Historically, the establishment of a supposedly definitive OED and also Webster's Dictionary created a level of institutional and cultural control over the variable ways people had spelled words earlier in the language we call English. These dictionaries created both the idea that a word should have a single spelling and that a dictionary could tell you what that spelling was. Simultaneously, the dictionaries did explain at least something, often a great deal, about the earlier history of variable spellings.
On the one hand, there was some positive practical benefit from this codification. In many instances, communication could be made easier when there was agreement about the nature of what communication looked like. Still, a deeply unfortunate and in some ways intended result of this codification was that people who were less likely to spell properly (mainly those who didn't have access to an education that taught them to spell) could also be codified not simply as uneducated but also as incapable, stupid, and so on. It was a perfectly vicious circle. Labeling people as incapable enabled not educating them which led to more chances to label them. And around and around we go.
Today those of us who speak English almost always assume that words have only one spelling, despite the fact that many of us don’t know the authoritative spelling of as many words as we like to believe. Yet the idea of questioning, challenging, or refusing dominant modes of spelling has a long history in literature, one that develops simultaneously with the belief in standardized spelling. Dialect and idiolect writing are two common such approaches. In dialect, spelling tries to mimic the way people speak in some actual cultural context or region. Idiolect, a more self-conscious attempt to create new, unique approaches to language, sometimes in relation to new contexts in which language is being used (idiolect using computer language, for instance) contains an overt attempt to change prior ways of using words. Spelling words in ways different than the dictionary suggests shows us how language really works in living practice or suggests how it might be changed.
Learning how to spell correctly indicates some degree of acceptance of institutional control over language. Not learning how to spell can indicate resistance (more active or passive as the case may be) to this control but doesn't necessarily. It can also indicate the fact that some people view the physical properties of language differently. Many people with what is called dyslexia see the visual field of the page in unexpected ways, the words literally moving around on the page or rearranging themselves according to puns or other similarities in syllables. In a culture which demands normative language abilities, people who see words that way can suffer from a lack of opportunities that often starts with getting poor grades. The problems caused by stigmatization of their differences are real.
But people who don’t learn to spell properly also include those who see themselves as not conforming as thoroughly as they would like, or who are rebelling only because they don’t feel they should have to learn. So while it’s important not to stigmatize non-normative spellers, it’s equally essential not to see them simply as heroic rebels. Not learning to spell as educational institutions would like can in some cases be done by people who feel impervious to (or at least uninterested in) the consequences, just as learning to spell can be a heroic attempt not to feel threatened and inconsequential. Add to the mix the complications of second language speakers of English, whose original languages contain different grammatical structures and sets of possible sounds, and it turns out that the notion of proper spelling involves all sorts of cultural and psychological issues.
Every time it seems simple to know what spelling correctly means, the world gets in the way.
An interesting wrinkle worth considering is that some non-normative spellings may be more disruptive to normative spelling than others. A recent linguistics study going around on the internet in various urban legend versions suggests that changed consonants are much more damaging to normative understanding than changed vowels. Based on the ideas in that study, if somebody sent me an “invatition” (two letters switched) I would still understand that I had been invited somewhere. But were I to receive an “inligation” (again, only two letters switched) then I would be much more likely to assume some legal issue was at stake.
A particularly disruptive type of non-normative spelling is the one in which a word, by being misspelled, becomes another word. The most amazing incident of this kind that I was involved in concerned a student who had written the line “I was bored by the [ ] system.” When I asked her what bored her, it turned out she hadn’t meant “bored.” She’d meant “barred.” Speaking for myself, I found the pun fascinating. As a student who felt like she had been unfairly kicked out of a institutional program, she didn’t find it fascinating. She wanted me to understand what had happened to her and was frustrated that I still wasn’t understanding.
As an editor who’s interested in work that challenges ideas about spelling, I’ve often found the boundary very hazy between a conscious misspelling and a typo. My general rule of thumb is that if a piece contains numerous non-normative spellings, they’re probably intentional, whereas one or two non-normative spellings in a piece are much more likely to be typos. In either case it’s crucial to query the writer, and I never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes the misspelling is a typo. Sometimes I’ve missed the writer’s interest in a non-normative version of the word. In either case, it seems to me that authorial intention should be the final arbiter.
Assuming, that is, that one notices there’s an issue at all. Mistakes on this subject still happen to me. In the Telling It Slant essay collection that I co-edited, five typos were brought to my attention (all of them quickly) after the publication of the book. Four were typos in which the word should have been corrected to a normative spelling. One was a word that intentionally had been spelled non-normatively. It had been edited to become normative, by me I guess, although I had no memory of making the change. It’s quite possible that I thought I’d added a letter by accident and then deleted it because I thought it was my own mistake that the letter was there in the first place.
The will to proper spelling, it seems, can act itself out on a subliminal level.
I’d be interested in knowing how you feel about proper spelling. Like it, hate it, want to defend its importance or attack it? Are you a good speller? Would it be fascinating or disturbing to think that a lot of writers have difficulty spelling?