[Also on this page: Vivian Cook book extracts Guardian, Western Mail. See also Media and Spelbites.]

TES (Times Educational Supplement) TEACHER. September 24 2004. Subject Focus: English. p22. [Extracts.]

Breaking out of the spell.

The spelling police might be on the look-out for 'mistakes', but modern texting conventions may point to a rich creativity with the language, says Vivian Cook.
When people discuss spelling, they tend to be in one of two moods. One is angry criticism of people who have the presumption to make spelling mistakes ... The other mood is regret for the declining standards of society ...

... the current orthography of English ... works for billions of people around the world, some of whom have great difficulty in understanding spoken English ...

English has complex rules for these links, examples being:
In modern English, the past tense ending is spelled as "ed" regardless of whether it is said as "t" as in "cooked"; "id" as in "waited"; or "d" as in played". In other words, "ed" is a symbol of past tense meaning, not of particular sounds. However, until the late 18th century, spelling tried to show the actual pronunciation. From 1613 to 1760, the "d" spelling was most common, as in "strain'd", with variants such as "t" as in "dropt". It was only after about 1760 that "edv firmly took over as a meaning-based part of English spelling.

Spelling has to adapt to new times and new technology, like anything else. Take the way people use emails, text messages or chat-rooms, ... One convention is to use acronyms for phrases - eg LOL (laughing out loud) and BRB (be right back). This has a long tradition in informal English. TTFN (ta-ta for now) and asap (as soon as possible) go back many years.

A pervasive texting convention is the use of letters or numbers as words - "c u 18er" for "see you later". Devotees claim this shortens messages and makes them faster to key in. However this convention has probably also existed for many years - eg pub notices (R U 18?) and pop-group names (4-Hero).

Beyond this, quite evidently many people feel spelling is fun. Why else would they choose to call their car "PS9 CHO", their house "Llamedos" (spell it backwards) or their racehorse "Funny Cidev?

[An inset section of Portia's speech in Act IV, The Merchant of Venice, showed spellings of Shakespeare's time. 'Inside the chatroom' showed texting abbreviations.]

Guardian Unlimited. September 15, 2004. [Extracts from the extract!]

Should we worry about English spelling?

Weird or wierd? Minuscule or miniscule? Spelling has stumped, intrigued and infuriated us for centuries. In his new book, Vivian Cook, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Newcastle, talks us through every aspect of the English spelling system, from silent letters and hyphenation to Americanisms and txt spk.

Extract from Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary : or, why can't anybody spell? by Vivian Cook (Profile Books). 2004.

Many people argue that English spelling is simply awful. Six out of 10 15-year-olds can't write 10 lines without making at least one spelling mistake and adults struggle with words such as accommodate and broccoli all their lives.

By contrast, Noam Chomsky, the greatest linguist of our time, claims the current spelling of English is 'a near optimal system'. He feels that spelling that departs from the pronunciation sometimes helps us to understand what we are reading. Silent letters like the 'g' in sign [and] signature; the fact the past tense ending '-ed' is said in three different ways, 't' (liked), 'd' (played), 'id' (waited) but written in only one, '-ed', makes clear their common meaning.

The difference between Shaw and Chomsky comes down to how they think spelling works. One of its functions is indeed to show the sounds of words. Italian or Finnish use such links virtually all the time. But in English the correspondence between letters and sounds is usually much less straight-forward.

With some written symbols, you either know what they mean or you don't have any idea, say '£', '#' or '%'. You do not have to know how they are said to get their meaning. The second function of spelling is then to show what words mean.

English spelling is far more systematic than most people suspect. The most well-known rule 'i before e except after c' applies to only 11 out of the 10,000 most common words of English - eight forms of receive, plus ceiling, receipt and perceive.

All this change and outside influence has meant that English spelling now presents a rich set of possibilities for our use and entertainment. Pop-groups call themselves: the Beatles, Eminem and Sugababes. Novelists hint at dialects. Text messages cut down the number of letters: Wot time r u goin 2 b home?

It is indeed important for the international use of English that it is not too closely tied to speech.

So do we need to get excited about the frequent mistakes that people make when using the English writing system? Mistakes don't necessarily prevent us understanding the message. ... The most talented writers make spelling mistakes. Keats once spelled fruit as furuit, W.B. Yeats wrote peculiarities as peculeraritys, and Hemingway wrote professional as proffessional. Does this detract in any way from their achievements?

Attempts to meddle with the spelling without this kind of factual basis have often been disastrous in the past, landng us with the 'b' of debt and the 'c' of scissors.

Rather than continually carping about the decline of the English language, as people have been doing since at least the 16th century, we should try to understand and develop the amazing resource that is available to us.

28 aug 2004. The Western Mail.

What are words worth?

Linguistics professor Vivian Cook, Accomodating Brocolli In The Cemetary.

"If you have a 'k' sound, in old English system it might be spelt with a 'k', like 'kill'. In the Romance language it might be 'ch', like 'choral'. And in the exotic system it might be spelt with a single 'k', as in 'mark', which would be 'ck' in basic spelling."

"We were landed with things like the 'b' in 'debt', because people thought English had to be more like Latin, so they added a 'b' to things like 'debt' and 'subtle', sometimes getting it completely wrong," explains Cook.

"The most famous one was the word 'admiral', which didn't originally have a 'd' in it. They thought it was to do with the Latin word 'ad-miral'. In fact, it came from the Persian 'amir', meaning prince. There's no reason for a 'd' whatsoever."

"In Dutch, at the beginning of a word you have 'gh' not 'g', so we now have a whole range of words like 'ghost', 'ghastly', 'aghast' and 'gherkin' because of a printing mistake."

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