Languages with high levels of heterography, the discrepency between how words are spelled and how they are pronounced, suffer the most when literacy in their constituancies starts to decline.
Heterography survives on high doses of book-based education and linguistic policing. In the absence of any formal pressures towards the norm, a word like ‘enough’ would normally career towards being spelled ‘enuf’, as it is already spelled in millions of text messages and Emoji-inundated sentences. It’s shorter and more homographic, which feels more natural to the unpractised pen.
We make, sell and read more books than ever before in our history, but the writing quality of the educated is in decline. This is due to a mix of factors, among which a steady de-emphasis of grammatical and rhetorical instruction existing alongside laissez-faire gatekeepers in a hyperliterate culture.
And, of course, heterography doesn’t make things easier. English is one of the most heterographic languages in the Latin-script world. Words are never the sum of their parts, i.e letters. Groups of letters form sounds different from their constituent parts. The letters ‘ee’ don’t just make a long or emphatic e sound, they give rise to a new sound, iː, like in ‘leek’. And the ‘ea’ in ‘leak’ is pronounced the same, despite having a different spelling.
Languages keep evolving. The spelling and phonetic rules we now have are the result of linguistic development. Spoken and written language, all languages, were very different two hundred years ago, and extremely different five hundred years ago. But our age is very different from previous ones. We don’t believe in language change anymore. We may not live at the end of history like some in the 90s, misreading Fukuyama, believed. But we seem to be living at the end of written language. All has been accomplished, all that is left for us to do is keep within the lines and preserve. Except that we don’t. And the challenge comes from the margins, from the Spartacan revolt of new media and its users.