Spelling it out: is it time English speakers loosened up?

English is an uncommonly tricky language to spell. Is this why we put it on such a pedestal?

Spelling competition

Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty

I can’t remember exactly how often spelling tests happened at school – maybe every week or two – but I do remember I looked forward to them. We’d be tested, I’d do well, then I’d feel good about myself. Children who weren’t good at spelling would feel bad about themselves. That’s just how it worked.

In some ways prescriptivism about spelling is falling out of fashion. Today, even the biggest pedants (I’m looking at you, Stephen Fry) will concede that it is in rather poor taste to emphasise the form of something as fluid as language over its function. But when it comes to the classroom, a lot of that understanding flies out the window. Children just have to learn how to spell – like it or lump it.

Last year, Oxford professor Simon Horobin published a book that called this attitude into question. In Does Spelling Matter? he agreed that to some extent children just have to knuckle down and learn spelling: it’s an essential part of learning to read and write. However, when interviewed Horobin argued “we live in a society in which a single spelling mistake can be considered evidence of illiteracy and even stupidity”. Is this an issue specific to English speakers?

English is an uncommonly tricky language to spell. Every rule seems to have an exception and homophones (for example “rough” and “ruff”) abound. English has a complicated history, influenced structurally by many other languages and keen on borrowing words from yet more. As a result, it is very tolerant of illogical spellings (“receipt” anybody?). It is also spoken with a large variety of accents, so it would be difficult to come up with a good English phonemic orthography (where a system of signs corresponds exactly to sounds). This is good news for English speakers who are keen to learn Italian, Albanian, or Finnish – these languages feature a much more regular correspondence between spelling and pronunciation.

English spelling is so difficult that we take some kind of perverse pleasure in encouraging people to compete in public to show how well they can do it. Spelling competitions are also part of public life in the Netherlands – the Het Groot Dictee has been televised every year since 1991. Yet as Michelle Tsai on Slate has reported, language contests exist in other countries, but take different forms. In some Chinese competitions, for example, children compete to look words up in the dictionary faster than anybody else. […]

(From The Guardian, Josephine Livingstone, 28.10.2014)


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