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NOT as simple as ABC

After I wrote last week’s column, I was afraid it’d be a major floperoo.

In a general sense, the column was about the evolution of languages and the dictionary’s role in recording it. Specifically, the column was about the word “irregardless” being in the dictionary and how a whole bunch of peeps considered it a travesty on par with treason, baby trafficking and human sacrifice.

In other words, the column was about stuff that makes English teacher’s hearts go pitty-pat, but barely raises an eyebrow among people with normal, healthy lives. That’s why I thought there’d be either no reaction to the column, or a negative one. As it turned out, I was wrong. The column got a lot of comments on Facebook, all of them positive.

One comment, from Peter Sayles, stood out. It was: “How bout a column on their, there, they’re? Can these words be used interchangeably?’

Obviously, Peter was being ironic, but nonetheless he raised a subject that’s ruined more young lives than wine, weed, and zits — spelling.

While we might think spelling has always been standardized, that’s not true. Catch this: There are only six verified Shakespeare signatures in existence. All are on legal documents, and each is spelled differently, only one as “William Shakespeare.” How could that be? The man with the largest English vocabulary couldn’t spell? Not at all. It just is, when he lived, spelling was pretty much an arbitrary and individualized activity. And why wouldn’t it be, since the first decent dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s, wasn’t published till about 150 years after the Bard had, to coin a phrase, shuffled off this mortal coil.

The next English dictionary of note was Noah Webster’s, in 1828. Webster went Johnson one further by trying to standardize American spellings, as opposed to English ones — color for colour, public for publick and so on.

So ultimately, what this means is the idea, not to mention the practice, of standardized spellings is a recent invention. Beyond that, there are several excellent reasons why spelling is nightmarish to so many people — to one bunch having to write the words, and to another bunch having to read them.

A stacked deck

Essentially, being a good speller is based on one thing — having an aptitude for it. I suppose a poor speller can improve, but not without effort disproportionate to its results. Good spellers are born, not made. Period.

I happen to be an excellent speller and always have been, starting in first grade. My brother, on the other hand, has always been a terrible speller. And it’s not that I pored over spelling books and memorized every new word I saw while my bro spent his time staring out the windows of the Petrova school, never so much as looking at a printed word. We just had separate skills. Certainly, we’re both good for at least a book a week and have been for years, and he still can’t spell to save his fadooly.

But beyond mere inborn talent, there are other factors that conspire to make spelling the literacy equivalent of the Antichrist.

One is that the Roman alphabet, perfect for Latin, is problematic for English because it can’t always duplicate the sound of a lot of English words. I don’t understand any of the subtleties of this phenomenon, but that’s the essence of it. However, if you want to learn about it and you’re up for some serious reading, look up any major linguist’s work on the subject.

Next, a real biggie: English is considered the language with the most words, and a whole lot of them are what’s called “loan words”; that is, they came from other languages. While English dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, they later played unwilling host to Romans, Vikings and French, who brought with them their languages, which became part of ours.

Beyond that, a whole bunch more words came into our language from British colonialism, and later from what’s been called American Coca-Colonialism. As a language, English is a literal bastard, which makes spelling a figurative one, because it takes foreign words at their native spellings.

For example, “amok” comes from Malay and, while spelled with that “o,” is pronounced as if it’s a “u.”

“Amateur” comes from French, and how can you sensibly know it’s spelled “teur,” not “choor”? Answer: You can’t. They also gave us “chauvinist,” “maneuver,” and “questionnaire.”

But we need not be xenophobic (from Greek). Plenty of words of Anglo-Saxon origin are bad enough. Howz about this: “-ough” can have 10 different pronunciations, so is there any logical way to make sense of which is which? Nope, none at all.

Of course, one of the biggest problems with spelling isn’t the words themselves; it’s the people who make such a big deal of it. English teachers may be the worst, but they’re not alone. I’ve always heard someone talk about something they read which was terribly misspelled, proving how unfit the writer was as a this or that … or even as the other thing. And as I’ve tried to point out, none of that is true. The only true thing is they spell poorly.

Here’s maybe the most vital thing to know about spelling, whether anyone likes it or not: It has nothing to do with good writing.

Don’t believe me? Read on.

Lowest on the list

Writing is basically the sound of words in print. And the fact is, when people misspell words, they almost always do it phonetically. So they might write, “I walked thew the crowd,” or even “Know one new the answer.” Orthographically incorrect … but so what? You know exactly what the person meant, which is what writing’s about in the first place.

You can have a good piece of writing with innumerable misspellings, and it’s still good writing. On the other hand, you can have utterly atrocious writing in which everything is spelled perfectly. Don’t believe me? Read a Ph.D. thesis sometime (or at least give it the good ole college try).

I think there are two reasons why teachers always made such a big deal out of spelling. First, it’s the easiest thing to spot. Second, and related to that, it’s bloody hard to critique writing in any meaningful way. You need to read and reread the piece, and then evaluate it in terms of focus, unity, development, coherence, sentence structure, diction and all sorts of other things. And that doesn’t even cover whether its original idea is meaningful and significant, rather than vapid and cliche. That’s hard work, which requires real skills. And generally after critiquing like that, a lot of revision needs to be done to improve the writing, provided it can even be salvaged in the first place. Correcting spelling errors, even a boatload of them, can be done in one fairly fast reading.

So to sum it all up, am I saying spelling is unimportant?

Yes, I am.

And I can think of only once exception to this. It took place in My Home Town a bunch of years ago.

A husband and wife were sitting at dinner when suddenly he collapsed and had a seizure of some sort. The wife immediately grabbed the phone and dialed 911. Though on the verge of hysteria, she managed to tell the dispatcher what was going on.

The dispatcher took note of all the details and then asked the woman her address.

The woman was so rattled, she just gave the house number.

“OK,” said the dispatcher. “But what street is it?’

“Oh,” said the woman, “Algonquin Avenue.”

“Could you please spell that?” said the dispatcher.

There was a long pause.

Then the woman said, “How about I drag him over to Lake Street and you pick him up there?”

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