TELEGRAPH WEEKEND. Saturday, August 14, 2004. p11. Parents & education.


A new BBC television series may be about to popularise spelling.

Last year, Michelle Plummer, a mother of three from Merthyr Tydfil, got David Beckham's name tattooed in inch-and-a-half letters on her back. When she got home, she found it read BECKAM. "I went berserk," she said. "I feel I've been scarred for life."

The same feeling must come over Dan Quayle, the former US Vice-President, every time he sees a video of that scene at a New Jersey spelling bee in 1992 when he persuaded a 12-year-old boy to add an "e" to potato.

Spelling bees are big in America. The Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee offers a prize of $12,000. It's not just the money, as the cult film Spellbound showed. Out of 10 million children who went in for it that year, only one could survive the thickets of desiccated eschscholtzias to win.

Now the BBC hopes to induce a similar frenzy from orthographic apiary through a television series called Hard Spell, due to broadcast in the autumn. "It will be a bit like Pop Idol," says the producer. What more glorious achievement could be imagined than to win it.

The trouble is that, as any fule kno, spelling doesn't count for much at school. An examiner marking an AS-level paper on classical civilisation a couple of years ago found a candidate had written "phedra is an inersent porn". (Phaedra is a character in a play by Euripides.) In the exam, five per cent of marks went to spelling and presentation. So the examiner awarded one mark out of five. Then the chief examiner told her to raise that one mark to three. When she blew the whistle on what she saw as a betrayal of standards, she got the sack.

Once youngsters apply for jobs, it is a different story. Spelling counts more than content. Employers use it as a yardstick for rejecting candidates. Pick up a guide to writing a CV and it will say: "Take care to check your spelling."

Civilisation always finds an arbitrary standard to select its winners. Thomas Gaisford, a 19th-century Oxford don, is chiefly remembered for his Christmas Day sermon at Christ Church cathedral, Oxford, in which he was supposed to have said: "Nor can I do better, in conclusion, than impress upon you the study of Greek literature, which not only elevates above the vulgar herd but leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument." That goes for spelling now.

It is not fair, but it is necessary. It's like potty training. Children aren't being asked to play the violin by the Suzuki method, for heaven's sake, just to spell. No, you can't play "Manhunt" on your PIayStation till you've learnt how to spell minuscule.

Everyone is repelled by bad spelling. Research by the Royal Mail indicates that mistakes in spelling and grammar cost British businesses £700 million a year. I can't quite see how it came up with that sum, but I hate my bank sending me half-literate letters. Yet their profits have just risen. No matter.

Spelling is so important because written English is the least phonetic of any alphabetic language. French is bad, but not as bad as English. For a start, English has preserved as fossils the written vowel, system familiar to Chaucer, since whose day it has shifted round completely in speech. Throw in a few arbitrary conventions of early printers (the lovely "gh" in ghost), a few erroneous classicisms (such as scissors) and imported spellings (graffiti, cappuccino) and it is hours of fun for all the family.

What fox me are the doubled letters. Most follow rules (rebutted, but riveted, according to the stress), but then come googlies such as harassed and embarrassed, and then travelled, where the "l" is apparently doubled just to show that we aren't American.

Those who want to reform spelling are silly fools like George Bernard Shaw. He made that joke about fish being spelled ghoti - you know the one - using the "gh" from cough, the "o" from women, and the "ti" from motion. It is impossible to reform spelling, or at least impossible without making extant books unreadable.

These are the Three Golden Certainties of English spelling: one, it's easier than Chinese; two, no one can always spell everything; three, you need a dictionary to hand.

Though crosswords delight millions and Scrabble is popular, neither is exactly cool. So I doubt if the bees in the BBC's bonnet will stinging a new generation into a love of spelling for its own sake. Instead all they must learn is: spelling means money.

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