I alway say that making mistakes is a vital part of learning a language, to the point of tedium, I’m sure. Making mistakes is also, however, a key aspect of the formation of a language.
I’ve already written about how the word orange came about through simple acts of mishearing. In a similar vein, some of our most common words have come from misreading handwriting.
The word syllabus, beloved of every teacher the world over, is believed to be a misinterpretation of the Latin word sittybas, based on the Greek sittuba (title slip, label). You can imagine how in medieval times someone’s sloppy handwriting of sittybas could easily have been misinterpreted. It’s amazing to think though that just one instance of such a simple mistake could determine how we spell a word for centuries after. Or longer, really. Considering how many methods we have to record and verify the spelling of a word, and considering we don’t have to rely on interpreting handwriting, the spelling of syllabus is unlikely to change before the end of humanity. And even then, records of the word’s spelling might outlast us.
Sneeze is another word that probably comes from an error. It’s believed to have come from the Old English word fneosan, with the same meaning. However, you might be aware that, up to the middle of the 18th century, an S could sometimes be written like a lower-case F (see below)
This was known as a long S, and was used when an S appeared at the beginning or in the middle of a word, particularly when it occurred immediately before another S. It’s believed that the spelling of some early form of sneeze actually began with an F, but this was mistaken for a long S (probably often), and, as the Fn sound disappeared from English, the Sn spelling became the standard one.
Again, this is something that’s unlikely to happen anymore due to the predominant use of typed text. Words may still change their spelling though. This could be due to words with similar spellings, such as discrete/discreet, or words that are difficult to spell, like accommodation, or paraphernalia. Even then, we’ve still got spellcheck and autocorrect, but they won’t always catch everything.
Even with the persistence of human error though, it’s basically impossible for us to permanently change the spelling of a word through human error. And while it’s great that spelling is standardised and we don’t have to try to interpret terrible handwriting, it’s still kind of sad that a medieval monk squinting at a dusty old parchment in order to determine a word’s standard spelling is something that will never happen.