Spelling for the new millennium

Posted on October 29, 2010 ยท Posted in Off-topic

Tolerance to spelling errors changes as history progresses. For instance, in the middle ages nobody worried about spelling at all; I’ve read many a manuscript from six centuries ago (my wife is a historian researching that period) and the spelling of everything, even names of people and locations, is all over the place. As long as you could guess what is being referred to, nobody cared. The more precise attitudes of the 20th century would not tolerate this, so our spelling has become standardized, enabling us to play Scrabble and hold spelling bees.

But the technology we use dictates our attitude to proper spelling. A single misspelled letter in a name on a flight ticket can doom one to being kicked off an airplane; and search, at least before Google, would be useless unless you spelled your terms right. What’s more, spell checkers depend on an intimate understanding of our tendency to misspell; which is why a spell correction algorithm for typed text – as incorporated in a word processor, for instance – is quite different from one used in handwriting recognition; the mistakes in the one follow completely different patterns from the other.

And now I was made aware of a completely new aspect of spelling intolerance. I was emailed driving directions to a meeting, and the sender made sure to point out how you spell the street name (it was a slightly unexpected version of the name). She also explained why it mattered: in case I wanted to type the street address into a GPS. Using a map, or asking for directions, this would not matter at all; but a GPS would require the accurate spelling.

Good thing they didn’t have GPS in the 15h century!