Why I'll Never Be a Good Speller

English spelling is notoriously...arbitrary. Any and all attempts to pin down a spelling rule will be met with at least six different exceptions - and you can be sure that the exceptions will be words that you will actually want to use. A study in English spelling is basically a study in evolutionary history. It's a study of various French invasions and vowel shifts. And, most of all, it's an exercise in brute memorization.

Contrast this with mathematics. Useful mathematical results are derived from previous mathematical results, using nothing but pure logic. A mathematical result is what it is because it had to be that way. A mathematical result simply couldn't be anything else and still make sense. Note that this is, more or less, the exact opposite of what one can say about English spelling conventions.

I'm fairly confident that if my life depended on it, I could prod myself into being a decent English speller, given enough time. The trouble, of course, is that on some fundamental, possibly sub-conscious level, I don't want to be one. I have distinct trouble remembering arbitrary data. I just can't convince my brain that it's important enough to stick. Math on the other hand, has structure. Theorems follow from axioms or other theorems. Math has both rhyme and reason. English spelling has neither.

For the very same reasons, I'll never be a lawyer or doctor either. Talent is beside the point; I may or may not have the chops to be a lawyer, but even if I did, I wouldn't want to be one. The study of law (or anatomy) is similar to the study of English spelling. Your job is to try and make some sense out of an arbitrarily tortured and tangled mountain of spaghetti. Why do humans have an appendix? There is an answer, of course, involving evolution and mutation, but it's probably uninteresting to the task at hand, which is to figure out how to remove it without killing your patient. Why are Canadians taxed at X percent if their salary is below Y dollars? There is an answer, of course, involving various political compromises, back door arrangements and the phase of the moon, but it's probably uninteresting to the task at hand, which is to figure out how much you have to pay so that you can avoid going to jail. Why is the word describing a metal clad person with a jousting fetish spelled K-N-I-G-H-T when the K, G and H serve no purpose except to confuse the issue? There is an answer, of course, involving the evolution of Old English into Modern English via the Norman Invasion and the Great Vowel Shift, but it's probably uninteresting to copy editors who just want to make sure that the word is constructed in the agreed upon fashion.

That's not to say I don't respect doctors, lawyers and copy-editors; of course I do. I'm not that narrow-sighted, and I obviously know that it has to be someone's job to know the human body, or Canada's law system, or how to spell. And I'm not claiming that laws are complicated simply so that lawyers can have a job. I'm aware of the dangers of ambiguous language, and I'm aware of the need to create a specialized jargon for something as important as the rules of society. And I'm aware that one should spell one's words correctly in formal situations if one wishes to avoid looking like an idiot. And I'm obviously aware of the value of doctors. But factor in the sheer randomness of it all and, well, It's just not something I can imagine enjoying myself.