The history of English spelling reform

February 8, 2016

After the recent fuss about France dropping its circumflex (or not), I was approached by History Today to write something about spelling reform. My article, A brief history of English spelling reform, was published today.

In it I outline the various attempts made over the centuries to fix the knotty problems of English spelling – who tried, what they did and why, and how their efforts fared – while making quick forays into German and Old Icelandic and concluding with some general thoughts.

Here’s a taster:

Reports of the circumflex’s death are exaggerated, but they point to the intensity of feeling aroused by orthography – how personally we relate to something with so arbitrary a connection to meaning. Usage dictionaries reveal age-old disputes that erupt anew every day. Some of the most passionate are over spelling, which, as H.G. Wells wrote, has ‘become mixed up with moral feeling’. . . .

Read the rest of this entry »


Sarcastic punctuation in The X-Files

December 21, 2015

English has no standard punctuation mark or typographic style to show sarcasm or verbal irony. This lack has inspired a whole menagerie of proposals over the centuries, including backwards question marks, upside-down or zigzag exclamation marks, and left-slanting typefaces (‘ironics’, ‘Sartalics’). Some have gained niche usage, while others faded more or less instantly: only the winking smiley ;-) ;) has become widespread, and only in informal text.

I notice the gap sometimes when chatting online, for example when I misinterpret someone’s tone or they misinterpret mine. A tongue-in-cheek statement can easily be taken at face value if the reader doesn’t know the writer well. This happens often on Twitter, where strangers’ statements can spread without much pragmatic context.

Read the rest of this entry »


On caring less, and a new abbreviation (Ћ)

August 15, 2013

I have a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Do we need to abbreviate ‘the’? looks at a recent orthographic innovation: Ћ, intended as a one-character symbol for the. If there were a pressing need for such an abbreviation, Ћ would stand a better chance of catching on. But we have lots of more familiar alternatives:

Ћ is already a character known as Tshe in the Cyrillic script, which will help the symbol’s availability. (The resemblance is apparently coincidental.) Ultimately, though, its success as shorthand for the depends on whether people adopt it and make its use habitual and normal.

And while I wish Mathis the best of luck, I can’t see Ћ catching on very widely. Some people already abbreviate the as de, da, th, t/ or d, though these are effectively restricted to informal contexts such as text messages and Twitter. In Old English a þ (“thorn”) with a stroke was used the same way. Complete omission of the article is more common…

You can read the rest here. Will you be adopting Ћ?

*

Next up: Could you care less? is about the expression I could care less and the constant cavilling it attracts. In David Mitchell’s entertaining video at the Guardian, he protests that the phrase implies you do care and is “useless as an indicator of how much you care”. I suggest that that’s true only

in a fantasy land where the expression and interpretation of language are tone deaf and bound strictly by formal logic. The point about idioms is that that’s not how they work. . . . Treating idioms this way is – to use Lane Greene’s choice phrase – “selective hyper-literalism”.

In speech, the stress pattern of an idiom can affect its interpretation, and so it is with I could care less. . . . As a Negative Polarity Item, it has its own independent negative force – like I could give a damn, which is synonymous with I couldn’t give a damn.

Read on if you couldn’t not care more or less about this, or for older articles visit the archive.