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Self-organization in the spelling of English suffixes: The emergence of culture out of anarchy


English spelling is unphonetic: the same sounds can be spelled in various and often idiosyncratic ways. It is also ungoverned: there is no authority guiding its development. However, it is not as arbitrary as one might conclude. Investigating the spelling of four derivational suffixes, we show that the spelling of English suffixes is quite consistent. Homophonous endings of morphologically simple words are spelled differently, keeping the suffix spelling distinct (cf. e.g. <nervous> vs. <service>/*<servous>). English spelling thus provides morphological cues for the reader. Diachronically, we show that this system emerged without explicit regulation, but as a result of self-organization. We use the Helsinki corpus to show how variation was gradually reduced for each of the suffixes. The regular spellings of today emerged gradually, through a sorting-out process of competition between alternate spellings.*