Monday, October 30, 2006

Idiolectical Indeterminacy

My internal dictionary contains alternative spellings for some words. Sometimes I'll write 'fulfilment', other times, 'fulfillment'; 'defence' or 'defense'; 'realize' or 'realise', etc. I guess there are two ways to interpret this: (1) I oscillate between two dialects of English, each of which has a single correct spelling for each word; or (2) I consistently write in a single dialect in which either spelling is acceptable. Either way, there's some sort of linguistic indeterminacy going on. The only question is where to locate it: at the level of languages, or of spellings within a language.

Is there any substantive difference between these two possibilities? Which is the more appropriate description, and why? If we go with #2, does that mean I can escape charges of inconsistent spelling? After all, I'm consistently following the (perhaps disjunctive) requirements of my language: I always spell the word as either 'realize' or 'realise', and not any other way. So at least I'm not changing linguistic rules mid-sentence. Does that count for much?



  1. It's even worse for a Canadian living in the US. At inappropriate moments I'll say "zed" instead of "zee" and get confused stares. And I inconsistently add "u" to "colour" or similar words. I'm completely unable to even tell which is the British and which is the American spelling of "grey." (Or is that "gray"?)

  2. Do you tend to switch between British and American spellings for different words within a single piece of writing, or do you generally stick with one style of spelling for all of the words? If you're usually consistent (either British or American) within a single document, that suggests that description #1 (oscillating between two dialects) is a better description of what's happening in your brain, and if not, that suggests #2.

  3. That's an interesting solution! I'm not too sure which I fall under -- some of my inconsistencies within a single document might be due to writing it over several days or writing sessions, for instance. At a guess, I'd expect that neurally activating one spelling would suppress the alternative, which does seem to support #1. Then again, sometimes I'm even inconsistent within a single blog post, which I almost always write in a single sitting, so who knows?

  4. I think the gray/grey thing isn't really American vs. British. I believe 'grey' is the preferred British spelling, but both spellings are acceptable in the U.S., and I'm not sure if 'gray' is unacceptable in the U.K. Google occurrences of the two are similar enough in number.

  5. I would tend to say that people don't use "either or" because brains tend not to work like that.

    I think you (and I) probably use one or the other depending on a set of circumstances - therefore you might actually have a slightly "american context" or a "english context". for example 'realize' might be a "harsher" term than 'realise' (just as an example).

  6. gray is heathen american speak.
    us superior people don't spell words as they sound ;)


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