This spells trouble

“Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw said, demonstrating his capacity for stating the blindingly obvious.

And all change, according to his ilk, is for the better. Such as, for example, Shaw’s pet idea that every 70-year-old unable to make a persuasive argument for his continuing usefulness to society should be culled.

Like many of his nightmarish dreams, this one shows every sign of coming true. Euthanasia is rapidly gaining traction in the West, although we still balk at the idea of making it mandatory at a certain cut-off age. Oh well, progress moves slowly at times, but we must be happy in the knowledge that it does move.

GBS also adored socialism in all its manifestations, both national and international. When he was an old man (the 70-year ideal was something he preached but not practised), he made a rousing speech to the effect that he’d die happy that the future of the world was safe in Stalin’s hands.

In the same spirit, he founded the English Spelling Society (ESS), dedicated to the noble cause of making life easier for the illiterate classes. Shaw wasn’t – and isn’t – alone in that quest. Any society dedicated to the advancement of the common man strives to drag the world down into the common man’s comfort zone.

Hence committed egalitarians often direct their attention towards spelling (another fruit by which we shall know them). The traditional version formed over centuries, they claim, is by its nature discriminatory because the broad masses find it hard to master.

Thus the ostensibly different egalitarian regimes in America, Russia and China all set out to reform spelling after they grabbed power. In America this process took a few decades, in China a few years and in Russia a few months, but the ultimate outcome was similar, as was the motivation.

Real literacy was replaced with the virtual kind, as if to remind people yet again that all egalitarianism can only ever be vectored downwards.

ESS is still going strong, and now its members around the world have voted to introduce a universal system called Traditional Spelling Revised (TSR), and I hope you aren’t confused by acronyms piling up.

According to it, language should be based not on rules but on usage. It’s the latter that should determine the former, not the other way around. In other words, all spelling should be strictly phonetic.

But English is pronounced differently throughout the Anglophone world, including within each country. There exist 50 major dialects in Britain alone, and God only knows how many minor ones. So should we spell no as ‘ner’ to reflect the Scottish pronunciation? Or ‘fried’ as ‘froid’ for some Londoners not to feel left out? Or, crossing the ocean, ‘my’ as ‘mah’ (South) and ‘bird’ as ‘boid’ (Brooklyn)?

And what about the ‘r’ at the end of words like ‘motor’ and ‘mother’? In America, it comes across as the retroflexive sound heard in educated speech and omitted in some dialects. In Britain, it’s exactly the other way around: that end sound is a hallmark of dialectal or uneducated speech.

Many regional differences are a result of the Great Vowel Shift that took place between 1400 and 1700, changing the pronunciation of the long vowels. The very length of that process, and the absence of mass communications at the time, explains why different regions and countries proceeded at their own pace.

Before the Shift, the word ‘meat’ was pronounced as ‘met’, while ‘mate’ sounded more like ‘maht’. And Shakespeare pronounced words like ‘path’ in what today is perceived as the American way, even though I don’t think he was a Yank. (Much of the Anglophone migration to America came from regions not yet touched by the Shift.)

Spelling has kept up with phonetic usage as best it could, but at some point people had to agree on a certain uniform standard. Spelling, at least within the same country, became codified, and little tots have since had to toil trying to avoid censure for spelling ‘might’ as ‘mite’ or ‘sleigh’ as ‘sley’.

And what do you know: before the united egalitarians of the world took the sledgehammer to our school system, most tots managed rather well. Some didn’t, but they tended to be the kind of people whose life didn’t depend on spelling one way or another.

If you read, say, police reports from a century ago, you’ll hardly ever see a misspelled word. Today’s equivalents aren’t a patch on that level of literacy, but then cops are now beneficiaries of laudably equal comprehensive education.

“Down with redundant letters”, proclaim Shaw’s disciples, which I suppose is an improvement on “Down with redundant people”. Thus ‘right’ will become ‘rite’, ‘knight’ will get a new lease on life as ‘nite’ and, presumably, both ‘weight’ and ‘wait’ as ‘wate’.

That, according to ESS, will eliminate illiteracy at a stroke, thereby improving the economy. To my reactionary eye their proposal will lead to illiteracy being not so much eliminated as chiselled in stone. However, to keep my mind fashionably open, I’m prepared not only to accept the underlying egalitarian principle, but also to extend it into other areas.

For example, Newton’s laws of motion must all be replaced with one: “Fings move, innit”. That’s all the educationally underprivileged need to know when they are chased by cops. And the first law of thermodynamics can be comfortably reduced to a simple statement: “U get nakkered vever u run or fite.”

This approach easily lends itself to wider extrapolation. If abolishing literacy is going to eliminate illiteracy, then why not apply the same idea to criminal law? Repealing all laws against murder, rape and robbery will at a stroke eliminate any chance of those laws being broken. And legalising shoplifting will offset the growing cost of living, while saving shops money otherwise spent on security.

It’s true that it takes an effort to learn English spelling. But it’s an effort worth making.

For the purpose of education isn’t only or even mainly cramming pupils’ heads with information but also equipping them with mental structures, a sort of skeleton they’ll be able to flesh out by their own efforts over a lifetime.

This requires training in essential mental skills, such as concentration, perseverance, memory, ability to differentiate and also to detect commonalities. That’s why subjects like Latin, for all their lack of any practical payoff, are essential. I’ve also long advocated chess as a compulsory school subject for it develops logic and an understanding of causality.

Spelling is much simpler than those disciplines, and I’d say learning it is the absolute minimum that any child must be made to acquire. And if that will take some precious school time away from advanced condom studies, then so be it.  

P.S. After Russian missiles hit a maternity ward in southern Ukraine, killing a baby, the European parliament voted to designate Russia as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’. I emphatically disagree. Russia is a perpetrator of terrorism, not a sponsor thereof. May I suggest a ‘terrorist state’ instead?

8 thoughts on “This spells trouble”

  1. The European Union commissioners have announced that agreement has been reached to adopt English as the preferred language for European communications, rather than German, which was the other possibility. As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty’s Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a five-year phased plan for what will be known as EuroEnglish (Euro for short).

    In the first year, “s” will be used instead of the soft “c.” Sertainly, sivil servants will resieve this news with joy. Also, the hard “c” will be replased with “k”. Not only will this klear up konfusion, but typewriters kan have one less letter.

    There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome “ph” will be replased by “f”. This will make words like fotograf” 20 persent shorter.

    In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of silent “e”s in the languag is disgrasful, and they would go.

    By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” by “z” and “w” by ” v”.

    During ze fifz year, ze unesesary “o” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou”, and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters.

    After zis fifz yer, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubls or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech ozer.

    Ze drem vil finali kum tru.

  2. Reading (good books) vastly improves your thinking, vocabulary, and enriches the imagination. All essential to writing tolerably well, BertE.
    Chess? Really, Mr Boot? Then that should make Russians or Poles master logicians and understanders of causality!

    1. Actually, Poles (unlike Serbs) aren’t known for chess prowess, and the game has never been a compulsory subject in Russian schools, but I take your point. As the example of Russia shows, chess is a useful tool of learning, but clearly not a sufficient one. Note, however, that the Russian school of theoretical mathematics is one of the world’s best (if not THE best), as is their school of musical education. Both disciplines have much in common with chess. I go by my own example: After I started learning and playing chess seriously, at age 9 or 10, all the mathematical problems I had struggled with before began to appear trivial.

  3. Quite fascinating. Admittedly, I’ve always had a somewhat unfavourable opinion of chess as a serious intellectual past time, but only because of a very limited sample of acquaintances who played well, but argued speciously. And perhaps because I’m a poor player myself.
    Surprised about your chess playing. I was more than sure that you had taken up the piano.

  4. We knew that standard tests were racist. Years ago the example given was a question from our college entrance exams about the distance covered by two yachts. (No, it is not pronounced “throat-warbler-mangrove.”) The argument was that only rich people have yachts, and no person without a yacht could answer the question. (How could the question be worded? Using two planes? Cars? Legs?)

    Now we learn that Spelling is racist. Language is racist (California schools started teaching ebonics in the mid-1990s). Mathematics has been declared racist, elitist, and ableist. (Every bit of knowledge or skill is “ableist”, isn’t it? I am able to do it, you are not. Stupid!) California is now starting a new program in its schools that does not promote high achievers, but keeps all students on the same “track”. This will make them all equal. Equally unable. Ah, the old days, where head-to-head addition problems allowed me to show my skill, defeat the entire class, and earn myself a prize. I weep for the future.

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