Saturday, May 24, 2008

Iz not the teechaz folt. Itz de langwage.

I can't seem to find it online, but The London Paper carried a story yesterday on the inbility of Britons to spell common words, such as "embarrassed", "liaison", "separate" and "friend".
Half of all Britons can't even spel [sic]

... screamed the headline, wittily.

Naturally, the usual suspects—such as computer spell-checkers—were held up for blame, but the really stupid fucking comment came from John Gledhill of the Spelling Society (of which, more later).
"It's not the fault of the teachers, nor of the students, but of the archaic spelling system which they have to learn," he said.

"In effect, we are still using 16th-century spelling for a 21st-century language."

John Gledhill is a stupid fucking cunt; of course it is the fault of the teachers and of the students that they are unable to spell their own language: in fact, it's a fucking disgrace.

Amongst other things, Samuel Johnson published the first English Dictionary—in an attempt to standardise spelling—on 15 April 1755, so, whilst there may have been some changes, it isn't as though the students are being caught out by a mutable standard, is it?

So, yes, it is the fault of teachers and students.

However, all is not as it seems. You see, I thought that John Gledhill might simply be a disingenuous prick, frightened of annoying the teaching lobby. But no, John Gledhill has an agenda.

"How so?" I hear you ask. After all, from its monicker, surely one would assume that the Spelling Society is dedicated to ensuring the correct construction of the English language?

Um, no. For the Spelling Society is not quite what it seems.
The Spelling Society started in 1908 (as the Simplified Spelling Society), and has the aim of raising awareness of the problems caused by the irregularity of English spelling and to promote remedies to improve literacy, including spelling reform. The Spelling Society publishes leaflets, newsletters, journals, books and bulletins to promote spelling reform of the English language.

Or, to put it another way, the Spelling Society is an organisation with a vested interest in "proving" that the people of Britain cannot spell their own language.

I am pretty sure that many of them cannot, but this is a failure of our education system, not of our language. Further, your humble Devil does not support imposed systems of language any more than he does of government; the near-infinite subtlety of the English language is, in part, derived from the roots that influence the spelling of words.

The Spelling Society argues that, without our somewhat idiosyncratic constructions, children (won't somebody think of the children?)—especially those who are dyslexic (won't somebody think of the disabled children? If only our spelling was different, maybe Tiny Tim could be saved...)—would no longer have to be taught spelling (why?) and they could do more constructive things instead.

Thus, the SS argue for a simplification of the language. But, on the flipside, I have not needed to spend my precious time expanding my vocabulary by rote, for my knowledge of Latin and Greek allow me to ascertain the likely meaning of complicated words without actually having to sit down and learn them. Hence, our spelling system has saved me time.

Thus, I believe that the fulfillment of the Spelling Society's aims would, in fact, directly lead to a debasement and contraction of the English language and thus conjure a far duller world described with a paucity of linguistic allure.

And, at any rate, the SS should certainly be declaring their interest in an article such as that which appeared yesterday, rather than using a name that deliberately gives the impression that their perceived aims are the very opposite of the actuality. So fuck you John Gledhill, and fuck the Spelling Society.

Oh, and teachers?—don't think that you are off the hook, you useless fuckers...


Surreptitious Evil said...

Ahh, the sweet smell of a vested interest being treated as an independent expert by lazy journalists. Sweet, of course, being the main olfactory indicator of rot.

John Pickworth said...

And don't blame computer spell-checkers either... A casual wander around the internet (MySpace etc) will tell you that most people don't even use those - more's the pity.

Back in my day, you would lose marks in an exam for poor spelling... I understand that burdensome hurdle has now been removed.

Roger Thornhill said...

I've seen one or two of their representatives talking and frankly they do not seem to understand that many spelling errors come from poor pronunciation.

If people say "bar'ahh" instead of "butter" what chance do they have in spelling it correctly?

"here" and "hear" are actually written differently not for a laugh or to create pain, but because they are, or should be, pronounced differently. One advantage of RP is that people have more of a chance to hear English spoken in a more consistent way, even if it is not perfect.

Longrider said...

I've written about these imbeciles myself in the past. I was equally dismissive. These people seriously fucked up my youngest sister's education with their nonsense. She had to unlearn all the simplified spelling bollocks and relearn proper English once she entered the real world. Bastards!

Blue Eyes said...

That is the same argument as used at decimalisation: we spend too long learning arithmetic and we could learn something else if the currency was easier to decode. We could learn more if the English language wasn't so complex.



Bill said...

... a story yesterday on the inbility of Britons to spell common words, ...

Do you mean 'inability'? ;)

leg-iron said...

Decimalisation was one of the contributing factors to modern stupidity.

The complexities of twelve inches to a foot, three feet to a yard, etc meant that in order to learn anything, your brain had to work hard. It had to work to grasp the eight-pints-to-a-gallon etc, the sixteen ounces to a pound but only fourteen pounds to a stone and so on.

When everything divides by ten, your brain needs do no work at all.

So surely you can learn more stuff?

No, just the opposite.

The brain, like any other organ, gets stronger with exercise. It was those insanely complex systems of measurement and the illogic of the monetary system that made people smart. Everyone's brain had a daily workout, even if it was only working out how much change you should get from a packet of fags and a pint.

If kids aren't allowed to climb trees and run around, their bodies become weak.

If they don't need to think, their brains become weak.

Complexities in sytems of measuement, and in spelling and grammar made those brains work. Now, their only purpose in many people is to stop the wind whistling through their ears.

People will not learn more if the world is simplified for them. They will learn less.

Because their brains won't know how.

Jones said...

Leg Iron has it.

Dumbing down or 'simplifying' a method or language doesn't make people smarter; quite the opposite. You don't train athletes by making them run at the same pace as the class hypochondriac. You train them to run as fast as they possibly can.

The same goes for any discipline, be it cerebral or otherwise, spelling included.

Andrew Zalotocky said...

The effect of simplified spelling would be to cut English-speaking people off from their own past. Everything written before the change would look like a foreign language to someone who had only been taught the new system. A child would find reading Dickens in the original 19th century English as hard as learning to read Chaucer in the original Middle English.

Of course the great works of literature would eventually be reissued with the new spellings, but many more obscure books never would be. Nor would old magazines and newspapers, old blog postings, government records, letters and diaries, or many of the other written materials that our society produces. The range of written material that a person could readily access - whether for interest, education or research - would be much smaller after the spelling change than before it.

There's also the problem that if Britain adopted simplified spelling there's no reason to assume that other countries would as well. A British person would effectively have to learn another language in order to read anything written in English by a non-Briton. American English would become the world's standard version to an even greater extent than it is already, and simplified British English would become a linguistic ghetto that no-one else saw any reason to enter.

William Gruff said...

People such as John Gledhill seem to be unaware that many of the idiosyncrasies of English spelling are due to previous attempts to 'simplify' it, starting with twelfth and thirteenth century monastic scribes. All failed simply because the language is far too complex.

Ted S. (Just a Cineast) said...

Technically, it's true that Britons can't spell, looking at misspellings such as "skilful", "colour", and "centre". :-p

Seriously, some of the idiosyncracies of English spelling is because the spellings are of words as they're pronounced: "they're" here meaning "they were". The guttural h sound of Scots "loch" still existed in English when Caxton was first doing typesetting, and Caxton represented with with -gh. Look at all the similar German words that have a -ch still pronounced as a guttural h.

As a bit of shameless self-promotion, I find it ironic that this report comes out just before we in the US are having our annual National Spelling Bee, in which kids (highly disproportionately of immigrants) struggle with the most obscure words you've never heard of. There's a wonderful documentary about the Bee called Spellbound (not the Alfred Hitchcock movie). I don't know if it's been released on DVD in the UK, but it's highly worth finding a copy.

Chalcedon said...

Well, there are 300 million plus Americans so standard English is indeed found in America. British English is effectively a dialect. Webster changed spellings, plough to plow ......we do have different pronounciations for plough and cough do we not? British English is complicated. Do we really need a K in knife when the k has not been pronounced for hundreds of years?

I could live with US spellings but I wouldn't want the language gutted nor to revert to the spelling that took your fancy at the time you wrote anything.

I always used to correct the grammar, punctuation and spelling of my students as well as any other errors.

Trooper Thompson said...

I know debate has moved on, but...

Roger Thornhill,

'If people say "bar'ahh" instead of "butter" what chance do they have in spelling it correctly?'

Because you explain that the written language is not the same as the spoken language.

'"here" and "hear" are actually written differently not for a laugh or to create pain, but because they are, or should be, pronounced differently'

Come off it! I suppose bare and bear sound different too, if you say them 'correctly'? Or steel and steal? etc

There is indeed a need for standardised spelling, and simplifying the written language would be a monstrous folly - not least because in different regions words are pronounced differently. The undermining of teaching is the main problem, not any inherent difficulty in English. We've got to the stage where a lot of the teachers don't know how to spell.

Andrew Zalotochy makes an important point, and exactly this has happened in China - the characters have been 'simplified' and thereby robbed of their origins, meaning that Chinese people today are incapable of reading and understanding old texts.

Anonymous said...

The problem is not the spelling: it's the pronunciation. Quite apart from the little question of whose spoken English is to be used as a basis for spelling - English (N, S, E or W), Scottish, Welsh, Jamaican? - it would be so much easier to change the pronunciation, since the written archive is so much larger and more important than the sound archive. Listen to the old wax cyclinder recordings of Tennyson to see how far the sounds have changed in little more than a century. It only needs training a few radio or tv announcers in the "New RP". This might have the status of a regional accent initially, but would spread, and probably become quite popular world-wide - courtesy of the BBC World Service. We can still read Shakespeare in the original (Chaucer is another matter), though we might not understand it so easily as spoken.
But leave the b out of doubt and you lose the connection with dubious. Pronouncing it ain't that hard - the Russians do far worse things with consonant clusters.

It's English as she is spoke!