Thursday, December 18, 2003

Thinking About Thinking and Spelling
My friend Will is keeping a running list of the "100 Best Words of All Time" over at grinnellplans, (which, unfortunately, you cannot see unless you have a plan of your own, so take my word for it). The latest entry is "polyglot," with the definition listed as "a mixture or confusion of languages or nomenclatures." This is a true definition, but the one I have more commonly heard and use is "speaking or writing several languages" or "one who can speak or write several languages." The first time I remember this coming up was when I was taking my first linguistics class, and it was mentioned that "polyglot," one who speaks many languages, should not be confused with "linguist," one who studies language, although the two categories often overlap.

This got me thinking about analyzing language, and then a strange chain of following links from blog to blog got me to an entry on how people think, which is an old favorite recurring subject for my own internal musings. The author says something about how he used to think his thought processes were totally "prosaic," but now he realizes that, compared to other people, the connections he makes are actually rather unique. Which reminded me of how I remember how to spell correctly.

There are many people out there who claim that English has an utterly systemless system of spelling, they despair of ever spelling things properly, why can't we just have some logical, phonetic system that would be so much simpler, and they shouldn't be penalized for not being able to spell because it's the language's fault, not theirs. I did not understand this for the longest time. I thought I knew how to spell just because I read so much, and therefore anyone else who read a lot should be an equally proficient speller. Not so. My friend Kateri in elementary school, one of the few people who read as much as I did, was one of the worst spellers I knew. My dad was asking me how to spell words when I was only in second grade. Mark has me proofread most of his Techexplained articles. All well-read people, all not-so-great spellers. So my theory that just seeing properly spelled words in books made good spellers was disproven.

Well, maybe it was because I had a good shape memory. I could just remember the shape of the word, my visual memory providing me with the proper order of the letters. But a lot of people who can't spell for themselves can recognize a misspelled word in something else that they're reading, so that probably wasn't it either.

At some point, someone asked me to spell something for them, and I had to think for a minute, and I realized what I was doing. I link from the word I'm trying to spell to a related word, such as the verb form of the noun, or the noun form of the adjective, because often the other form has a slightly different pronunciation, due to the shift in syllable stress, and what is the evilly ambiguous English schwa becomes a more pronounced individualized vowel sound. Or I'll try to think of another word that I do know how to spell that has the same prefix or suffix. It's all a giant word web in my mind. A challenging word sends my brain bouncing from link to link to link, like a puzzle.

Maybe it makes me a giant dork, but I think spelling is fun. Whenever I write papers, I have a running competition with the spell-checker to see if it will catch anything that isn't a name or a word in a foreign language. It's all just a big mental game. It took me a while to figure out that other people don't think like this.

How do you spell things? Do you have a different mental quirk that's fun for you, but not for others? How do you do it?

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