On the merits of conformity

Dot writes: Ken directed me to this piece by Frank Furedi on spelling. Furedi says that tolerating variant spellings is of a piece intellectually with a relativist approach to truth.

Celebrating variant truths, like variant spellings, is presented as a pluralistic gesture of tolerance. In fact it represents a reluctance to take education and its ideas seriously. And not surprisingly, those who do not take ideas seriously are also not very worried about how they are spelled.

Ken is unimpressed. I don’t think the analogy between spelling and truth can be pushed very far. Certainly it would be wrong to argue that the spelling of a word has the status of an unvarying truth (not that Furedi does so argue): spellings are historically contingent conventions. But it does occur to me that the very difficulty of English spelling, and the divergences of pronunciation between different varieties of English, make it all the more important to spell correctly. Because English spelling is often not transparent, it is that much harder to guess a word when the convention (the usual spelling) has not been followed.


2 thoughts on “On the merits of conformity

  1. Ken

    I applaud Frank Furedi’s defence of the value of truth with a capital T in cultural and public life, but his claim that ‘variant spelling is a true companion to the idea of variant truths’ lacks all credibility. Isn’t it
    obvious that how we spell things is a matter of convention? Whereas if he wants to take truth seriously, Furedi should recognise that how things are very often is not. Mathematical truths are the same whether we use roman or arabic or binary notation, so they would still be the same if we spelled
    ‘wun plus wun eequls tuu’. My American spellchecker finds two mistakes in the foregoing (‘defense’ ‘recognize’) –but, surely, there’s no question of different truths here. The English spelling system is a historical accident. It’s not truth with a capital T that preserves it in its present state but Tradition!

  2. Huh. I guess I sort of see where Furedi is coming from. There is a certain similarity, in that the notion that there’s no such thing as objective truth and the notion that there’s no such thing as correct spelling both gain traction through a misguided mania for tolerance — tolerance of what others believe (everyone has their own opinion, so no opinion is the right one), and tolerance of how others spell (everyone has their own way of spelling, so no spelling is the right one). But of course, Ken is correct (well, it’s my uppinion that he is kurrekt) that what makes an opinion true is very different from what makes a spelling correct.

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