Spell it out

Many thanks to Noemi Ortega-Raventós for indulging this silly idea of mine

The writers of Western Antiquity identified over thirty vices of language and style. Soraismus described the mingling of two or more languages affectedly. Homiologia was about a meaningless repetition of words. A solecism was a grammatical error. A cacemphaton is a cacophony, the deliberate use of an ill-sounding expression. The list goes on. 


As rhetoric developed, so did the list of language dos and don’ts. You can’t have prescription without proscription.

The Greeks and the Romans used to care about spelling, but not as vehemently as we have done over the last 400 years or so.

Spelling is Gutenberg’s illegitimate child. As print progressively extinguished the monopoly of the handwritten book, the consistency and invariability expected from one printed book copy to another were being applied to spelling and grammar. There had always been rules, but they had never been policed more closely than they were after 1600.

In Western Europe before 1500, Latin had been what mathematics and the language of science became later on: a complex artificial language with carefully defined rules and canons of usage. One could argue that the humanism of the Renaissance was the moment Western Europe became aware of Latin as code. This was also a watershed moment in the history of vernacular languages, which also woke up to the idea that the only way forward for them is to follow the example of Latin, a language with clear rules and lots of dos and don’ts. The rest is, well, history, the Oxford English Dictionary and the Académie Française.

For some, the recent collapse of correct spelling and grammar in many Western languages spells disaster. Some blame the new media, others the systems of education. Many see it as a sign of our times, as inevitable as it is indefensible.

It may also be that we are approaching the counterpoint of the Renaissance, a fresh realisation that the languages we learn to speak before we learn to read and write are not like code: they are breathable spaces, elastic and plastic, open-ended and immune to ringfencing.





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