Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spelling disaster

I feel dirty.

Not in an erotic way. This isn't that kind of blog. Nor is this a personal hygiene issue, except perhaps in a moral sense. I feel a crawling of the skin, an itching of the scalp, but I don't think a long hot shower is going to help.

What's causing this revulsion is the sense that I find myself agreeing with the Daily Mail. The UK government has issued new guidance on how schoolkids should be taught to spell. No longer will they learn "i before e except after c", because "there are too many exceptions", it seems.

This advice comes from a report named, apparently without a trace of irony, "Understanding English Spelling", by one Masha Bell. "Children are having to fill their heads with this rubbish - because spelling is rubbish," the author is quoted as saying. Proof, if proof were needed, that here is a person who is remarkably unqualified to write a report called "Understanding English Spelling", much less have that report adopted as official guidance for schools

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I can't spell. It's a simple, if sad, fact of life: almost no-one can spell. I'm pretty sure I'm in the top 1% of English spellers, but it still happens, from time to time, that I suddenly learn I've been spelling a word wrongly for years. Quite ordinary words, like "weird" or "diarrhoea". I've no doubt there are still at least a handful of words that I routinely misspell.

And yet I take spelling very seriously. I believe in it.

The spelling of a word carries far more information than just its dictionary-listed meaning. It tells us, if we know what to look for, where the word comes from, what philosophical and intellectual baggage it carries. Most importantly, it shows something about how the word relates to other words, both in English and in other languages. A secretary, for instance, is one who keeps secrets. A library is a place (the '-ary' suffix) for books (French 'libres'). If I spelled these words the way people in my part of the world spoke them (secatry, lybrie), I'd never have made those connections.

This is one of the problems with spelling reform. It's the same problem as with every other kind of reform. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin said it best: "Everything is connected to everything else."

When Mr Webster decided that the Americans needed their own spelling to separate them from the British, he ran into this problem straight away. "Center" may look more natural than "centre", but on the other hand, it means you need a whole new rule - "drop the penultimate e" - to form words like "central" and "centrifuge". American English is no easier to spell than British or International English: it's just different.

That's why I don't believe people who argue that spelling reform would improve school performance. Anyone who believes that, I reckon, just hasn't given it enough thought.

(Pop quiz: What can spelling tell us about the key difference between "thought" and "consideration", or "meditation", or any other word ending with "-tion"?)

There is one other argument for spelling reform, but it's one that is never stated, because it's so self-evidently a thing of utmost evil. It's the argument that reform will make everything written Before, harder to read.

Why would anyone want to do that? I can think of three reasons, which would be supported - equally covertly - by three equally unholy special interests.

First, it reinforces the divide between "elite" and popular culture, making it harder to bridge that gap. Thus creating work for sociologists, opportunities for class warriors and petty demagogues.

Second, it creates a New Culture for a New Britain, divorced from everything that has gone before. We get to rewrite everything, shrugging off any contradiction based on un-PC older sources. This appeals to the social-engineering wing of the radical left.

Third, it's a publishing opportunity. All those older works, hundreds of thousands of books, that can optionally be updated. And, of course, renewed copyrights on everything from Shakespeare to Dylan Thomas! When publishers hear of spelling reform, it's all they can do to keep the drool inside their mouths.

[Answer to pop quiz: "thought" is an Anglo-Saxon word (the silent "-gh-" is a dead giveaway), coming from a direct, plain-speaking culture. "-tion" words come from Latin, whose speakers were much more given to studying the art of speaking. When someone uses a "-tion" word, they're not saying what they think, they're thinking about what they say. It's an important difference.]


Nodressrehearsal said...

I'm all for re-examining old ways and making changes when change is an improvement. But hell's bells, change for the sake of change, or for dumbing things down... not a good idea in my book.

When my youngest learned multiplication in elementary school, instead of just making them memorize the tables like we did (2x8, 3x8, 4x8, etc.) they learned to draw little bundles of sticks and then circle the bundles into groups. Then they learned to do it some other convoluted way, and then another. But when they reached middle school and before they could go on to do harder math, they had to - you guessed it - memorize multiplication tables.

Good grief. I remember learning as a kid that "Ghoti" could be pronounced "fish" if you used the "gh" from "tough" the "o" from "women" and the "ti" from "notion". Somehow, it managed not to scar me for life...

vet said...

Heh. There are so many ways of teaching maths, it's not even funny any more. But spelling is harder than maths. I'll bet a lot more 12-year-olds know how to multiply 4 by 8, than how to spell "conceit".

Thanks for the comment. :o)

Anonymous said...

Spelling rules are a good introduction to life in a bureaucracy.
1) start off with rules;
2) learn the exceptions to the rules.

Yuh, I think education is dumbing down.


Mark Pennington said...

Great article! How about "ghoti"? See end of post for answer. I have a nice list of the spelling rules with examples and MP3s of spelling rule songs and raps to check out at Spelling Rules Songs and Raps. fish

Richard Comaish said...

Language is an old tool, but a young science, and sadly, this author reflects that just as much as those he criticises. I liked the Lenin quote, tho - like sex, it's surprisingly subversive in a world where it is denied.

Anonymous said...

It is not so much about not being to spell as it is not being able to READ! As a learning assistance teacher I see so many kids who cannot make out what the word it. They cannot read! And the crazy things is that some of those kids can write (albeit with a lot of spelling errors) nice reports and, even some, better reports than grade spellers. It is about reading! This is what the reform movement is about. YOU want kids to feel they are dumb, steal stuff to feel they are worthy,... I have seen a few. They had an IQ way above some of the DUMB kids who could memorize the irregularities, but where stupid not to see the illogical nature of the spelling code. These kids think your English spelling code is dumb. IT IS. IT IS about READING! Trust me like you trust your doctor. I am a teacher. Are you?

vet said...

Anon: I don't want anyone to feel dumb. But nor do I want them to think things are easy, when they're not.

And most of all, I don't want kids to grow up thinking they can read, when in fact the only things they can read are those that have been written or rewritten specially for them.

If you ask your kids to name three reasons why they don't like certain lessons, I'll bet some of them will say "It's too hard/I can't handle it" - but I'll bet a much larger number will say "This is rubbish/I won't ever need this stuff in real life". Spelling reform would reinforce that impression, and make it very hard to rebut.

I don't see how it's going to make them feel smart when they come to realise that other people can read so much more than they can.

You're a teacher? Okay, that means your opinion is probably better informed than mine, but you're still just one data point. Although I have no right to speak for him, I suspect Mark Pennington, above, is one teacher who would disagree with you. Get some consensus going, get your union to issue a statement and open a debate, and I'll listen to that. But do it now. Don't try to sneak in reform by the back door, so that we only get to debate it after it's already half done.

Richard: I'm sure you're right. I'm not a linguist, I'm just like everyone who reads this - some person with a keyboard and an opinion. Thank you for reading it.

Mark: good luck with that.

S: I've always hated the phrase "dumbing down", it reeks of elitism, but in this case I think it's true. Thank you for commenting.

Pierre said...

Vet, I never said that we are trying to reform English without you knowing anything about it. That is why I wrote the message to alert the general public that the issue is not kids as much as it is the code. I am the only one who thinks that way:

However, I thank you for your idea of bringing this to unions. Leaders in education and politics should also be leading the way. The way I view things is by introducing the change by a bottom-up approach (assisted by "experts"/"linguists") and phasing the change starting with primary kids. This would solve teachers'/unions' resentment to some degree. Old folks like us would not be required to learn a new code. Young teachers would, but then it might help them get the foot in the door.