsuccessful, but he and Carnegie were in good, Middle English, company. I, too, had been convinced: go ahead and spell honor without a U, if you must, so long as I can spell it with a U myself. Thomas Malory, who became an increasing focus of my collegiate study, seemed delightfully unconcerned with how to spell his own name, let alone the names of the main characters in his “grete booke.” As long as the meaning was effectively conveyed without much chance of being misunderstood, there seemed to be some merit in the approach.

It was these realizations which convinced me to cease my interminable corrections, except in those places where serious misunderstanding or confusion was likely. And it transpires that studying Middle English conveys all manner of social benefits if we read it not only as a language but as a philosophy of language: My friends began returning my calls, my colleagues invited me to dinner parties, and my girlfriend married me. It helps that the texts are fascinating, as well. So, in good Courtly Romance style, we have a happy ending!—Except for the people who write “should of” instead of “should’ve.” I see you, and there is a limit to my restraint.