Monthly Archives: September 2013

Shoot, what’s my last name again?

We’ve talked before about the relationship between writing and speech, and today I want to discuss one contemporary example in particular: my last name.

Is my last name—or any last name—its spelling, or its pronunciation?

The spelling Gorichanaz has stayed stable over the past few generations, although it was originally spelled Goričanec. The pronunciation, on the other hand, has changed plenty. I believe when I was little, I pronounced it [goɹ-ʃan’-əs]. My parents must have said it this way, and the friends I made early in my life still pronounce it that way. But somewhere along the line I changed my pronunciation, relaxing that final s into a voiced z, and usually flattening the initial vowel o into another schwa, as in the first syllable of Gertrude. The pronunciations used today by my other family members run the gamut: [goɹ-ʃan’-əs], [goɹ-ʃan’-əz], [goɹ-ʧan’-əz]… Not to mention, the original pronunciation of my last name, back in its Goričanec days, was [go-ri-ʧa’-neʦ]. Predictably, I also find myself modulating my pronunciation when I know someone is trying to match up what I say with its written counterpart; in those cases, I pronounce it as phonetically as possible: [gor-ɪ-ʧan’-əz].

To repeat the question, is my last name one of these sound combinations, or is it indeed the string of letter Gorichanaz? In the case of other words, we typically assume the “real” word is its pronunciation. With a word like comfortable, for example, where the pronunciation doesn’t quite match up with the spelling, we’d say probably the “real” word is [kʌmf’-tər-bəl], rather than the pedantic (but admittedly still recognizable) [kʌm’-for-tə-bəl].

What, then, of the written version? Say you come across a word like nychthemeron, which, though English, has no corresponding pronunciation in your lexicon. Is it not a word? Perhaps, given the give-and-take relationship between spelling and writing, we should conclude that true words are more primordial than both speech and writing. After all, it is the idea behind the word that motivates its manifestation in the first place.

Why some spelling reforms fail and others succeed

This week on the BBC Radio show Fry’s English Delight, the topic was spelling.  (You can listen to the episode until next Monday. Also, thanks to the Virtual Linguist for the heads up on her blog.)

We like to think of English spelling as absurd and unruly. But it wasn’t always this way: When it was first written down, English enjoyed an almost one-to-one letter-to-sound correspondence. But, as Fry outlines, English spelling received several layers of outside influence throughout history. The Norman French wanted English spelling to be a little more Frenchy (hence mice instead of mys), publishers thought the spellings of certain words should remind readers of their Holy Latin Origins (hence debt instead of det), and the Flemish typesetters were apparently homesick and thought English words should be spelled like Flemish words (hence ghost instead of gost). Some more fun examples can be found in this Mental Floss article.


Today, Fry says, “Our alphabet isn’t exactly fit for representing our language in writing.” He points inefficiencies, such as our 11 different ways of spelling the /e/ sound: hey, gauge, weigh, pay, staid, lei…

Inefficiencies notwithstanding, our alphabet isn’t so bad. After all, we seem to get along just fine. Some proponents of reform say that English’s wacky spelling slows learning, but it’s not the worst, by far—Japanese, anyone? As I’ve blogged about before, a complicated writing system might even be making us smarter.

Why do spelling reforms work sometimes but fail other times? I think there are two primary reasons: convention and identification.

John Hart, a 16th century spelling reformer, recognized that even though his proposed system was objectively better and easier to learn than current English spelling, it would seem more difficult to people who were already accustomed to English spelling. Why should they have to relearn everything? Moreover, people need to be able to read things that were written before the reform—so many people would have to learn both forms anyway.

The other main issue with spelling reform is that reformers propose that English spelling should correspond to pronunciation. But, as David Crystal says in the broadcast, “Any spelling reform system which tries to reflect pronunciation… which pronunciation do you use?” Crystal suggests that this very issue may point to the strength of current English spelling: that it works for the many different pronunciations that English has around the world. In other words, if a speaker doesn’t identify with the proposed reformed spelling system, they will reject it. An acceptable reform to the system of English spelling must appeal to all English speakers.

Spelling reform is certainly possible, and it’s happening right now. It’s just that a system-wide, overnight reform is unlikely. Instead, it goes nice and slow, championed by the democracy of English writers rather than any reforming body in particular. For example, the alternate spelling “nite” is popping up more and more—in my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before it’s accepted in more formal arenas.

For an overview of spelling reform in other languages, check out the Spelling reform Wikipedia article. The article on Simplified Chinese characters, an example of government effort to increase literacy through spelling reform, may be of particular interest.

For a systematized examination of the sense behind English spelling, check out English Isn’t Crazy, by Diana Hanbury King.

When writing is art—and when it isn’t

I’m not talking about writing as in prose or poetry. Whether some hack poet is an artist is a question for another blog. Rather, we’re focusing on the very letterforms that visually make up a piece of writing. This blog is dedicated to the nuances that the letterforms contribute to written communication, but there are times when letterforms are admired as objects of art—all meaning aside.


For example, the exquisite Book of Kells, as a product of the medieval scriptorium, was created in a preindustrial factory. Monastic scribes replicated books as a means to spread and conserve knowledge, and the pages they copied just so happened to be extremely beautiful, as seen in the image above.

Another example of beautiful writing comes from the Zen tradition of Hitsuzendo—the art of the brush. Hitsuzendo teaches that true art is made without the mind—in a state called mu-shin (literally: “no mind”). This is only possible when a person acts intuitively, not intellectually.


When we don’t create writing by hand, we do it by machine. The words in every book, magazine and website we read have been designed by typographers—in all cases, at least some thought has been given to the display of the letterforms. But rarely do we consider this art.

Of course, in some cases, typeset words are incredibly beautiful. Just check out, for example. But in the grand scheme of things, artful typography is few and far between. It’s highly unlikely that a normal person would crack open a book and say, “Just look at this font!” or load their Facebook page and be taken aback by the kerning.

Why is this? Typography is laden with rules. It’s rationalized and calculated. In general, it stresses usability over beauty. Just check out Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style and you’ll see what goes into good type.

As I see it, handwriting is generally made with mu-shin, while typography is generally made with the intellect. Writing made on a machine is less likely to be beheld as an object of art, while writing made by hand is more likely. When we type something in the status box on Facebook, we don’t think of the letterforms as beautiful—we’re wholly focused on the message. But when we see someone who has really nice handwriting, we can easily be dazzled by the forms.

As with anything, this is a theoretical divide; in practice, the picture is less clear. A very adept typographer, for example, may act with mu-shin, while a not-so-adept calligrapher may write with intellect. But on a whole, handwriting just has a lot more heart. This is probably related to the paradigm of selection versus creation discussed by Amalia Gnanadesikan in Chapter 14 of The Writing Revolution, which I’ve written about before.