Monday, July 03, 2006

Is Tihs Grsibeibh?

Alternate heading: A Ghoti out of Water

The idea has been floating around for a while that spelling is not that important. And it's the argument for orthography that is gaining ground trying to undo the more natural tendency to ambigraphy (better than agnography - read my related thoughts here).

Students are told early on the spelling is the first skill necessary to writing; nobody will take you seriously until you master it. They don't also tell students that we have record of Shakespeare's signature spelled 7 different ways - not one of which was the same as we spell his name today. At least some cutesy source told me that several years ago. If I'm wrong I hope somebody will stop me now from spreading the horrible horrible lie.

And Noah Webster came along and wanted a spelling system that would more closely simply and predictably reflect pronunciation. Only relatively recently has a self-proclaimed academy of standards convinced everyone that spelling can be wrong - while ignoring such obvious exceptions as the American -vs- British conventions. And even within one country, proper names are given carte blanche to show themselves in any manner.

Doesn't it all come down to readability? We've all seen this email as an extremist example for almost universal acceptability:

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! if you can raed tihs forwrad it.

What I disagree with is the common claim that our mind read the entire word and doesn't care about the middle. Hogwash Hooey and Hokum. It's our reading algorithm that allows us to settle on the correct word so quickly. And although familiar spellings take us closer (though not immediately) to the intended words these spellings take us close enough - but not so close that the mind doesn't have to interpret from a greater distance than usual. And sometimes it's just too far for us to solve - consider fhreodsoaw and budtaldsae - (I'm sure you can figure them out - but did you just recognize them like they claim we do?) And even with accepted spellings we have to use context to tell us what concept to attach to the word.

"I wound a bandage around his wound."
"I present you with this present."
"Friedrich's gift was not a great gift."

I've heard the explanation (argument?) that our eyes see the shape outlined by the first and last letters and we fill in the middle much like those stars and triangles used as examples of gestalt in high school psychology texts. But many words would work even without the last letter in place - and someone good enough at the daily Jumble would do fine with no letters in the correct place. So word shape comes into play only as a clue - not as a means.

As it is I've been on a crusade for the last several years to buck people's expectations of my spelling. Most recently I've adopted an alternating method - flipping between American and British (yanked and angled?) conventions. several years ago in the margin of one paper in which I was using the British -our and -tre (and the occasional -cque) one fine professor wrote "Last I checked we don't live on an isle." He didn't dock my grade for it. Kudos to him for his fine sense of humer.


  1. Perhaps a mixture of ambigraphy, palindrome, and onomatopoeia? Here it goes: Bsoina gapss aigan--osb!

    See, clear as a bell.

  2. It took me a day to figure out that your title supposedly reads, "Is This Gibberish." And I'm still not sure that's what you meant... so maybe that incredibly readable paragraph is some kind of trick that was generated, as you suggest, by an evil algorithmic machine.

    Plus, have you seen those t-shirts that the cool kids wear, that say "FCUK?" In-ter-est-ing...

  3. mark...bosnia gasps again--sob...i had to type it out before i realized that it was a palindrome -which you proceeded to ruin. such a mischievous wit you are.

    bosnia...bosnia...oh yeah bosnia herzegovina - her centerfold in playboy was hot...

    casey...yes - gibberish...and you're right about that paragraph being strangely readable. my point in all those other examples i gave was to show how a truly jumbled word is hard to read. that paragraph relies on a lot of methodical randomization - e.g. the syllable structure is left in tact in several words - many of the vowels are still in order - doubled letters are left intact in a few cases (note that "letter/s" keeps the -tt- intact the first two times and doesn't separate them until the 3rd time. by then we've been primed to expect that word to surface.

    - basically the mixing up doesn't ruin some of the most telling clues. note for instance that the jumbling of "phenomenal" keeps the "ph" beginning intact. that's a huge clue to the identity word.

  4. There is nothing wrong with French Connection United Kingdom.


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