At the Hay Festival in 2013, leading linguist David Crystal was quoted as saying that ‘irritating’ silent letters could become obsolete and that in 50 years’ time, silent letters will be dropped from many common words – thanks to the internet which will make English misspellings acceptable.
David Crystal, currently professor of linguists at Bangor University, told attendees at the Telegraph Hay Festival that it would be “inevitable” that people would drop the ‘p’ from receipt, and change the ‘c’ from necessary into a ‘s’, as well as “simplifying” other words.
“Is it one ‘c’ and two ‘s’s in necessary or two ‘c’s and one ‘s’? It doesn’t actually matter at the end of the day. At the moment it matters, but over time one (probably simpler) spelling will emerge.”
Professor Crystal said that he started monitoring the word ‘rhubarb’ a decade ago, by typing in the correct spelling into a search engine, and then typing in the word without the ‘h’. He said: “I got millions of hits for rhubarb with the ‘h’, and just one or two without the ‘h’. I did the same job a few years later, and without the ‘h’ got hundreds of hits, and then a few years later hundreds of thousands of hits. Rhubarb is still the dominant one by a factor of 50. But think ahead 50 years – and that this is the time frame over which spellings change – and rhubarb with the ‘h’ and rhubarb without ‘h’ will be equal.”
He said that the ‘h’ was illogical and was never included in Middle English. “The internet will influence spelling. It will get rid some letters that irritate us, the letters that instinctively we feel shouldn’t be there. But it will take time.”
He said it was neither good nor bad that spelling was changing, but it was “inevitable” in the same way that judgment without the middle ‘e’ was now acceptable in many publishers and newspaper style guides.
He also criticised Michael Gove and the Department of Education’s insistence on teaching phonics. “To be told by the Government that it has to be entirely phonics is absurd, because the English language is a mix of phonics and whole words.”