Speling it rite

Given the number of spelling tests set by our teachers at school, it would be easy to think that comprehensible language and correct spelling are inseparable.  Yet a quick think would show this isn’t the case – if it really matters, why do we have both UK and US English?  ‘Theater’ might not look quite right to a client in London, but she is unlikely to turn up at the cinema by accident, and many business writers slip effortlessly between competing orthographies multiple times in a day. 

The idea of ‘correct spelling’ is actually a very recent concept: even the most well-known writer in English, Shakespeare, famously never wrote his own name the same way twice, and used the looseness of spelling to great effect in emphasising puns and wordplay in his works. 

It is very rare for writers today to have work published with departures from standard spelling, except for special artistic effect: while the words ‘connexion’, ‘phantasy’ or ‘esquimo’ might be accepted in a novel or poem, attempts to use them in a press release might result in a slapped wrist!

Although English was one of the first to be tamed and brought out of this linguistic wild west, almost all languages share the characteristic of having one or two standard spellings, while other variations are arbitrarily regarded as at best, archaic or quaint, and at worst, simply wrong.

Some take this very seriously indeed, such as the French with their Académie française; other languages have merely coalesced over time, and in the absence of a central authority, further attempts at reform, like that of the Simplified Spelling Society, have not caught on. 

Standardised spelling can be very useful for someone learning a language, or even a professional translating it: on the other hand, as one way of saying a word becomes presented as ‘neutral’ or ‘normal’ compared to other regional variations, it can be a subtle expression of dominance and privilege.  Almost all standardised orthographies are based on the preferences, historically, of the upper class, leading to huge differences between the spelling and the pronunciation of a word in various regions. 

Although this is socially problematic, as we say in Yorkshire, where there’s muck, there’s brass: much like hyper-localisation, deviating from standard spellings can represent a huge marketing opportunity.  Consider a campaign which, rather than using the dominant orthography, appeals to a region in its own idiom: not only eye-catching and memorable, but also latching onto a powerful sense of local pride.  Another example of how the right localisation team can help businesses not only communicate, but work. 

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