Elision ("the omission of one or more sounds in a word or phrase") produces the following:

going → goin(')
going to → gonna
Worcester → Wuster (ˈwʊstər)

However, this hasn't affected the accepted standard spellings of the examples above. Are there any cases in the past century where the standard spelling has changed? (Note: I'm not looking for a list, just the existence of a documented change.)

If not, are there any notable trends that indicate we may see a spelling shift in the near future for certain words or phrases–perhaps due to the increasing acceptance of txtspk and informal English in previously "formal" communication?

A concrete example or two would suffice, but I'd prefer a link to a study or paper if one's available. To reiterate, I'm looking for a change no earlier than the 20th century.

In the early 20th century, there were multiple efforts to simplify spelling (most unsuccessful). Arguably, it was to make the written word closer to speech, in which case elidid words may have been good candidates. Historically, that seems to be the case, yet it seems elided words don't catch on other than in informal speech. Still, at least one example of an elided word replacing the original exists, albeit centuries ago:

In speech, commonly elided in he, him, his, her in unstressed positions, especially following a consonant: What did 'e do; Tell us 'er name. This elision affected the spelling and pronunciation of the Middle English pronoun hit, resulting in Modern English it.

Lacking any concrete examples, perhaps someone can answer why does pronunciation not appear to pressure orthographic changes? Why do elision-based spellings, while noted in dictionaries, remain "informal" or "colloquial"?

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    Or nite (night), & so on. – Kris Oct 16 '12 at 7:58
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    You list three examples, and say "this hasn't affected the accepted standard spelling." However, NOAD lists gonna as [informal] contraction of "going to" : we're gonna win this game. Wouldn't the inclusion of such a dictionary entry show that spelling has indeed been affected? Unless you're waiting for the removal of the [informal] tag... – J.R. Oct 16 '12 at 8:26
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    Do proper names count? In English, Featherstonehaugh and Fanshaw both exist (and are pronounced the same); and the city of Brighton used to be called Brighthelmstone. – Andrew Leach Oct 16 '12 at 8:26
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    Do coined words that are contractions count? Modem, Codec, sext? – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 16 '12 at 12:59
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    Be aware that the written ‹g› at the end of words like ‹going› does not represent IPA /g/. Rather, a written ‹ng› there is a digraph that represents IPA /ŋ/. – tchrist Oct 16 '12 at 16:41

As you saw in the Chat, examples of contemporary re-spelling due to elision are very rare — I believe the only unambiguous examples we came up with were bosun and gunnel, and even those date back to the 19th Century, and do not replace boatswain and gunwale but exist alongside them.

I think it very unlikely that the next century will see any great extension of re-spelling, for elision or any other change in pronunciation. I see three reasons for this:

First: Spelling is and must be inherently conservative — witness the spelling of standard Modern English and Modern French. The purpose of writing is to preserve the integrity of and intelligibility of utterances across both space and time; and when you change spelling you degrade the integrity and raise a barrier to intelligibility between an old-spelling writer and a new-spelling reader. This was recognized by one of our earliest spelling reformers, William Bullokar, who at a time when spelling was much more fluid than it is today wrote of his immediate predecessors:

the vſe of both Ortographies muſt be had during one age, and afterwards (by reaſon of records, euidences, and ſuch like, not to be altered by Printing) the olde muſt not be much ſtrange, but in eaſie vſe, bycauſe neceſſitie alloweth ſuch euidences, &c. with the ſame letters as they now are, which is one of the chiefeſt pointes to be regarded in any amendment of Ortographie, whereof M. Cheſter greatly fayled, as appeareth by his workes printed with his Ortography.
  –Bullokars Booke at large, for the Amendment of Orthographie for English ſpeech (1580)

Bullokar wrote at a time when spelling was much more fluid than it is today, and his criticism was specifically directed at the proposals of Thomas Smith and “Mayſter Cheſter” (John Hart, Chester Herald) for new letters— they “left out of their amendment diuers of the letters now in vse, and alſo brought in diuers of new figure and faſhion, hauing no part in figure or faſhion of the old, for whoſe ſoundes they were changed in figure, or newly deuisſed, ſtrange to the eye, and thereby more ſtudie to the memory” — but his point holds true today. Changing the spelling of a single word will at the very least mark an old spelling with a “quaintness” which was no part of the author’s intention, and may make its meaning entirely opaque; wholesale spelling reform cuts succeeding generations off from their cultural heritage. This is the rock on which “rational spelling”, from Thomas Smith to Bernard Shaw, has foundered, and probably always will.

Second: Changes in spelling and changes in pronunciation come from quite different sources. Phonetic evolution is “bottom-up”: a change appears (occasionally at a clearly identifiable place and time, in the idiolect even of a specific individual, but more often “mysteriously”, “spontaneously”) spreads from person to person, from community to community, and eventually establishes itself, globally or regionally, or dies. Orthographic evolution is “top-down”: it is governed in the end not by what the general population write in their letters, journals, blogs and tweets but by a single small and cohesive population of publishers and professional writers. These “speak”, by and large, to each other. They are concerned with lexical and syntactical precision in the written language alone, and only peripherally with pronunciation and prosody; and that peripheral concern is met by specialized technical notation systems like IPA. The movers and shakers at the peak of the written-English pyramid have for the most part no interest to be served by re-spelling.

Third:  There is a small population of writers who do have an interest in representing colloquial pronunciation— playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, many journalists. It is these who have developed such “phonetic” and dialect spellings as hafta, gonna, wanna, garridge, nucular, “E sez, sez e,” “Mahty lahk a rose”, “Ah dun bin ruint”. Such writers have no interest in replacing existing spellings with these coinages. On the contrary: their concern is to suggest colloquial pronunciation by means of a handful of phoneticisms, without making it unintelligible to the average reader. Even so conscientious a writer of dialect as Bernard Shaw eventually gave up the effort of through-phoneticization:

THE FLOWERGIRL: Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y’ de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel’s flahrzn than ran awy athaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f’ them? [Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.]  –Pygmalion

What these writers require is the situation which now obtains — a repertory of marked dialectal and colloquial forms alongside the standard orthography. I think it very likely that this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future.

  • +1 for a thorough answer, excellent summary to say the least – Zairja Nov 23 '12 at 20:20
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    "wholesale spelling reform cuts succeeding generations off from their cultural heritage". This suggests one environment where it might happen: where a powerful authority deliberately wishes to cut off the cultural heritage. One especially good example is the Atatürk reform of Turkish from an Arabic alphabet to a Latin alphabet. – Richard Gadsden Dec 13 '13 at 11:59
  • +1 for the argument that changing the spelling makes it harder to read old texts. – CJ Dennis Jul 18 '14 at 3:15

English has no standards authority for spelling. Absent an English Academy, the best we can do is go by usage as reflected in dictionaries. gonna and wanna are increasingly found in dictionaries, resulted from elision, and have been respelled. At first glance they fit your bill.

But I suspect this isn't what you're looking for, since those are regarded as slang or informal usage?

I think the answer depends on the time frame you are looking at. Do you regard "didn't" as formal standard English? If so, consider that the abbreviation comes from 1775, which is modern as English goes. Can't for cannot is from 1706. (Compare won't, a much earlier contraction from late Middle English.)

Of course, contractions of all kinds are usually regarded as informal: in a scholarly treatise or Congressional proclamation, one wouldn't find "he didn't" but rather "he did not". But if you count didn't and can't, then these are fairly recent generally accepted spelling changes based on elision.

  • I believe that the OP is looking for instances of this shift in the last century. – coleopterist Oct 20 '12 at 6:34
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    @coleopterist I thought so too, but the example OP gave ('e) is much older. – Mark Beadles Oct 20 '12 at 13:34

One example:

alarum --> alarm.

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    I believe that the OP is looking for instances of this shift in the last century. – coleopterist Oct 20 '12 at 6:35

While not a learned tome, here is a discussion of Jeet jet? No, jew? (Did you eat yet? No, did you?).

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    The question is about standard spelling; I don't think any of those are standards. – joseph_morris Oct 20 '12 at 4:51
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    @joseph_morris You are right. It should have been a comment adding to the examples of non-standard spellings like gonna. – bib Oct 21 '12 at 18:42

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