Friday 12 September 2008

Rough Spelling Though Thought Tough Enough

The three Arrrrghs!

Every once in a while, an academic at the height of his powers and erudite mien decides to counteract very good tenet and principle learnt over years of earning respect and accolades to hog the newswires.

When I went to Corona School, Bukuru, Jos, the curriculum was very strong in the so-called 3-Rs [1] which rightfully or wrongfully was the acronym for Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic.

There are many times I did wonder where write required a W when right and rite which all sound alike could live without it. Maybe the answer should have been closer to ansa, but that would have been the wrong answer.

Reading and writing

In what would be a luxury today, once a week, I had 30 minutes in a one-on-one session with my teacher where all I did was read aloud to her and she helped me with the intonation, accent, context and comprehension – it just made reading alone more fun afterwards because you learnt just how words work together.

I never really did like writing at all, and even though I write a lot in blogging, my system (me as opposed to my computer) sometimes seizes up with writer’s-block and my rather over-active mind churns with ideas that probably would get expressed if there was a way to link my mind to the autocue of a keyboard allowing me to read my mind on screen.

Spelling opinono

Twice a week, we had spelling classes and I do remember spelling opinion opinono, but spelling classes were easy on the teacher, we did 10 words, exchanged our work with other classmates and we were marked and scored by our peers.

You just had to know how to spell no matter how irregular the word, because spelling words right are the foundation to good communication – living the Netherlands has even made me a bit more purist about correct spelling which in my book is English spelling as in what is spoken in England (Britain).

I think I am allowed to use English in the general context of English spoken in the United Kingdom because when I was learning German some 9 years ago, the course clearly differentiated between English and Americanisch, which we took to be American English.

I like my U in colour, I like the ae in encyclopaedia, the Z must not replace the S in organisation, recognise and sympathise, basically, like I learnt in German, some words are just the way they are, you should learn the gender or article with the words and then you would have no problems.

Catching you out

So we have with English where it is not necessarily a phonetically-sensitive language but it separates the men from the boys especially in names and places.

Islington does not start off like Island, Leicester is Lester, Southwark is Sudork, Greenwich is Grenitch, Southern does not start off with South but is Surthern, Featherstonehaughs is Fanshaws, Menzies is Mingies, Magdalene [2] sounds as it is as in Mary Magdalene but becomes Maudlin for the college at the University of Cambridge and so on and so forth.

So, imagine my chagrin when a so-called Emeritus Professor of Phonetics who happens to be the President of Spelling Society suggests [3] that give should become giv and river should become river and we go down the zeeeee lane by dropping the S for the Z and embrace Americanisms. If this is a sop to dyslexia, well, just imagine that the word that pertains to people who cannot spell correctly is as difficult as you can get it.

I am beside myself with apoplectic rage and I would have felt less so if this came from a non-native English speaker who had not spent a lifetime giving English its essence, quality, timbre and mystique, if it ever had that status.

To the stake with the heretic

But I would not be perturbed if I can be the first to light the fire, because the Economist last week helped bring a clear perspective to this matter when introduced the issue of Czech scepticism to Europe [4] with these lines.

Throughout history, heretics have faced unusually horrid punishments—and it is no mystery why. Most faith-based systems can withstand the threat from non-believers, sinners and the like. But heretics are a menace from within: dissenting believers, who question key articles of faith. [4]

Indeed, I can withstand all the talk about putting milk in my tea, driving on the left, liking roast beef and spelling words in peculiar ways from foreigners, I would not however brook the idea of a priest of church of English spelling and expression questioning those articles of faith in the uniqueness of English as a medium of communication as we have it today.

Light the fire now

This suggestion makes Professor John Wells a heretic, a menace from within, probably worthy of ex-communication from English as a means of expression but better still, he should be burnt at the proverbial stake like the heretics of old.

Maybe we can make him recant by putting him in a dunking stool [5], but at his position, the great commission to keep English English would have failed if he were allowed to support these views with more commentary and airing as to create a following.

But just when I set fire to the stake and had the mob chanting heretic to the death, a comment showed up that pooh-poohed the whole idea of spelling – it would appear my word processor would have a heart attack after this – I was surprised how easy it was to read, probably making nonsense of my hysterical histrionics about spelling.

Beyond spelling

The discourse does go beyond spelling, to expression, use of language, punctuation, nuance and so on, I am no professor and I intend to keep the faith.

Courtesy of Ice Ko who placed this comment in the news story alluded to in the Daily Telegraph [3], just see how easy it is to read this:

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid! Aoccdrnig to a rseereachr at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are. The olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? And I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was so ipmorantt! if you can raed tihs, it srue anit!


[1] The three Rs - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[2] Maudlin or Magdalen? - This is

[3] Irregular English spelling should be scrapped, says leading academic - Telegraph

[4] Charlemagne | The heretical Czechs |

[5] Common scold (Dunking Stool) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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