Tag Archives: Plain English

Heer’s to yoo, Jo

A Telegram message from a friend rang distant bells, which wouldn’t go away. I eventually tracked them down, in the form of the following, from a New Zealand columnist called Joe Bennett. So good I couldn’t bring myself to cut it, so…

They must exist the whole year round, I suppose, but I hear of them only occasionally. One of those occasions was last week when they popped their heads above the parapets once more and squeaked their dangerous nonsense.

They are the Simplified Spelling Society – or, presumably, the Simplifide Speling Sosiyutee. The Simplies have been around for a long time and have never got very far, but I don’t see that as any reason to stop me sticking the boot into their ideas. I have never met a Simplie but I imagine them to be bearded people in sweaters the colour of vinegar. No doubt they’re not. No doubt they’re all clean-shaven and decorated in nice bright acrylic sweaters from Deka, and no doubt they breed lovely children and give generously to charity, but my image of them is born of my distaste for their ideas. They would like to fiddle with the English language. I would like to cut their fiddling fingers off.

Although the English language has provided me with a living of sorts for a couple of decades, I have yet only the scantiest knowledge of its complexities. English is like a coral reef. It has grown over the centuries by a process of slow accretion and slower erosion. It has fed on everything that has floated past it and absorbed what it has found useful. Though the fat dictionaries may suggest the language is a fixed and lumpish thing, it is alive and in constant change.

It is also resilient. It allows all manner of politicians, sports commentators and guidance counsellors to torture it, and yet it retains a sinuous strength that rebounds undamaged from all assaults.

Because the roots of English lie partly in Anglo-Saxon and partly in Latin and partly in French, and because English has accommodated offerings from a host of other tongues, and because it has been put to use in a mass of different climates and circumstances, and because it has always welcomed change, English has become a difficult language to spell. Through does not rhyme with though, nor with cough or bough or enough or thorough. I find that delightful. The Simplies don’t. If they had their way these words would become something like thru, tho, coff, bow, enuf and thura.

And no doubt the Simplies would argue that they would thus make the language easier to read and write. Their argument would certainly find favour with such august institutions as the Ministry of Education and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority who have applied the same principle to exams: if children can’t pass them then the obvious solution is to make the exams easier.

The educational mandarins are proved wrong every day and the Simplies are similarly wrong. Even if spelling were utterly logical and consistent, just as many children would spell badly. Maths, for example, is logical and consistent yet plenty of children fail to grasp it.

I have taught several thousand children. Some could spell and some couldn’t and most lay in between. By and large those who could spell were readers and those who couldn’t weren’t. I also taught plenty of children who had been told they were dyslexic and not a few who actually were. But I found that, with hard work, even the most severe dyslexics could gain some mastery over their problems. They could even learn to spell dyslexia. They certainly had a harder road to ride than people like me who find it easy to spell almost everything except inoculate and gauge, but I do not believe that the language should be altered to suit people who find spelling hard. It would be like taking the high jump out of the Olympics because some people have short legs.

Most words carry their history with them. Their roots can be found in the spelling. Change the spelling and those roots would be harder to trace. Though language moves on and meanings alter, and etymology rarely grants us the present meaning of a word, nevertheless when the winds of stupidity blow roots can act as an anchor.

But not only would the simplification of spelling distance the language from its roots, more importantly still it would sever the people of tomorrow from the wisdom of yesterday. A reasonably educated speaker of English can read Chaucer in the original. Mess about with the spelling and Chaucer would become as impenetrable as Sanskrit. So would Shakespeare, Dickens, Bacon, Eggers and Goodbye Mr Chips.

Lose your past and you lose everything. All the thinking has to be done over again. The language brings with it the gains and the wisdom of yesterday. The first act of the totalitarian leaders of I984 was to modernise the language and thus to cripple independent thought and the gains of history. All unwitting, the Simplies wish to commit a similar Orwellian atrocity on our tongue. No doubt they mean well but they would encourage the descent of the Dark Ages.

Theirs is an innocent arrogance.