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Sunday, Oct. 17, 2004

WEEK 3

Why Deos Tihs Haedilne Mkae Snsee?


Staff writer

The following article appeared in the Oct. 17, 2004 issue of The Japan Times with most of the text scrambled. For that original version, visit www.japantimes.com/cgi-bin/fl20041017x2.htm.

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 taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae."

Spelled just like that.

Despite some errors of punctuation and usage, the implication was clear: Spelling English correctly may be less important than everybody thinks.

We scratched our heads. Should our editors chuck their red pencils? Would our Webster's dictionaries gather dust; our computer spell-checkers henceforth remain unchecked?

This merited some serious investigative journalism.

We called Cambridge, but officials said the renowned university had produced no such findings, to their knowledge. More digging did reveal, however, that back in 1976, one Graham Rawlinson, a researcher at Nottingham University in central England, described the phenomenon in his Ph.D. thesis and then again in a 1999 letter to a scientific journal.

However, this remarkable finding appears to have attracted little notice until late last year, when someone - but it's not clear who - likely noticed the 1999 letter and sent around the e-mail.

The e-mail was a hit with people everywhere eager for proof that spelling doesn't matter. Soon it appeared in Swedish, French, Bahasa Indonesia and many other alphabet-based languages whose written form could withstand scrambling.

Matt Davis, a neuroscientist specializing in the understanding of written and spoken language at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, coincidentally in the eastern English city of Cambridge, explained by e-mail how our ability to read scrambled text arises:

The eye homes in on the center of a word, he said for example, around the "d" in "reading."

The word is projected onto a small area of the retina that is divided in halves, vertically. The right half of the word is sent by the left half of the eye to the left half of the brain, and vice versa.

The brain processes the letters, paying most attention to the first and last letters of the word. It also notices remaining letters, but doesn't require them to be in order.

However, Davis pointed out, jumbled text becomes difficult to read if letters are switched between the first and second halves of the word. And long scrambled words are harder to read than short ones.

In case you're wondering whether this works in Japanese, the simple answer is "no."

Keiko Mochizuki, a professor of linguistics at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, explained that scrambling the elements that form Japanese text renders it all but meaningless.

Unlike letters in Western alphabets, the characters of the hiragana and katakana syllabaries usually combine a vowel and a consonant twice the "information volume" of letters from the Roman alphabet, noted Mochizuki. Hence, she said, scrambling makes them twice as hard to read.

Chinese characters, the third writing system used in Japanese, often contain multiple vowels and consonants when read, further complicating the issue if a character's position is switched. Also, changing their order can completely change meaning, for example turning nihon (Japan) into honjitsu (today). Total confusion!

Likewise, scrambling Hebrew creates letter combinations that would never occur naturally, while the nature of cursive script in Arabic prevents it from being scrambled at all. The long, glued-together words of Finnish also put up a struggle.

Back to the original question of the importance of English spelling.

"It does matter," Davis, the scientist, said by telephone. For one, the mind seeks clues from letters on how words should be pronounced. As he also points out on his Web site, "total" is more clearly rendered as "toatl" than "ttaol." And readers tend to slow down when they spot a spelling error.

Slow reading makes for tired eyes, so maybe it's time to give 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.)


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