Taylor Dowd / University of Virginia / Summer 2014 E-Tern
What do you do if you don’t know how to spell a word? First see if you can figure it out via auto-correct, then look for a squiggly red line under your typed guess. If you don’t have these conveniences, just pull out your smartphone and check your dictionary app. Or, if you are somehow stranded without technology, flip through the dusty dictionary.
Today, there are a variety of ways to ensure that you are adhering to proper English. The rules of our language are constantly being enforced, and the “correct” way to write and speak is ingrained in English speakers at young ages. But languages were not always this cut and dry. Languages are fluid and constantly evolving — how else could one of the first languages spoken by humans become Latin which eventually became Spanish? The standardization of languages artificially freezes them and turns a complex mutual means of communication, with various dialects and varieties, into one “correct” way of communicating that comes along with precise rules. Standardization causes the evolution of languages to slow down. It also can cause people who are powerless and on the margins of society to either have to change the way they speak and write or to be further marginalized.
The standardization of English has been a gradual process shaped by those in power, by new technologies and by early dictionaries. However, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755, was instrumental in solidifying the correct way to spell English words because of its breadth and popularity. The Glassford & Henderson ledgers were being written only a little over a decade after this publication, and therefore, probably because dictionary spellings were not fully integrated into society, the ledgers contain a variety of spellings for some words. For example, the Colchester ledgers contain at least six ways to spell “calamanco” and “dowlas,” each which are types of fabric.
Because of the lack of English standardization at the time, some words in the 1768/1769 ledger were spelled more phonetically than they are now. For example, scissors were spelled “scizor.” Words that now have double consonants such as “saddle,” were often
spelled with only one, such as “sadle.” What is now “metal,” was usually spelled “mettle.” Although this is not necessarily more phonetic, it makes sense to spell it this way because of similar sounding words such as “kettle” and “settle.” However, some eighteenth-century spellings did not make as much phonetic and logical sense. “Net,” as in a total profit after deductions, etc., was often spelled “nett.” The color “brown” was spelled “broun.”
Although spelling may seem like a trivial matter, its variations through time can provide insight into how languages evolve, and can demonstrate the effects standardization has had on the English language. Thankfully, eighteenth-century English is fairly easy for readers from the modern day to understand. However, reading English from centuries before that would be quite a challenge due to the different spellings and meanings of words, even though it can be considered the same language that English-speakers use today. Small changes in spelling can add up to what looks like a totally different language! Maybe 250 years from now, a transcriber just like me will be studying our spellings. How different will our language look to these future English-speakers? Maybe they will be thankful for our reliance on spell check!
 John McWhorter, The Power of Babel (HarperCollins, 2003)
 “1755- Johnson’s Dictionary,” British Library, http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/dic/johnson/1755johnsonsdictionary.html. Accessed August 15, 2014.