Thursday, July 6, 2006

Goud Splelling

I was in second grade twice. Jackie had problems. Nobody thought to have me skip a grade. Idiots. But I still have trouble with second grade skills. Spelling. Working and playing well with others. Didn't read well - still read only about as fast as I talk. My "handwriting" is virtually illegible, even to me, and getting worse. It's mostly a spur to memory - hmm, well it looks like what I meant was... It's just so slow. The ideas come faster than the hand will move. (Do you think I should consult a neurologist?) And years ago I thought it would be a very good idea to reform spelling - simplify it, make it more phonetic. Some folks still think so, but I've changed my mind.

Spelling used to be entirely phonetic, you see. "Enough" was pronounced ee-now ... and then a sound we don't have any more, like clearing your throat. "Often" had a "t" sound that wasn't optional. So here's the problem. Pronunciation changes over time. Old spellings become irrational and obsolete. And in any case, even if we all decided to adopt a new system, purely phonetic, which dialect would we favor? What region speaks the correct English? Purely phonetic spelling for Mississippi would not be the same as that for Boston, or Minnesota. Or Jamaica. Or India. Or England. Spelling reform is a provincial idea.

Another problem is that in a generation or so, literature from the past would be almost indecipherable. It would be virtually another language. All the current valid objections to the difficulties of spelling would be magnified many times, for a generation untrained for it. The problem with this is that the future would be cast adrift from the past. The works of Faulkner and Twain and Austin would be as remote as the Canterbury Tales. While such classics would be translated into the new format, there'd be a layer of remoteness added, as if it were a translation. Further, a great body of second-tier literature would not be, and the letters of your grandparents, or newspapers from the past, might as well be written in gothic script. And again, there's a certain history preserved in the very oddities of spelling. We can discern something of the etymology, the history of a word, from its spelling - it came from Greek, we can see, or Latin, or French. I like that. Using Anglo-Saxon words gives the writer a different voice, than using polysyllabic loaners from the Continent. And if all this were lost? Big deal? Well, yes, to me it is. The past matters. Really, it matters as much as the future. We call it memory, and to be without it is barely to be human. And then, too, language changes over time. In a few more generations, another great reform would be needed. And so on. Bad idea.

There's no harm in it, though. I'm a crank, too, I suppose. (Although I'm not really. All my innovative ideas are quite brilliant and necessary.) Spelling reform is a hobby, and one not as vicious as picketing the funerals of slain soldiers. For example. Along with free love and vegetarianism, it was one of George Bernard Shaw's great causes. Who could argue with GBS? He was greater than Shakespeare. Or so he said.

As for me, since the late '80s, my spelling has improved immeasurably. Spell checkers. Not just for the final product, but my actual spelling has improved. I've learned from seeing the same mistakes occur time after time. For example, I invariably used to misspell occurred. Finally bothered to notice, to get it right. That's a good thing. I do sometimes still misspell misspell, though. Isn't that ironic? And only a little web searching will call up sites that list tricks and rules that not all of us learned as kids, when we should have. Point being, spelling reform would be a major solution to a minimal problem. Bad idea.

Oh, and when I spell-checked this? I didn't make any mistakes! Except for mispell. Really.



GUYK said...

I wrote just about the same thing Jack--except that my redneck think doesn't translate into the Queen's English near as well as your think does.

I am dead set against changing the way we spell our words. The one thing that keeps the English speaking group is the spelling because as you say, every region that claims to speak English doesn't speak English but a dialect thereof..hell, even in England there are different dialects and some cannot hardly understand the others..worse than a yankee tring to learn to understand the deep south. But we that can read and write English can communicate because the written word is standard..except when one tries to read what I scrible and have not run thru spell check

Jack H said...

Don't tell anyone, but I followed the link on your own post to get the article that spurred me to it. All those painful issues of childhood came welling up - I sobbed like a little girl over the agony of it. Well, maybe not. In fact, definately not. I could barely generate the energy to care. But I do have an opinion, and opinions are things that must be shared. It's in the Bible.