Popping Out For A Spell
Writing is a craft first and an art second.
It happens every few years; someone suggests we abandon correct spelling in schools to ‘liberate’ children from rules and level the literacy playing field. This month, in a clickbait story designed to have Daily Telegraph readers clutching their pearls, universities have been talking about abandoning correct spelling again.
Hull University has said it will challenge the status quo by dropping the requirement for a high level of technical proficiency in written and spoken English in ‘certain subjects’, a requirement it described as white, male and elite.
The university said that it would instead ‘encourage students to develop a more authentic academic voice that can communicate complex ideas with rigour and integrity — that celebrates, rather than obscures their particular background or characteristics’, and that spelling guidelines ‘should be seen within the context of blended learning and our ongoing work to narrow/close awarding gaps’, whatever that means.
Spelling has always fluctuated but some fundamental rules need to be observed in order to present ideas clearly. There are plenty of bloggers who seem unable to construct simple clear sentences. If you’re going to communicate through the written word, it’s a good idea to make sure you have the right tools at hand. Writing is a craft first and an art second.
You could argue that English’s messy spelling came its geography. The Latin alphabet was utilised to translate a Germanic language; then the Normans brought French spelling customs into the elite so that ordinary Britons found themselves unable to speak their own language. As spelling norms were still settling, the English vowel system underwent the Great Vowel Shift, a series of changes in pronunciation that took place mainly between 1400 and 1700. Transcription errors muddied things further.
Why did I spend five years studying Latin at school? Well, etymology allows us to understand old words and create new ones. Correct (ie traditional) spelling reveals important information. Early English writers put a ‘p’ into ‘receipt’ to make clear its connection to Latin’s ‘receptus’, even though the letter was silent. The p’ also connects the word to ‘receptive’ and ‘recipient’, which ‘reseet’ couldn’t do.
Do we need both ‘furrow’ and ‘furrough’? Hull University sees these anomalies as stumbling blocks; Many of us see them as signposts. Do the more literate forge ahead or wait for the less literate to catch up?
One of the reasons why illogical spelling systems never get overhauled in more liberal societies is that those in a position to change the rules have long ago learned the old ones. It leaves the less literate stranded and a great swathe of people in the middle, muddling through with ad hoc spelling. Spell check has not really helped much here; it straightens thought into clear-cut channels and achieves something of what George Orwell warned us about.
So the idea is a political one, but unfortunately goes against the grain of human nature, which is to refine through experience. Until its fourth draft, my (eventually) upcoming fantastical-historical novel used insanely baroque language to condition the mind to its peculiar subject. I remembered the trouble my pal Jake Arnott had with ‘The Fatal Tree’, which he chose to write in thieves’ cant, and decided to remove much of the colourful language. The elaborate prose was my conceit, but would have driven many readers away.
Not you lot, obviously.
Even so, in its simplified version it still has twenty times the vocabulary of an Agatha Christie novel, not that I’m knocking her writing – it’s clean and clear-cut and packed with forward-motion verbs, even though she’s obsessed with judging people by the way they look and describing rooms in terms of egress.
But obscurity for its own sake is damaging. Even so, I’ll opt for ‘chasuble’ or ‘rededos’ because it has flavour and you still get a general understanding of the meaning. The answer is to let language do what it always does; be adapted by the more adventurous, and let those who are learning – especially from a second language – master the rules in the simplest, clearest way.
At the top please see Nigel Molesworth’s guide to Latin. I wonder if that’s where JK Rowling got the idea from.