A pretty well executed content-mining analysis of Wikipedia adds some decent evidence that the ability to spell common words correctly is deteriorating even among the best-educated, most literate groups of people in the world – Internet users committed enough to making sure information in public spaces is accurate that they're willing to do the hard intellectual work of adding their own mistakes to replace the ones they find in Wikipedia.
Jon Stacey, who describes himself as a "tech enthusiast and MBA student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln," took randomish samples from Wikipedia by retrieving articles without a particular plan about what he wanted, then spell checked the content (remember that last step; it'll be important later).
The spell check itself was a problem because even Americans and Canadians, who speak almost the same language, spell some things very differently. Americans and the British, whose languages aren't even remotely similar, also have huge differences in the way they spell or pronounce words. "Schedule," for example is spelled the same way in both the U.S. and U.K, but is pronounced "sk-ed-yoool" in the United States and "schrrrruruuuullllll" in England. No one is certain what the British intend to communicate using that sound, but they put great importance by it, so it's almost certain to be offensive.
By contrast, Canadians (almost the same language as Americans, but spelled differently, remember?) pronounce most words almost correctly but spell very much like the British. Except the words "please" and "sorry." In Canada, "sorry" is pronounced with two extra O's and two additional R's; in England neither word is used at all.
So Stacey had to compile his own dictionary and set of spellings so he would have something consistent to compare the Wikipedia misspellings against.
By selecting his own, and ignoring the style and spelling guides in Wikipedia itself, he guaranteed a higher rate of error that he should really have had, but as long as the dictionary itself remained stable, the comparison should have been able to create a statistically valid trend line mapping changes in the quality of spelling over time.
His conclusion was "The test does not satisfactorily or definitively answer the hypothesis."
Which is B#%%&*!&^. Why read a whole mystery novel if the conclusion is going to be that the detective can't figure out who did it?
Stacey's test wasn't rigorous enough to give real, definitive, statistically valid evidence one way or the other.
The trend – though unproven – was pretty clearly that the quality of spelling was deteriorating over time.
To this Americans and Canadians say "Duh." (Brits do something that makes a snarky, sarcastic sound but is not technically a "word," or, as the British themselves would spell it, a "wourd," which they would pronounce "shut up, will you?).
Stacey missed the chance to make the obvious but accurate connection between automation and ability: the ability of literate people to spell accurately, which only became recognized as important during the 19th century anyway, began deteriorating immediately after the invention of the spell checker and has not stopped deteriorating ever since.
The human brain is an amazingly efficient thing – by which I mean it is designed to be lazy. If writing doesn't exist and the only way to pass down generations of knowledge and laws and stories and the names of all your ancestors and who they begat, human brains rise to meet the challenge.
If writing does exist, however, the brain will quickly learn to write and spell so it can make you write things down so it doesn't have to remember them.
Aristotle bemoaned the popularity of writing because of its debilitive effect on human memory. His brain was clearly letting him pretend to be in charge that day while it took a nap or something. Otherwise it never would have let him dis something that could take responsibility for a chunk of information out of its squishy, unreliable data stores, which could be corrupted by trauma, imagination, religious fervor or strong drink, and deposit is safely on paper, vellum or parchment, which would hold that information safe forever unless exposed to heat, cold, moisture, aridity, fire, water, air or earth.
In grade school I was a great speller because I wanted to beat two kids in the grade ahead of me in the annual spelling bee. I memorized and repeated the spelling of hundreds of words, obsessively enough that in a modern school I would have been chunked into special education and given a program to train me out of all that spelling.
Among the old school no one actually paid much attention to what the kids were doing, so the only thing anyone ever noticed was a kid spelling way above his grade level , which got me stuck into a corner during recess with orders to quit reading books containing words I wasn't supposed to be able to spell for another two years.
Now the Internet gives kids of the same age and capability access to any book they want to read, any word they could ever need to spell and tools that will correct the spelling, define the meaning or provide synonyms, antonyms, etymologies, histories and Wikipedia links as well.
All they have to do is make a decent stab at the spelling and spell check handles the rest.
Causing even further deterioration is text messaging – which often lacks spell check or, when it doesn't, has such bad spelling that it will put words you don't know and couldn't possibly speak out loud to the person you're texting directly into the text as it's being sent so you only realize as the message disappears that your little note now contains whole phrases of words any one of which would have gotten you sent to the principle in the days you were expected to learn on the playground how to spell all the good curse words.
Is it any surprise no one knows how to spell any more? Do we know all the phone numbers we're supposed to know any more? Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sisters- and brothers-in-law? Kids? Kids' friends' parents?
No. All those numbers are on our phones, usually in the text-message database, not in the Contacts database, so even our phones don't really know those numbers. They don't have to; the text editor does it for them.
Of course the quality of spelling is going down on Wikipedia. Brains are lazy, technology is smart, humans don't learn anything they don't absolutely have to learn and even when they do have to learn something, they quit using it as quickly as they can tool up something else to take over the job for them.
It's a good thing we're not like that with other aspects of our lives – like gift giving. If we had some technology that let us click a few keys and arrange to have the perfect present sent to a loved one without any appreciable effort from us at all…well, I don’t know what would happen.
Christmas would certainly never be the same.
Anyway, thanks for listening; I have to go. FedEx is at the door and then I have to track a few things to make sure they're delivered on time.
Have a happy hoolidae…HolyDay...wholada….Merry Christmas.