Thursday, 22 May 2008

How do you do, Beauchamp? The name's Featherstone


Truly. Normally this man can do no wrong. His column* is just the right blend of information and righteous anger and dry wit and irreverence, and sort of everything that's right about the Guardian and none of what's wrong.

And then this ("Let's write our language as we speak it. Then at least our children will be able to spell properly"). Cue Five Stages of Grief:

1. Denial. "Surely not. But he's a sensible person! Perhaps I've just read too many statistics today and I misread it! Perhaps it's ironic?"

2. Anger. "Well, this is just bloody stupid, isn't it? Stupid idiots. Who doesn't know how to spell?"**

3. Bargaining. Weeell - not so much. MOVING ON.

4. Depression. "Oh God, I'm officially snobbish, elitist, and PREMATURELY ELDERLY."

5. Acceptance. "Marcel, you and I will just have to agree to disagree."

Because, for some reason, the thought of simplifying spelling fills me with horror. And that thought ALSO fills me with horror, because - well, because that's what pedantic old farts do, they quibble about irrelevancies and write Strongly Worded Letters to The Times.

I feel I can totally justify my obsession with correct punctuation. That is for clarity. But spelling is different - bad spelling doesn't obscure meaning the way bad punctuation does. I mean, today I was reading Henry IV's claim to the throne:

In the name of Fadir, Son and Holy Gost, I Henry of Lancastre chalenge yis Rewme of Yngland, and the Corone with all ye membres and ye appurtenances, als I am disendit be right lyne of the Blode, comyng fro the gude lorde Kyng Henry Therde...

And it was easy, it was fine, I stumbled maybe once. So, like Marcel says, we'd get used to it soon enough, if all those problematic silent consonants were stripped away.

But still, it makes me feel somehow icky. WHY? What madness is this? Yes, I love the way English is spelt because I'm geeky about etymology - the P in psychotherapy is there because it comes from the Greek. (What mongrel bastard word is "sycho"?) But surely that's not enough of a reason? It's a personal reason, but not one that is objectively, empirically, fundamentally justified. Especially given the ease with which I learnt to spell; it's fine for me, I can do it (with a few minor exceptions, like "column", apparently), but so many people do struggle, and I shouldn't make life harder for them just because I'm a bit nostalgic.

I don't have an answer to this conundrum. But I have come to realise why I felt so betrayed by dear Marcel. Because whatever clear, coherent, egalitarian reasons one may come up with for simplifying spelling, I can't help but feel that to do so would be ever so slightly Orwellian, and very New Labour, like all those godawful euphemisms that are imported from the States, or the endless management speak. That to do so would be to lose something magical and beguiling and subtle and romantic. And of all people, I thought Marcel Berlins would see that too.

But no. It seems that I must wend my solitary, nostalgic, elitist, pretentious but dogged way, all alone.

*I just had to type that FOUR TIMES. coloumn. colomn. column. column??? Ironic, one must say, give the subject matter of this particular post...
**Obviously me. Don't judge, anger isn't rational.

ETA: Honesty compels me to admit that I have had to go back twice to correct two spelling mistakes. In my defence (m'lud), they were typos. But still. *looks sheepish*


  1. I'm with you. There is NO NEED for spelling to be simplified. Easier does not mean better. Harrumph. Off to write my Strongly Worded Letter.

  2. sycho does is not spelling like it sounds. psycho is. I can't explain why at this point in time (late evening, just off train from london, complete irrationality, etc), but it just is.

  3. I don't think the annoying thing is the suggestion that the language should be simplified. If the language needs to be simplified it'll do it by itself - old spellings gradually falling out of fashion, and so on, the way languages have always evolved.

    What's annoying is the suggestion that someone ahould simplify the language *for* us - i.e. the suggestion that someone 'owns' the language and is entitled to make decisions about it and force those decisions on everyone else. If there's anything that belongs equally to us all it's our language, and I'll use it just the way I like, thanks very much.

    (PS for my money, the best way to get kids to learn how to spell is to get kids to read).

  4. Frankly, I rather like the fact that spelling is complicated...I'd be out of a job if everyone could do it!

  5. I like spelling as it is, even if I spend far too long checking my own.

    And who will get to decide whether it is skowns or scohns, glars or glus anyway?

  6. Dear me, all of you, I did not expect APPROVAL for this post, or AGREEMENT. I thought there'd just be a tumble-weedy type silence...

    Hannah: Exactly. Easier is what brought us Sorceror's Stone, which I will NEVER STOP BITCHING ABOUT. UNTIL I DIE. BECAUSE IT'S STUPID.

    Swiv: Also exactly - it's like laughter is very different from larfter (or laffter, or any other permutation). It's an audible silent p.

    Patroclus: THE MOST EXACTLY OF THE LOT. You've summarised the awkwardness I couldn't get over, of the fact that language changes anyway. But you're right, that's an organic change over hundreds of years. This is some faceless government committee doing so, and who made them king? eh?


    Chatterbox: Luckily, we're not quite at that stage yet - Berlins was just advocating following Portugal's example, where they've removed silent consonants. BUT GOD HELP THEM IF THEY TRY IT.

    Dear God, far too many capital letters. Apologies, all. I think I'm still a bit overwrought.

  7. Another (belated) vote of agreement from me too. Especially on what you were saying about etymology, psycho and sycho. Getting rid of silent vestigial consonants, and other such artefacts and remnants of the various languages that have interbred to form English, would make it a much less rich and versatile language:

    - writers would be less able to play on the original meanings and derivations of words.

    - by removing or replacing letters you'd most probably be divorcing words that share certain prefixes, suffixes, etc. from each other, and inadvertently and confusingly making the new versions appear allied to other similar looking words that don't even derive from the same source or meaning.

    - the loan words and other bits and pieces of foreign languages scattered throughout the English language connect us to the countries they came from, and aid understanding of numerous other languages, and the common roots we and they share.

    Following on from swiv, I quite like the p in psycho, too: the silent deception of the p seems to make the word somehow more reflective of what it refers to. If you see what I mean... Plus, if they went the whole hog on psycho, well, wouldn't the h be sort of redundant too? So that would have to go, or be replaced by a k, or the ch replaced by a k, or... well, the upshot being that whatever it looked like you'd still have no idea whether to pronounce it like psycho or sicko, and then where would we be. For one thing, I'd have an A Level in Sickology to my name - hopefully, people would just assume I could cure them, rather than ask me to examine their vomit...