Perfect spelling vs. individguality

In the fully computerized, not-so-fanciful future, school kids will spend less time on spelling - just as they drill less today on the ordinary math magically performed by electronic calculators.

Word-processor programs that spot and help correct spelling errors are already on the home-computer market, putting a new twist on the ''computer literacy'' cliche. That these patented programs spell progress is taken for granted. And today's state-of-the-art spelling technology is just the beginning.

On reading about the impending orthographic revolution, I was reminded of my teen-age daughter's struggle with the vagaries of English spelling as I have traced it over the years through intermittent letters.

''Sorry about the delayment of sending these pictures,'' Laura wrote in one letter. ''... Hope there worth the wait.'' Although I grimace at such mistakes, I have also noticed that misspelled words never prevent full understanding of her meaning. On the contrary, the spelling mistakes contribute to her colorful personal style. One sentence - with a syntax that casts a spell of speculation over a doting father - comes to mind:

''I'd like to start dance twice a week ... and was wandering if you could pay for half of it. I'm also thinking of taking weight training at school for exersize.''

Am I deluding myself if I sense a certain genius here? Is there not a suggestion in this appeal that any father who refuses to pay for dancing lessons is condemning a child to aimless ''wandering''? As for the other ''error,'' isn't it about time we made a distinction between the physically strenuous activities we indulge in strictly for pleasure (exercise) and the drudging exersize we endure to stay slender?

Of course, these word games were unintentional on Laura's part. But I wonder if that isn't just the point: A perfect speller would have been less likely to pack this sentence so full of meaning. Paying attention to the sounds, rather than the spelling, of words allows such double meanings to suggest themselves. This raises other questions: Do we sometimes have to make a mistake like ''wandering'' for ''wondering'' before we realize the possibility of an imaginative breakthrough? Do the kids who win the spelling bees end up paying a high price when they sit down to write creatively?

Consider these lines from the poem ''Chaucer's Dream'':

Anon I ran, till with a wawe

All sodenly, I was overthrawe

And with the water to and fro

Backward and forward travailed so

This isn't great poetry, but it contains a beautiful pun: The runner is not soaked by the wave ''all of a sudden,'' he is simply ''all sodenly.'' Our words sudden and sodden are derived from two Middle English words: soden and sodain. Did Chaucer know he was soing a pun? Perhaps he did; perhaps not. Sudden has had many variant spellings, and the modern one didn't become standard until the 18th century. Meantime, the rather arbitrary spelling was often left for printers to resolve. Be that as it may, the verse would certainly be far weaker if it read: ''All sudainly, I was overthrawe.''

In the same poem, Chaucer rhymes ''plesaunce'' with what seems to me a wonderfully suggestive ''noysaunce.'' Why don't we think to use ''noisance'' in modern English when talking about a nuisance that is also a noise? The answer lies in part in the fact that we are so much better spellers than we are listeners - or at least more intent on being correct than on hearing what we write.

The fluidity of the language in Chaucer's day invited creative composition; having no dictionary, he was forced to spell with his ear.

That gets us back to the new spelling technology. Will the standardization it implies tighten the mental fetters that rule out freshness and vitality? If it frees us a bit from the steadily tightening strictures of orthography, it may prove helpful, after all. Maybe cutting out spelling drills will help fire the imagination behind the fingers on tomorrow's keyboards. But the floppy disk that dictates spelling may prove to be a Trojan horse, a gift tomorrow's children won't consider refusing because they will not have experienced the creativity it denies.

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