Eccentric English revel in their odd spells

Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary, or Why Can't Anybody Spell? - Understanding English Spelling
February 11, 2005

According to George Bernard Shaw, "fish" might just as well be spelt as "ghoti": f as in enough, i as in women and sh as in motion. The logic of English spelling has baffled people for generations and caused a mixture of frustration, irritation and bewildered sentimental acceptance. Rules exist, but few people really know them today - apart from i before e except after c .

Computer spellcheckers have dispensed with the need to be too familiar with rules, while text messaging has pushed the structure of the language to new extremes and created a new range of visual cues. Vivian Cook mentions both.

Yet despite the development of technology that allows people to converse via the internet or to write using speech recognition, the informal ease and speed of email has opened a new range of discourse and the "netiquette" to go with it.

This is an interesting example of the way in which the language can adapt to changing needs, something it would not be able to do even if a single academy for the English language could ever be convened. Spain, as well as France, has its academy of language, but this is indicative of a different approach to what the language ought to be. It is inconceivable that native English speakers would take up the challenge of the Dictee Pivot (televised spelling and language contests that attract millions of viewers in France), and the kind of adulation shown in France to people who can cope with the finer points of the language is normally reserved for the winner of the local rose-growing competition in England.

Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary is a celebration of the "richness and resourcefulness" of English spelling. Shaw is mentioned in the first line, but countermanded by none other than Noam Chomsky, who holds the view that English spelling is actually a near-optimal system. For him, spelling holds the key to meaning through etymology, while Shaw believes that it is the key to speaking, which might lead to the counter-argument that if there is no correct way of speaking, there need be no single way of spelling.

Shakespeare is drawn into the argument by both sides. His name appears on Brocolli's dustcover in a dozen different forms, an inconsistency that is pounced on in Understanding English Spelling as nothing less than an embarrassment. And whereas Brocolli ranges far and wide in the search for real, vibrant and totally incorrect English, Understanding English Spelling focuses on the undoubted inconsistencies, rails against those who have almost wilfully allowed such a situation to arise and finds one problem after another.

Undoubtedly, logic is on the side of Masha Bell, who is a distinguished member of the Simplified Spelling Society. But the strength of her case is marred by some of her more extreme suggestions, such as a link between the complexities of English spelling and the size of the prison population. It is true that a great deal of time and energy have been expended on investigating ways of teaching reading and writing, and there is a regrettably high level of functional illiteracy among UK adults. But research seems to indicate that many factors are at work here; indeed, experiments with Sir Isaac Pitman's initial teaching alphabet ended in failure.

Understanding English Spelling is the outcome of much thought, and the key chapters in part three on the implications of a complex spelling system make interesting reading. But the book is bulky and replete with charts and word lists that make it more of a reference work and, ultimately, rather daunting. More than half of it is taken up by reading and spelling problems, with copious word lists: 3,695 tricky spellings have been identified for writing, and 2,032 potentially difficult words for reading.

There must be doubt as to whether the book will be of value to teachers and parents of children who fail to get off to a quick start at the age of five at one end of the spectrum, and to older students and foreign learners of the language at the other.

Brocolli comes as a handy, pocket-sized hardback. But as is often the case with a light-hearted book with a serious aim, it lacks a comprehensive index. There is an index by themes, which could just as easily have been a full subject index, and an eclectic range of information sources is provided, including the electoral rolls for 2001. It is irritating to spot something curious (and the book abounds with curiosities) and then to not be able to find it later. But this may well be deliberate. The whole book is like a curiosity shop full of oddities, with only the most tenuous links between them. It is clear that Cook (a professor of applied linguistics on his more serious days) had the time of his life accommodating broccoli in this particular cemetery (readers are encouraged to do likewise by emailing their favourite howlers to spelling@profilebooks.co.uk).

This is arguably the only way to approach the English language and its many eccentricities. To do otherwise will only lead to the kind of upset that is so apparent in Understanding English Spelling . The English have almost left spelling to remain uncontrolled and unregulated since the days of Caxton (who appears to have started it all), and even Dr Johnson comes in for some stick for having arrested English spelling change with his dictionary of 1755. There is too much focus here on the difficulties and obstacles to learning. The whole approach is a complete antithesis to the jaunty celebration of English, its richness, diversity and (yes) challenges, offered to us by Cook.

Tim Connell is professor of languages for the professions at City University London.

Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary, or Why Can't Anybody Spell?

Author - Vivian Cook
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 152
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 86197 623 2

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