I just returned from a two week stint of racing around the country from conference to ghost hunts to writing workshops and have been rushing to play catch up. Most of this morning was spent downloading pictures, some of which I’d hoped to share with you, along with short commentaries about the adventures. (No, didn’t see any REAL ghosts in Kentucky BUT, something came across my desk a little while ago that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. It came from the BBC. Get this….
The Simplified Spelling Society has been campaigning for a century to make the spelling of the English language easier and recently picketed a spelling bee in the U.S. to make their point.
Masha Bell, a member of the society and author of Understanding English Spelling, believes that reform of the spelling of the English language could help children learn to read and make life easier for some adults too.
Learn – lern
Slow – slo
Beautiful – butiful
Prof Vivian Cook, a linguist, expert in second language learning and author of Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary, believes changing spellings would be unnecessary, expensive and could harm children’s ability to read.
We pitched the two, spelling reformer and spelling traditionalist, into a battle to persuade the other. Here they debate the merits of spelling systems, in the form of short e-mails.
Some of Ms Bell’s entries are partly-written in simplified spelling.
MASHA BELL: The Simplified Spelling Society believes that the spelling of English needs simplifying so children’s literacy can improve. The US spelling bee’s winner summed up the problem neatly: “Spelling is just a bunch of memorization.”
VIVIAN COOK: Obviously anything that can help children become literate in English is worth considering.
MB: If u hav a por memmory yor chances of becumming a good speller ar lo. But wors stil, yor chances of lerning to read ar not good either, because of phonnic nonsens like “cow-crow, dream-dreamt, friend-fiend” and hundreds mor like them.
The problem for the SSS is that most peeple ar not aware of the educational disadvantages which stem from spelling inconsistencies or how they came about.
VC: Don’t forget English has many other aspects that are a problem for children and adult learners. Our “standard” pronunciation is very hard for many people; our vocabulary is vast and drawn from virtually every language in the world; our grammar is a mystery (try explaining to a speaker of any other language when you say “I have been to Warsaw” rather than “I went to Warsaw”).
This makes it like any other human language, full of features that seem illogical but add up to a whole that works for human beings.
MB: Yes, as a language, English is exceptionally easy to lern. Compared with the six uther European languages which I hav studied (Lithuanian, Russian, German, French, Spanish and Italian), it has almost no grammatical difficulties whatsoever.
I did not begin to lern English until the age of 14, and the onely linguistic aspects I found tricky wer idiomatic expressions like “get off, back up, turn up”. – “I have been” and “I went” wer easy. The difference between them is consistent and logical.
VC: English is a great success story, used by hundreds of millions of natives and being used and learnt by a billion non-natives: it is so efficient that there are problems about it wiping out other languages.
I cannot agree that it is absolutely easier or more difficult than any other language: it depends on what first language you start from and many other circumstances of learning.
MB: But the alphabetic unreliability of English spelling is a huge problem. Foreign lerners can never be sure how to pronounce an English word without hearing it first [sun – sugar, and – ask, on – once]. That’s why onely English dictionaries have pronunciation guides and why I regularly annotated the words I was lerning: woman [wooman], women [wimmen].
VC: A problem for what? When reading simple words I don’t turn letters into words but words into meanings: “the” is not “t+h+e” but a whole symbol “the” like “@”.
Perhaps you could explain how any changes to spelling would affect the issue of English globally and how you would change spelling in a way that would help children and not hinder the rest of the English-using world?
MB: The most serious disadvantage of English spelling lies in making literacy acquisition for Anglophone children exceptionally slo and difficult – roughly three times sloer than the European average, acording to the most recent reserch (Seymour, 2003).
In English, even practised newsreaders occasionally still mispronounce words. (I hav herd Anna Ford struggle with “counterfeited” or “reneging”). That’s why moast English speakers stick to a fairly simple vocabulary
BLAH!!! And it just gets worse from there! That’s been our problem for years, trying to make things ‘easier’ for society. Can you imagine our falling prey to THIS kind of enemy??