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Steve Likes to Curse
Writing, comics and random thoughts from really a rather vulgar man
Spelling Bee Protestors Should Spend Less Time Protesting and More Time Learning to Spell 
Tuesday, June 5th, 2007 | 11:56 am [commentary, writing]
The Scripps National Spelling Bee was held in Washington, D.C. this past week. It showed spectators the usual sights: boys and girls from diverse ethnic backgrounds with cardboard signs draped across their chests standing in front of microphones; chief pronouncer Jacques Bailly carefully articulating obscure words most of us can’t define, let alone spell; and a small crowd of people gathered outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel to protest the entire proceeding.
The protestors represented the Simplified Spelling Society, and were there not to protest the bee, they claimed, but to promote their vision of replacing the sometimes counterintuitive and nonsensical current system of English spelling with a simplified phonetic scheme. The group blames the complicated spelling of many English words in large part for illiteracy and the struggles some children face in school. This year, as in years past, the members of the SSS stood outside the spelling bee venue holding picket signs with slogans like “I’m Thru with Through” and “Enuf is Enuf; Enough is Too Much!” My favorite was “Spelling Shuud Bee Lojical.”
I visited the SSS website[1] and found that they’ve existed since 1908. The organization has promoted what they refer to as spelling reform for nearly 100 years, and with little success from the look of it. The group’s north star is the alphabetic principle, defined on another page on their site[2] as “the letters in the alphabet were designed to represent speech sounds.” They would overhaul the spelling of thousands of English words to eliminate unpronounced and redundant letters, and base spelling on phonetics—words would be spelled how they sound.
But there you have why this is such a daft idea. The SSS wants us to spell words how they sound, which works fine for “enough” and “through” and “love” (which they advocate should be spelled l-u-v, a reform to be welcomed by text-messaging teenagers the world over), words which sound the same wherever you hear them spoken. Not every word is like that. English is spoken all over the world and it never quite sounds the same in one place as it does in another. In some cases, I grant you, the differences in accent or inflection wouldn’t affect the phonetic spelling a great deal; but in many others they would make the obvious spelling for one person indecipherable gibberish for someone else.
You don’t notice some of the differences in pronunciation until you hear them, and even then they’re easy to miss. My home state is Maryland, which I pronounce MARE-a-lund. I’ve heard others, some from other states and some from right around here, pronounce it MARE-lund. Some actually say it like it’s spelled: MARY-land. So which pronunciation is the right one? Which should be the basis for the new and improved phonetic spelling?
Here’s another local example: Baltimore. It’s the largest city in my state and I pronounce it “BALT-eh-more,” close to how it’s spelled. Other folks, including a lot of men and women who actually live in Baltimore, pronounce it BALL-mer, not articulating the “t” or the “i” at all. So what’s the better spelling for the city? “Balmer”?
Around here, in Washington County, a lot of us say “WARSH-ing-ton” instead of “WASH-ing-ton.” That’s called an intrusive R, and if you think it’s bad around here, take a listen to how they’re talking in Great Britain. “Champagne Supernovar,” anyone? The ancestors of the Brits are the people who invented English, so should the rest of us defer to them for our phonetic spellings? Should “idea” become “ideer”; or “drawing” be replaced by “droring”? It might make sense for the English-speaking Englishmen, but wouldn’t make much sense to us colonists, who pronounce things a lot differently.
And the above arguments don’t even touch on the disastrous blow such a radical overhaul of spelling would deal to English-speaking culture. The etymology of most of the language would be obliterated. Baltimore is named for the founder of the Maryland colony, Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore; he named his new colony “Maryland” in honor of Henrietta Maria, wife of then-English monarch King Charles I. The words carry their history in their spelling. “Baltimore, Maryland,” no matter how it’s pronounced, carries a meaning beyond its function as a name for a location; “Balmer, Marlund” tells us nothing except how to say it.
It isn’t just in words that name places or people; the history of the language and the cultures that shaped it is encoded in the spelling of every word. English is a remarkably open and flexible language, incorporating words from foreign languages, extrapolating new words from old ones, preserving the context and meaning through the spelling. Someone with sufficient education in etymology and philology can look at a word they’ve never seen before—for instance, “serrefine,” the final word spelled by 2007 National Spelling Bee winner Evan O’Dorney—and know that the word derives from French. If they happen to know a little French, they could tell you it translates literally as “fine clamp,” which is exactly what the word means in English, a small clamp used to close-off blood vessels.
I didn’t know any of that. I had to look it up. But I’m not an etymologist.
The folks in the SSS have their hearts in the right place, like many other misguided people. They see illiteracy and apathy toward education as a serious problem, and they’re right. They call teaching children how to spell a waste of time. They believe simplifying English spelling, making it more consistent and intuitive, is the answer. But from where I stand, the answer is exactly the opposite: spend more time teaching students how to spell, especially in the very early years.
A few days ago I was visiting my girlfriend at the library where she works, and this kid who couldn’t have been older than eleven or twelve walked up to the desk and asked her how to spell “rescue.” So she wrote it down for him. A few minutes later he reappeared, this time needing the spelling for “viper.” Not long after he was back again, requesting the spelling of “Mercedes.” After that one, the kid looks up at her and says “Wow, did you get an A in spelling or something?” Apparently the schools around here don’t place as much emphasis on spelling as they did when I was an elementary school student less than twenty years ago. It isn’t the fault of the teachers; education revolves around constant standardized assessment, and with so many tests to prepare the kids for, teachers have precious little time to actually teach.
But what could possibly be more important to the development of children like that boy at the library than learning the language of the country where they were born and will probably live the rest of their lives? It isn’t just important; it’s essential. Children should be taught to read and write—and spell—as soon as they’re old enough to grasp the concepts. They should be taught these things not as a chore, not as work, but as necessary and wonderful skills that will serve them the rest of their lives, allow them to communicate with others and express themselves in ways they can’t yet imagine.
The solution to illiteracy isn’t to rob the language of its historical and cultural heritage by simplifying the spelling. The solution is to teach more people to read better. Much easier said than done, I know, but a vastly superior option to the SSS suggestion that we dumb down our society even more.
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