Thursday, January 7, 2010

The spell czech club, and why thinking before writing sometimes doesn't work

It's time for a personal revelation.

I am a member of a spell czech club.

The spell czech club is an informal group of people who trades examples of misspellings that wouldn't be caught by a rudimentary spell checker. (Note that "spell czech" itself WOULD be caught in a spelling check, but "spell Czech" would only be caught by a more intensive check.)

Our goal is not to embarrass the person who wrote the spell czech (although I have admitted my own spell czech errors), but to help the participants (all of whom are writers) to keep an eye out for these so that we do not commit the same errors in the future.

One of the most recent spell czechs that I shared read as follows:

"I will be calling a meeting ... to better understand our roll in this."

My initial reaction was as follows:

I don't know whether this means that food will be served, or that I should wear jeans to the meeting in case we're tumbling around.

But then I got a little more serious and began thinking about homophones.

According to Jimmy Wales, "[a] homophone is a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning. The words may be spelled the same, such as rose (flower) and rose (past tense of "rise"), or differently, such as carat, caret, and carrot, or to, two and too." The Wikipedia entry goes on to say, "Homophones that are spelled differently are also called heterographs."

So I guess that when I got a little more serious, I began thinking about HETEROGRAPHS. Now that we're a little more precise, let's move on.

So I began wondering why someone would use a heterograph for a word, instead of the word itself. My guess is that the person thinks about what s/he is about to write, sounds it out in his/her brain, and then writes what s/he "hears." So the person above thought about "our roll in this," and that's what was typed.

The fascinating part about this for me is that this error appears to happen when someone thinks before they write. Now normally thinking before writing is a good thing, but in this instance it led to a poor result. An additional step, translating the thoughts into the proper words with the proper spelling, is necessary to achieve the proper result.

This helps to demonstrate that a lack of spelling skills does not necessarily indicate a lack of intelligence. Consider, for example, the patrons and supporters of a particular playwright named Shakespeare. Or Shakspere. Or Shake-speare. Or Shakspeare. Or Shakespear. Or Shaxberd. Why the different spellings?

Elizabethan spelling was very erratic by twentieth-century standards, though it was not (as is sometimes stated) totally without rules. Even the simplest proper names were spelled a variety of ways, but we can at least look at the range of different spellings used for a given name and see what patterns emerge. In the accompanying lists, I have attempted to gather together all the references to Shakespeare by name, from his christening in 1564 to the publication of the First Folio in 1623 and slightly beyond, with the original spellings used at the time.

As part of this effort (presumably in response to the question "Did Shaxberd write the plays attributed to him?"), another detail was discovered:

Spelling in Elizabethan printed texts was much more uniform and closer to modern practice than in handwritten ones, because compositors tended to normalize idiosyncratic features of the manuscripts they worked from.

Back in those days, the assembly of printed text was much more difficult than it was today, which lent itself to secondary thought processes that would correct spellings. Today, however, I can type "our roll in this" in less than five seconds, which means that I (or other typists) will capture the initial thought without engaging in a secondary thought process.

Perhaps someone has studied this further, and if so, I'd appreciate your comments.
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