In defence of misspelling

Although writing was invented over 5,000 years ago, orthographical standards and the strict rules governing how words are written are quite a recent development. Ancient scribes didn’t much care about spelling. The manuscript cultures of the past were rather liberal about the way words ought to be written. Many words in ancient Greek and Latin, for instance, existed in multiple spellings without anyone worrying about errors and mistakes.

Ancient poetry cared more about meter than about spelling. An incorrect verse was one where the words didn’t ‘scan’, meaning that they didn’t fit the poetic pattern that the author had intended. But as long as spelling didn’t interfere with meter, variant forms of a word were allowed to co-exist, sometimes even in the same text. When the scholars of ancient Alexandria standardised Homer’s epic poems, they legislated on the right sequence of words, not on their spelling. It was only after the Renaissance and with the birth of textual criticism that spelling and textual purity became a standard weight in the West. The manuscripts in which Dante’s Divine Comedy circulated from the 14th to the 16th century contain so many spelling variants that it is impossible to establish the ‘correct text’. The same goes for most ancient and medieval literary works.

Two things contributed to the modern pursuit of orthographical correctness: Latin and the printing press.

When Latin ceased to be the maternal language of any people in Europe ā€“ as it had been under the Roman republic and empire ā€“, Latin became an artificial language with precise rules whose life as well as transmission was assured by the written medium alone.

The fluidity of the manuscript page, where every scribe could introduce errors into the text they were copying, came to a halt with the printed book. The monolithical nature of the printed page, where copies are identical to each other, meant that in the long run the mind became accustomed to writing standards and norms of correctness.

If misspellings had been seen as the features of an open written culture where words were allowed to grow organically, so to speak, beginning with the modern period, they have been increasingly regarded as symptoms of ignorance and faulty literacy, which education and scholarship were designed to weed out.

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