You say pitato …

As a result of technology and the prevalence of social media, we are now seeing a return to much earlier attitudes about spelling. The criterion then was simple: If people understood you, you were spelling it right.

Neal Menschel/Staff Photographer
A Wisconsin farmer sprays a potato crop in 1986.

The other day I opened my phone and saw “Should you poke pitatoes?” in the Google search box. My teenage daughter was trying to figure out if you should pierce potatoes before baking them and had asked Google. 

Google understood what she was asking despite the typo. As a result of technology and the prevalence of social media, we are now seeing a return to much earlier attitudes about spelling. The criterion then was simple: If people understood you, you were spelling it right.

In the Middle Ages, there was no “correct” spelling. Even very common words were written in an extraordinary number of ways. Between 1175 and 1500, “love” was also spelled as “luve,” “louve,” “lufe,” “luff,” “luffe,” “louf,” “loufe,” “lof,” “lofe,” “lufve,” “low,” “lowe,” “lufae,” and “leove.” Medieval English had five main regional dialects, and people wrote things down the way they sounded. Books were copied by hand, so individual scribes made choices, sometimes picking particular spellings to serve a creative function. 

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century heralded the end of this splendid diversity, but it took 300 years to achieve today’s uniformity. Dictionaries such as Samuel Johnson’s (1755) and Noah Webster’s (1806) fixed spellings in modern forms, and public education furthered the process.

Now, however, we are heading back to the Middle Ages. Social media is bringing about a return to medieval orthographic norms: If people understand it, it’s right. Right now, for example, the slang word “thick,” a positive term meaning big, fat, or well-proportioned but not skinny, is popular. On social media and in texts it rivals medieval love in its variety: “thik,” “thic,” “thique,” “thiccc,” “thiq,” and “thiqq.” Spelling may also express purpose – using “thiccc,” for example, to mean really thick. 

Regional dialects and other varieties of English are also appearing more in written language, just as they did in the Middle Ages. You would never see “yinz,” the second-person plural common in Pittsburgh and Appalachia, in a work memo, but it is all over Twitter: “Yinz can’t park!” “Beauty day for a game yinz guys!” etc. New Yorkers may write “suttin” (something) on social media although they no longer say it that way.

I find it interesting and beautiful that spelling is again becoming an expression of creativity. My daughter is just happy to have learned how to cook pitatoes.

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