by Oliver

The other day, I was reading and stopped at the word choice. I stared at it for a few seconds, halfway frustrated with why it stopped me dead in my tracks and halfway befuddled by the way it was spelled. I was fixated on the vowel combination of oi. Is that really normal? Is this really the only way to spell choice?

Eventually, I moved on after my brief bout of self-righteousness. I realized that my thinking that choicewas misspelled was my own doing, but I’m unsure why it happened. Why do we sometimes read words and are convinced that they are misspelled?

I started with some research, but it’s difficult to get relevant results from a Google search of “think that word is misspelled but is not”. I assumed that it had something to do with linguistics, but it’s hard to blame linguistics as a whole because it is such a multidisciplinary subject area. With the way my mind works, I wanted to define this happening with the name of a study, thereby making it easier to search for or look up on Wikipedia. No luck.

I ended up arriving to Wikipedia’s page on psycholinguistics, as I realized that thinking that a word is misspelled has to be associated with a cognitive process. Psycholinguistics involves major linguistic elements, such as morphology (word structure; morphemes are the smallest units of syntax), syntax (sentence structure), phonology (sound), semantics (word meaning), or orthography (the way words are written), interpreted in terms of the cognitive processes involved with word recognition and reading. For me, my reading of choice had nothing to do with anything but orthography. It seems like much of psycholinguistics involves behavioral studies involving eye movements and reaction times. After fixating on oi and why it looked weird, I wondered if it was the way that the letter combination looked, aesthetically. Responses to orthography can often involve the way that letters look because, on a very basic level, we read shapes, which is why it isn’t hard to read that one chain e-mail with words whose letters at the beginning and end were the same, but whose middle letters had been jumbled (e.g, Cmabrigde Uinervtisy). Although, it would seem that the jumbled form of the word needs to resemble its correct form (i.e., it’s less obvious that Cbrmagdie Uvtiernsy is really Cambridge University).

Looking up the etymology of choice was an intriguing diversion, as I found that the Modern English choice derives from the Old French chois (v. choisir). Choice was adopted into Old English beginning with the Norman conquest of Britain in the early 11th century and, finally, halfway through the 14th century it properly replaced the previous word for choice, cyre. What I’m still curious about, though, is when the French spelling of chois was changed to the current spelling of choice. I would assume that regardless of the spelling, both words were pronounced the same (IPA: tʃɔɪs; ch ois), as English was still largely phonetic at that time, due to Old English’s existence as a Germanic language.

So, I’ll write off my confusion regarding the correct way to spell choice as a momentary lapse of orthography and move on. At least the English language is not only frustrating to many and challenging to those who wish to understand it, but also constantly evolving. I’m also glad for articles like this one by Joseph Berger, Struggling to Put the ‘Ortho’ back in Orthography. Thank goodness for constructive criticism.