WHAT ARE THE RULES?
The Daily Mail got itself in a huff about spelling.
Apparently Top Shop had been selling T Shirts with the quote “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” signed by Shakespere.
The Daily Mail was suitably horrified.
Can’t anyone spell correctly anymore?
Didn’t these ignorant people know his name was spelled Shakespeare?
Well yes and no.
In fact, Shakespere was actually the way he spelled his own name.
At least one of the ways.
He also answered to Shakespeare, Shakspere, Shakespear, Shackespere, Shaxpere, and Shaeaxperre.
All of which sound exactly like Shakespeare.
You see the words and the sound came before the spelling.
Even on Shakespeare’s tomb.
His name is on the tombstone as “Shakspeare”.
While Anne Hathaway, buried alongside him later, is “the wife of William Shakespeare”.
Because the language and the way people speak came first.
The rules came much later.
They came in the form of a dictionary.
The nearest thing we have to a first English dictionary was ‘Elementarie’ by Richard Mulcaster in 1582.
He didn’t give any definitions for the words, just laid out some rules for grammar and spelling.
Because “forenners and strangers do wonder at us, both for the uncertaintie in our writing, and the inconstancie in our letters.”
He also recognised the need for someone to collect “all the words which we use in our English tung into one dictionarie, and besides the right writing, wold open unto us therein their proper use.”
But no one created a proper dictionary of meanings for more than a hundred and fifty years.
In 1755 Samuel Johnson published what most people recognise as the first real English dictionary.
It took him 9 years to do it.
He wanted to make it a complete collection of the words used by all English people.
Johnson recognised that usage comes before definition.
People will communicate verbally first and a dictionary is just a formal means of collecting those communications.
Simply put: people first, rules second.
As Johnson put it “I shall therefore, since the rules of stile, like those of law, arise from precedents often repeated, collect the testimonies of both sides, and endeavour to discover and promulgate the decrees of custom, who has so long possessed whether by right or by usurpation, the sovereignty of words.”
So Johnson spent 9 years collecting every word he could find.
It was an incredible effort for one man.
Johnson’s dictionary wasn’t improved upon until the Oxford English Dictionary, 173 years later.
But the really illuminating part about all this for me is that the language came before any of the dictionaries.
People invented a language and the dictionaries simply recorded it.
But the dictionaries came to be considered the source of all wisdom on the language.
Even though the language existed hundreds of years before the dictionaries.
But that’s what we humans do.
We create reality, we study reality, then that study becomes the rules.
And those rules dictate all subsequent reality.
That’s how it works.
Something starts as an idea.
If it’s a successful idea clever people made a study of it.
Then students study the study.
Students even get degrees in studying the study.
Then they get jobs making sure everything conforms to the rules they studied.
Because learning the rules removes the need to think.
And the rules kill the creativity that started the idea in the first place.
Luckily that’s not something that could ever happen in advertising, is it?