Look at me … Quirky spellings, as used in the film title Inglourious Basterds, invariably attract attention.
Tony Blair and Dan Quayle have both made famous gaffes. Henry Hitchings on the importance of spelling.
The title of Simon Horobin’s book poses what, at first blush, seems a banal question. I imagine most readers would answer “Yes, spelling matters”, perhaps adding “though not as much as some believe”. Yet if the question of how words should be written is not uppermost in many people’s minds, its nagging everyday presence is nonetheless evident in the existence of spell-checkers and school spelling tests, as well as in mnemonics designed to help us with spellings, such as the venerable “i before e except after c”.
Phenomena of this kind betray an unease about the irregularities of spelling, and English spelling (Horobin’s focus, though he does say a bit about spelling reform in French, Dutch and German) has long drawn complaint. This has ranged from the smooth-tongued – Jerome K Jerome’s line that English spelling “would seem to have been designed chiefly as a disguise to pronunciation” – to the splenetic, such as the view of the Austrian linguist Mario Wandruszka that it is “an insult to human intelligence”. Lament is certainly the norm, so it may be a surprise to meet with the assessment of Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle that English spelling “comes remarkably close to being an optimal … system”.