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Sunday, Oct. 17, 2004

WEEK 3

Why Deos Tihs Haedilne Mkae Snsee?


Staff writer

Reporters and editors place a lot of emphasis on proepr spelling. So staff here were recently intrigued by an e-mail in among our spam-spattered inboxes.

News photo

Titled "Weird," it read as follows: "Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is that the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae."

Spelled just like that.

Despite some erorrs of punctuation and usage, the implication was claer: Spelling English crroeclty may be less imoprtnat than ervbodyey thniks.

We scratched our heads. Shulod our eidtors chcuk teihr red pencils? Wuold our Wbester's diictonerais gather dsut; our coumpter spell-cheercks henceftroh reamin ucnheekcd?

Tihs mereitd smoe siruoes invsetigaitve juornlsaim.

We cealld Cambrgide, but offiilacs siad the rwneneod university had prodeucd no scuh figinnds, to their knwoldgee.

More digingg did rveeal, heowver, taht back in 1976, one Graham Rawlinson, a rarehsceer at Nottingham Uinvetsiry in cntrael Enlagnd, decebsrid the pheneomonn in his Ph.D. thsies, and then aagin in a 1999 leettr to a sceiitnfic junoral.

Hwoeevr, tihs raemrkable fdining aappers to hvae attarcetd lttile notcie utnil late lsat year, when smeonoe -- but it's not claer who -- lleiky notcied the 1999 ltteer and snet arunod the e-mial.

The e-mial was a hit with poeple eevryhwere eaegr for proof taht speillng deosn't mttaer. Soon it aappeerd in Swiedsh, Frcenh, Baahsa Indonesia and many ohter alphbaet-bsead lnaguaegs whsoe wreittn form could wihtstnad srcambnilg.

Matt Davis, a neurosceiintst specailziing in the undrestainndg of wrettin and skpoen lganugae at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, conciidtanelly in the eeastrn Eilnsgh city of Cbamrdgie, exlpaeind by e-mial how our aiblity to read scmbarled txet arsies:

The eye hoems in on the ceentr of a wrod, for eaxmlpe, aornud the "d" in "reading."

The wrod is projecetd otno a smlal area of the rtinea that is diviedd in havles, verticlaly. The rgiht half of the wrod is snet by the left hlaf of the eye to the lfet half of the brian, and vcie vsera.

The brian porcesess the letetrs, paynig most attentoin to the fsrit and lsat letetrs of the wrod. It also notiecs rmeainnig lettres, but dosen't rqeuire tehm to be in oerdr.

Howeevr, Davis pntioed out, jumebld txet becoems diffilcut to raed if leettrs are switcehd between the fsrit and socend halevs of the wrod. And long scramlbed wodrs are haderr to raed than short oens.

In case you're wnodeinrg wehther tihs wrkos in Japansee, the simlpe aewnsr is "no."

Keiko Mochizuki, a profeossr of lngiuisicts at the Tkoyo Uivnerstiy of Froeign Sdiutes, explaenid taht scrmabling the eelmnets that form Japasene txet rnderes it all but mneaingless.

Unkile lteters in Wsteern aplhaetbs, the chararctes of the hiragana and katakana syllbraies usullay combnie a voewl and a consoannt -- twcie the "inofrmitaon vuolme" of letetrs from the Roamn aplhabet, noetd Mochizuki. Hncee, she said, sarcmblnig maeks them twcie as hard to raed.

Chinsee characrtes, the thrid wriitng sysetm uesd in Jpaansee, ofetn contian muiltple vwoels and coonsnants when raed, furtehr compliicatng the isuse if a carhacter's psoition is swithced. Aslo, changnig thier odrer can complelety chngae maening, for emxaple turning nihon (Japan) into honjitsu (today). Toatl confuoisn!

Lkiewsie, srcambilng Hbreew creaets ltteer cobminaotins taht wulod neevr ouccr natrually, wihle the natrue of cursvie sciprt in Araibc prevnets it from benig srcambeld at all. The long, glued-togeethr wodrs of Finnsih aslo put up a sturggle.

Back to the orgiinal qeustoin of the ipmortcnae of Engilsh sepllnig.

"It deos maettr," Davis, the scienitst, siad by telepnohe. For one, the mnid sekes cleus from lettres on how wrods shloud be prnoounecd. As he aslo poitns out on his Web stie, "total" is mroe cleraly rendeerd as "toatl" than "ttaol." And readres tned to solw down when tehy sopt a speillng error.

Slow readnig makes for tierd eyes, so mabye it's time to gvie the poor things a rest.

Matt Davis' Web site is at: www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/personal/matt.davis/Cmabrigde/ (Yes, just the way it's typed.) For a nonscrambled version of this article, visit our Web site at www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20041017x3.htm


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