Will spelling survive the Internet?

Future Tense for Feb. 18, 2008

By Steve Welker

I’m very proud of my son who we saddled with a hard-to-spell name and who's more than lived up to the challenge of spelling not only Michael but my wife's name, Sheila (frequently misspelled Shiela around here); enough words to almost win the Iowa State Fair Spelling Bee championship; and more than enough to win the Mount Airy Schools’ city and Surry County district spelling championships.

His command of the English language's spelling eccentricities gives me hope that at least a few people in the next generation will be able to spell “social” (as in “Social Security”), “dollars” and my last name on the check I’m anticipating sometime after 2021. The check may not be for as much as I’m hoping, but Mike's command of spelling is more than I ever expected.

As a long-time editor, I've often despaired of ever finding anyone who still cares about spelling. Despite spell-checking programs on the computers most of us for writing, the problems with spelling seem to be getting worse, not better.

Mike tells me his teachers believe he’s a good speller because he reads a lot. It’s probably true, but if most people learn to spell from reading, and if much of what they read is on MySpace or Facebook, heaven help our heirs spell, well, "heirs."

My sense is that people spend more time reading and writing today than our parents did only a generation ago. Not necessarily reading books, mind you. I’m talking about volumes of e-mail, chat, Web sites and text messages on PDAs or cell phones. And for ruining spelling, I credit America Online with the original sin.

Back in the day, many of us had our first introduction to the Internet through an account on America Online. E-mail quickly became one of its most-popular features. Among its users who can forget the pulse-quickening, ungrammatical but no-less-memorable phrase, “You’ve got mail,” voiced by actor Elwood Edwards? They even made a movie about it.

America Online also popularized chat rooms where people could type in their conversations in real time. Today's instant messaging and cell-phone-based SMS is just more of the same, but worse, because it puts a premium on messages frequently abbreviated to acronyms such as “AFAIK” (“as far as I know”) and ROLF (“rolling on the floor, laughing”).

Few people type as fast as they talk, which gave rise on the Internet to what some people called “AOLspeak.” The afore-mentioned abbreviations are an example. Some are now treated like words. Common ones like LOL (variously defined as, “laughing out loud,” “lots of luck,” “lots of love,” etc.) are so long-established that text messagers no longer realize they started life on AOL as words and phrases, not as abbreviations. “Lol” is Dutch for “fun.” I’ll leave it to your imagination what “fun” we wrote about in my younger days.

This corruption of the language has been taken to extremes, such as GNFPWLBN (from the Modest Mouse album, “Good News For People Who Love Bad News”), SUAGOOML (“shut up and get out of my life”) and IWIAMUAFTP (“I wonder if anyone makes up acronyms for this page,” which usually appears on what purport to be on-line AOLSpeak dictionaries for parents trying to understand what their kids are writing). People who can’t remember how to spell “dictionary” can somehow manage to produce entire e-mail messages in nothing but AOLSpeak and leet (a “language” I’ve discussed before; it uses letters, numbers and punctuation marks to create cryptic words, originally so messages would pass through filters for offensive language) and other forms of mangled English.

Noah Webster probably is turning in his grave.

Of course, I can’t lay all the blame on the Internet. Advertisers have done some damage, too — substituting “lite” instead of “light” and “smokey” for “smoky.” In my profession, the late Col. Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune tried for years to regularize English with more economical words such as “thru” for “through.”

I suppose it’s simply in the nature of English that the language — and its spelling — evolves.

I’m just glad there will be a few standardbearers, such as Mike, to preserve proper spelling ... in the future.


Steve Welker is the editor of SurryBusiness.com. His e-mail address is steve@stevewelker.net.

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