Friday, January 13, 2012

The New Spelling

It's interesting that even diehard purists haven't commented on eSpelling!  It is no doubt because of such purists that we are saddled with the worst orthography in a first world country.  There has existed a  mismatch between pronunciation of any dialect of English and its since the 16th century.  Spelling reformers, called orthoepists wrote tracts to improve matters of spelling that long ago--often in Latin.  That is, they wrote about English spelling using Latin as the medium for their views.  No, they didn't suggest that English spell like the Romans.  They used the language to complain about English spelling.  Maybe that's why their works are not so well known, and nobody's done anything about reforming our orthography in the past five centuries.

In the U.S., Noah Webster made some improvements to the British system,  getting rid of the extra vowel in words like colour and neighbour, for instance. Unfortunately, all my reference books on this matter are 2,400 miles away from the RV I am writing this in, so I'm not sure if he was responsible for American curb and jail, for British kerb and gaol, respectively.  In any event, since Webster, there has been no concerted action to reform American spelling.

However, people will be people.  Language changes as society does, and spelling is part of written language.  The first assaults on conventional orthography began in advertising.Creating brand names is part of advertising a product, so I'll consider them together.  Toothpaste will make your teeth brite and lite, rather than bright and light. And k began to impinge on c chaotically as in Kleenex,which "should" be "Cleanex."  (Note the -ex suffix.  It, too, results from "advertising-ese.")  I'll leave it to my faithful commenters to deluge me in brand names and slogans that use special spellings,  because there is another factor in spelling change  I want to mention.

In Great Britain and Spain, if not other European countries, changing the spelling has been part of rebellious youth since the 1990's.  In the U.S., (some) people were shocked by the name of the movies, Boyz in the Hood.  African American rappers all used a z to spell the plural in boys, girls, dogs, etc.  It is doubtful that these rappers weren't familiar with the standard spellings in which the z pronunciation is spelled with an s. African American entertainers like Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne,  and Johnny Mathis However, just as they speak in African American English, rather than an educated standard  these rappers were laying claim to their own spelling and speech.   It can be seen as a rebellion towards middle-class standards.  It can also be seen as their proclaiming their group identity.  People who associate with each other regularly and who feel that they are part of a cohesive group, always change their speech in some way to signal their identity.  Now we see that spelling can be used for the same reason.

In Spain, nonstandard spellings occur in graffiti as well as in posters and flyers geared to rebels.  In the UK, working class youth spell what as wot and is as iz, among other innovations.  Yes, such spellings make sense, but they also are a way of saying,  "to Hell with authority."

But the newest wrinkle in spelling change is not rebellious, nor is it an attempt to change existing spellings.  So far as I can tell, it began with Apple.  In a sense, then, it did emanate from advertising.  Disregarding one of the few regular rules of spelling, that which says that the first letter of a word is capitalized, Apple came out with an iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad.  In today's email, I got a message about iPhotos. 

So far as I know, these were the first spellings to use what amounts to a prefix (the i standing for 'intelligent.') in lower case letters and the actual name starting with an upper case letters. We can consider this merely as a new wrinkle in product identification, like Kleenex.  However, this unique capitalization has spread, not to brand names only, but to a range of electronic devices.  So, we have eReaders, eBooks, and  eLibraries (on our eReaders).  We should also have eMail, but email predates Apple's innovation in capitalizing.  I can write about eMusic, eSpelling, eStories, and you'd know what I'm referring to.  In other words, e has become a lower case prefix indicating 'electronic.'

Such playing loose with capitalizations allowed Barnes and Noble to present their NOOKcolor Tablet, in which the first four letters of the name are all capitalized (and you thought I was being cute when I referred to it with that spelling.)  However, when they came out with their latest Tablet, they spelled it conventionally.  I don't know about you, but I was willing to go along with NOOKcolor, but I'm put out by the inconsistency of not calling the new device NOOKtablet.  One thing I'll say for Apple.  They've got the courage to be consistent.  I know Barnes and Noble is a staid old publishing and bookselling business, but why have NOOKcolor (to differentiate it from the older Nooks), and not NOOKtablet.  That would brand better, too.  If both devices were NOOK, then consumers would know their relationship just as they know iAnything is Apple.  Barnes and Noble blindsided me by their spelling of their newest device: Nook Tablet.  Plain vanilla Nook Tablet. Where's the zing? Worse, now I don't know if I should continue to spell the other tablet as NOOKColor Tablet, or Nookcolor Tablet, or Nook Color Tablet.  Okay, Barnes and Noble. Enlighten me.

Keep looking for innovative use of upper case letters in articles and ads.  I suspect capitalization is the new locus of creativity, especially when naming innovations.  Hmm! Maybe I can be eLaine?

2 comments:

Sextant said...

Very i-Nteresting, as alwayz!

Anonymous said...

English spelling is very imprecise. When I first moved to the Portland area, I looked at houses in a suburb called Tigard and I didn't know how to pronounce it. As it turned out, the "I" is pronounced as it is in "tiger" not "trigger", but how would a stranger know that.

Similarly, in your last name is the "ch" pronounced as in "chair" or "Chanukah"? I guess eLaine will have to do.

Gil