On this page: Valerie Yule, Masha Bell, John Wells, Niall Waldman, Chris Jolly, Niall Waldman.

SSS members in the media Oct-Dec 2004.

22 December 2004. Australian Style.

A Wave of Spelling. Valerie Yule.

(The cartoon illustration is of a graffiti wall with scrawls - teechers ar stoopid, no mor rulz, skool stincks - and the title a misspelt youth.)

Following the phenomenal success of Lynne Truss' funny book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, the next linguistic topic that is no longer a no-no for general publishing is spelling. A whole cavalcade of books on spelling have been published recently: linguist Vivian Cook's entertaining miscellany, Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary; Masha Bell's Understanding English Spelling, a readable and thorough account plus 148 exhaustive pages of analyses; Niall Waldman's Spelling Dearest: The Down and Dirty, Nitty-Gritty History of English Spelling, with its relentless detail, a superb caricature of the major historical personality in each chapter and a title intentionally resonant of Joan Crawford's ironic Mommy Dearest; and the new edition of the Bloomsbury English Dictionary, now including the 1,000 words which cause most spelling problems and slip-ups. There is still room for another funny book that explores even further. Look out for The Book of Spells and Misspells, 2005.

As an example of these riches, what can we can learn from Vivian Cook's new little bestseller (bestspeller) with its cover showing a broccoli in a symbolic graveyard of spelling? Certainly the content fully answers its subtitle - 'Why can't anybody spell?' Most readers will never be able to spell broccoli, accommodating or cemetery correctly again. Its hilarious collection of current practices and past history shows that, for the average adult, English spelling is in an even worse mess than might be imagined, that the system is somewhere under an immense mass of brambles needing to be cleared up, and that English spelling is not necessarily petrified, it has changed and is changing. People who can only remember bits of the classic alphabet A for Orses, B for Mutton will be glad to have the whole of it, although a list of tongue-twisters does not include the deadliest - 'Slowly by the stern the sinking steamer sank.' And to rub it in that not many people can spell, there are 23 pages of rueful jokes about spelling mistakes.

Professor Cook tries to be even-handed about spelling. On the one hand he admires its 'rich and fertile creation', deploring disastrous attempts to meddle with it in the past, and giving the mistaken impression that Noam Chomksy would oppose change. On the other he admits that 'English spelling is fiendish' and 'probably only one in a hundred people have truly mastered it.' 'Thankfully, English lends itself to innovation.' For some spelling mistakes, the writers may need help, 'or the spelling system itself may need modifying'. Spelling is not to be seen as 'carved on tablets of stone', but 'we should try to understand and develop this amazing resource.'

Wider interest in issues of spelling and literacy are evident in various quarters of the English-speaking world. In America the National Spelling Bee has had a boom revival, as evidenced by the popularity of the film documentary, Spellbound. The Great British Spelling Test on British ITV 1 on October 20 had 5.27 million viewers - 23.1% market share. This is to be followed by two television Spelling Bees and a BBC game show called Hard Spell, hunting for the nation's top speller. In Australia, the national competition Ozspell was televised last year.

I hope that this media attention will allow public discussion and academic research to turn to how English spelling can be developed without further uncoordinated chaos. Meanwhile, cross-cultural research demonstrates that English spelling really does handicap English-language literacy and access to the printed word. Books are still superior to the Internet as a medium for connected thought, yet borrowing from British libraries has declined by a third in the past eight years and is still falling.

Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary. London: Profile Books, 2004. ISBN 1-86197-623-2.

Understanding English Spelling. Cambridge: Pegusus Educational, 2004. ISBN 1-903490-12-X.

Spelling Dearest : The Down and Dirty, Nitty-Gritty History of English Spelling, 2004. ISBN Electronic Book 1418459062, Paperback 1418453307.

17 December 2004. Times Educational Supplement.

MPs told to chaynj ilogical spelings.

Up to 80 English words should be changed to a phonetic spelling to make it easier for children to learn to read, a literacy expert has claimed.

Masha Bell, [SSS member] a former teacher and author of books on spelling, said it was unfair to compare the achievements of English-speaking children with those of other countries because of irregularities in English spelling.

"Pupils in this country start their school lives with a disadvantage, and that is the orthography of the English language," she said.

"The spelling is unpredictable and illogical and it is time that we seriously considered reforming the way some words are spelt. We try to teach phonics but the truth is many words have to be learned by sight and memory because phonetic rules don't apply."

Ms Bell, who has written a book called Understanding English spelling and speaks six languages fluently has submitted written evidence to the Commons education select committee, which is looking at the teaching of reading in primary schools.

She has compiled a list of 80 words which she believes are impossible for young children to decode phonetically because they are not written as they are said.

They include words such as book, should and push which have the same sound but are spelt differently. She is also concerned about "silent" letters in words such as write and believe, and words such as brother and another where the "o" sounds like a "u".

Overall, however, Ms Bell believes there are more than 2,000 common words which pose problems for young readers, and foreigners learning English.

She said: "In virtually all other European languages identical letters spell that it is inappropriate to look to other countries for guidance on the teaching of reading in the UK."

She added that the irregular spelling was the reason why "poor literacy standards are common to all English-speaking countries".

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the select committee, said: "Ms Bell may well have a point, but the committee won't be jumping to any fast conclusions. This area is fraught with ideological problems, which we did not dream of when we began the inquiry."

Dorothy Lepkowska.

New spellings suggested by Masha Bell:

are-ar; give-giv; have-hav; live-liv; gone-gon; were-wer; head-hed; learn-lern; read-red; friend-frend; believe-beleve; four-for; you-u; your-yor; oh-o; write-rite; wrong-rong; beautiful-butiful; suddenly-sudnly; mountains-mountins or mountans.

15 December 2004. BBC World Service: Outlook.

Professor John Wells, SSS president took part in this 15 minute section of the program.
"Spelling is the new cool. As televised spelling competitions seem to be gaining in popularity around the world, we discussed why some many children - and adults - just love to spell words correctly. We heard what the most challenging words are and put them to the test in our very own Outlook spelling competition."

10 December 2004. The Times-Picayune, New Orleans.

How do you spell that?

The English language is a spell-checker's worst nightmare. Angus Lind.

To the surprize of absolootely no one, we have evolved into a nashun of pore spellers.

And maybe the teachers, the students and computer spell-checkers aren't entirely to blame.

Because when Niall Waldman's son asked him a good question about his spelling test, Pops was caught off guard.

"Dad," he asked, "why when we add 's' to the words 'baby' and 'lady' do we change the y's to ie's, yet last week when we added -ing to the words 'die' and 'tie,' we changed the ie's to y's first?"

Waldman, an active member of the American Literary Council and the Simplified Spelling Society, didn't have a clue.

So he embarked on a lengthy research project to find some sort of answer to this question and others about the English language, which he believes has "the worst alphabetic spelling system in the world."

"Spelling Dearest: The Down and Dirty Nitty-Gritty History of English Spelling" (What the Dickens Press) is the result. It's an informative, free-flow, humorous and historic look at how we screwed up so badly for so many years, the result being this annoying, nonsensical hodgepodge of a spelling system.

There are so many people responsible for what we're stuck with today and so much history involved, it would be difficult to blame any one person or any one era. You can go back to Olde English and blame the monks who were the scribes, you can blame regional spellings and traditional spellings and you can blame the typesetters and printers.

What we now spell "heaven" was, back then, heofon, heofen, and heofne. "Evil" was yfle, yfel and yfele. "Forgive" was forgif, forgef and forgeaf.

You can even blame the Renaissance period, when literally thousands of words from many different languages became part of the English language.

But no one, said Waldman, ever stuck to "the crazy old notion that spelling should represent the actual sound of words."

We're spinning along fast now, but Waldman believes the guy who had a chance to change things and totally blew it was a British schoolmaster named Edmund Coote.

You can't make up names like that.

In 1596, Coote published the first comprehensive English spelling book. It was the perfect opportunity, according to Waldman, because of "a spelling system in turmoil and an educated public ready for change." But instead of coming up with a terse, simplified system of his own by picking the best of the many spellings that were in use at the time, he dropped the ball.

"He picked his spellings, to a noticeable extent," said Waldman, "from the variants most frequently in print." Here's how it shook out:

For the seasoning, time, tyme, thime and thyme were in use. Coote chose thyme.

Roge, roag, roage and rogue were in use for scoundrel. He chose rogue.

Monark, monarke, monarck and monarch were out there for the ruler. He chose monarch.

Coote could have righted the ship but he sunk it, says Waldman. "He was dead against the wholesale simplification of spelling. He thought it was too unlike the spelling they had back then. He can say that again. Simplified spelling is good, it works, it's easy to learn and it's sensible - that's nothing like the spelling system that existed then."

Consequently, we now have a never-ending list of things that make spelling difficult for our increasingly spelling-challenged children. A few he cites:

Too many words that sound the same but are spelled differently, such as rain, rein and reign or poor, pour and pore. More than our share of words that sound different but are spelled the same, such as tear (eye fluid) and tear (to rip apart).

Then there are what he calls "nuisance spellings" such as colonel, queue and choir.

There are also too many silent consonants, like the "l" in walk and the t in mortgage, too many double letters like the "p" in sapphire and the double-"u" in vacuum. Then there are the different spellings for sounds. The "sh" sound, he points out, has 19 spellings, including "ss" in issue, "sc" in crescendo, "ch" in chute, "ce" in ocean and a single "t" in negotiate.

Coote's concern with simplified spelling, he believes, had little to do with spelling, but more to do with reading. He worried that the kids who learned simplified spelling at school would have a tough time reading the literature already in print.

Faulty logic, says Waldman, a Scot who lives in Ontario. All Coote did was perpetuate a complex spelling system.

Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster also had a shot at changing things. But in Dr. Johnson's dictionary he listed hark yet hearken, high yet height, rough yet ruffian, four yet forty and speak yet speech. Webster made some mild improvements, if you want to call them that, over preferred British spellings. Axe was shortened to ax, colour to color, flavour to flavor, plough to plow.

Webster, says Waldman, was not much of a reformer. If we ever give it another shot, we should do something really worthwhile.

"Because with all due respect, I don't consider American spelling to be worthwhile," he said. "I think it's a step up from the British spelling, but then so is hieroglyphics. The truth is, American spelling is not much different than its British counterpart, so it was hardly worth the effort to change it."

This is all pretty depressing. But now you've got more excuses for being a bad speller.

29 November 2004. BBC Radio 4. Today. 8.20am.

The interviewer, Sarah Montague, mentioned Hard Spell on BBC 1, the first-ever national spelling competition which is for 11 to 14-year-olds. The idea is to find the best young speller in the country. [Clip of one child getting upset and tearful; another child spelling words successfully and being applauded.] Five winners will be coming to London.

Sarah introduced Michael Gove the deputy editor of The Times, and a Tory candidate, a champion speller and Chris Jolly SSS committee member, trustee and ex-chair.

SM. Michael Gove, why does spelling matter?

MG. I think it's a great skill for anyone to have. And I think that spelling actually is the key that unlocks the rest of the English language. In a way it's a bit like reading musical notation. We can enjoy music. Indeed some of us, not me, are clever enough to play by ear. But if you understand musical notation, a whole wonderful world is opened up to you. Spelling is understanding how the whole English language is put together, how each of the building blocks move together in order to create words. That gives the English language a sense of glory and romance because it is through spelling that we understand the different roots, the etymology of the words, that we have a full understanding of everything the language can do for us.

SM. Chris Jolly, you don't appreciate the English language in that way do you, because you have got all sorts of plans for it?

CJ. I certainly appreciate the English language, but I think the representation of it in spelling is made remarkably difficult for young children to acquire the language.

SM. What do you want?

CJ. I'd like to see the spelling simplified, in other words, the words more closely resemble how they are said. Then it would be easier to spell them.

SM. So, examples? Words like 'have' spelt 'h-a-v'?

CJ. Yes. A word like 'shone', spelt 's-h-o-n', a word like 'friend', 'f-r-e-n-d'.

SM. Michael Gove, what do you think of that?

MG. Well in a way, we are already seeing this happen, of course, through the proliferation of text messaging. And there is already in that sense, a collapse of traditional spelling. I don't mind informal spelling in all sorts of contexts, like texts and so on, but I think the important thing is that traditional spelling, the way we have understood the English language, actually helps us understand and learn the English language. The simplification that Mr Jolly is arguing for robs us of the historical roots and the etymology of particular words. That means that when we look where words come from, it has been rubbed out in a desire to homogenise them. And I think one of the terrible things that is happening in our world and in Britain at the moment is a trend towards modernisation. We lose any sense of where things have come from, at what the traditions are, what the roots are, and we end up, instead of having a wonderful variety in forming and enriching our language, we tend to have a homogenised Dairy Lea style language.

SM. The Chris Jolly do you accept that?

CJ. Not at all. The way a word is spelt is a poor guide to its etymology and its history. Historical records of words are well-known and well-documented. For example, it has been thought the word 'delight' is rather like the word 'light' which comes from the German word, 'licht', and that's why it's spelt the way it is. But this is not so. In fact it comes from a French root, from the same root as 'delectare'. So the way words are spelt are often gives us the wrong and....

SM. Chris, you must think the idea of this program is horrific.

CJ. On the contrary, I think that having children know how to spell words is right. My point is that the spelling they are obliged to learn, should change, it should be made more simple. We lose nothing by doing so, but we make the language easier to learn.

SM. We heard a child in that clip weeping. Michael Gove, judging by the competition you said you were in recently, you would have sympathy with her.

MG. I went along to take part in the adult version. I have enormous sympathy with the teenagers going through this. It takes a lot of courage to go up on the stage and spell these words. But I think that stretching yourself, these sorts of contests, are tremendously good. We all know that children love competitions. If you are fit and able, then of course competitive sport is fantastic. If you are someone like me who was more of a spod or a flob than a jock at school, then this sort of competition provides an opportunity to test yourself or stretch yourself.

Then followed a spelling test for Michael Gove, in which he did not do very well!!!

21 October 2004. PrimeZone (press release) - United States, Canada.

The Atrocity of English Spelling - Author Offers Humorous History of Transformation of Spelling System

According to Niall McLeod Waldman, the English language has "the worst alphabetic spelling system in the world," which was brought about more by historical events and people than the words themselves. In Spelling Dearest: The Down and Dirty, Nitty-Gritty History of English Spelling (now available through AuthorHouse), he offers an irreverent, witty explanation of what went wrong.

By chronicling the major happenings and minor annoyances that shaped English spelling, he shines some light on why nonsensical spelling rules continue to plague many English speakers. Spelling Dearest tracks the evolution of English spelling, from its religious beginning at the end of the sixth century to the "ungodly mess it's in now," Waldman writes. Shocking facts and "dirty little secrets" are revealed as he describes the individuals who helped create (or missed the opportunity to fix) the crippled spelling system. Dr. Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster and many others had a hand in shaping spelling's "turbulent and traumatic history."

Written in a wildly clever, satirical style, Spelling Dearest adopts the attitude of the "little guy fighting back." Waldman weaves quirky personalities, egotistical antics and thorough research to present a rare glimpse at "the worst of the worst spelling systems in the world." He also poses an interesting question: Could such a complex spelling system be the cause of the high number of functional illiterates in the U.S. and Canada?

In these countries, "seventeen to 24 percent of the adult population is functionally illiterate, whereas in countries with more phonetic spelling systems, such as Finland and Germany, the figures are about half that amount," Waldman writes. "Nothing we've ever done to improve our teaching methods ever closes that gap significantly because we're fighting an uphill battle with downhill skis. We don't have the correct equipment for the task: an easily understandable spelling system."

Light-hearted and entertaining with a serious core, Spelling Dearest ignited spirited debate from expert panelists and educated listeners during a recently aired CBC radio program.

Waldman, born and educated in Glasgow, Scotland, immigrated to North America in 1974. Ten years of research and his lengthy association with groups such as the American Literacy Council and Simplified Spelling Society led him to publish Spelling Dearest. He also created the pen-and-ink illustrations in the book, which provide a visual representation of the key characters involved in the history.

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