'i before e except after c'.

BBC Radio 4, Saturday 1 March 2003. 10.30am.


[The program covered most aspects of spelling, except the irregularity of English spelling compared with other languages and the spelling reforms carried out by other countries. Here are excerpts, re-arranged in themes.]

Presenter Martin Wainwright finds out why some people can spell and others can't. Producer Anna Buckley.

1. Celebrities Beryl Bainbridge and Noddy Holder.
2. Tricky spellings discussed during the program.
3. Bernard Shaw and 'ghoti'.
4. Teachers and children.
5. Show-off spellers.
6. Richard Wade and free speling.
7. Text messaging. Andrew Wilson.
8. Dyslexia experts, John Stein and Maggie Snowling.
9. Dictionary editor, John Simpson.
10. Tony Fox defends current spelling.

1. Celebrities Beryl Bainbridge and Noddy Holder.

MW. It's five years now since the Government introduced its National Literacy Scheme, but our spelling's getting no better. We live in a world with 'Kwik-Fix' and 'Drive-thru' with a 'u', not to mention text messages and slap-dash e-mail.

MW. Beryl Bainbridge has been short-listed for the Booker Prize six times, yet she stumbles over this basic tool of her trade, spelling, that nightmare for so many of us, horror words like 'separate'; stumbling attempts to apply the childhood rules.

BB. I'm not proud of not being able to spell properly. I'm quite ashamed of it in a way. If I'm writing a letter by hand, I will put at the bottom, "Excuse spelling. In a rush."

MW. Noddy Holder and his rock band Slade, 30 years ago.

NH. The first title that we did mis-spelling on a record was 'Cuz I luv u'. I'd written it down fonetically in our dialect, our Black Country dialect. We used that and it got such a great reaction from people, of how unusual it was at the time. We had 'Cum on, feel the noize,' and 'Luk wot u dun'.

There was such an uproar about us, supposedly, influencing kids to spell wrongly. Quite frankly, I don't see anything wrong with spelling things exactly as they sound.


2. Tricky spellings discussed during the program.

'Chrysanthemum, definite, glorious, recognize, focuses, accommodate, bicycle, preciousness, demagogue, pronunciation, separate, accommodation, 'e's at the ends of words, the minefield of plurals e-y-s/i-e-s.

NH. 'sincerely' always catches me out. I don't know whether it is 'ely' or 'ley'. Or there is no 'e' at all there.

BB. 'physician', 'psychology' I fiddle about with it and say 'Oh to hell with it', and just put it down, the nearest thing I can get to it. 'Window'. You might think it is 'd-o-u-g-h' at the end, mightn't you? 'Win', you might think w-y-n. 'Necessary'. Oh, I've, long ago, given up knowing how many 'c's and 's'es, so I put as many as I can afford.

I look in a thesaurus to find another word. But if you can't spell the first word you are looking up, it's very difficult to use. It's the same with a dictionary, you see.


3. Bernard Shaw and 'ghoti'.

MW. Bernard Shaw is famous for his plays. But spelling reform was his real passion. He left all his money to fund the competition for a new system. And he loved poking fun at the apparently odd mismatch of spellings and sounds in English. Have you seen the Bernard Shaw thing? Can you guess what this word is? g-h-o-t-i. And obviously it is a trick. It means 'fish', gh is /f/ as in cough, o is /i/ as in women, ti is pronounced /sh/ as in function.

Conventional, proper spelling has its 'ghotis'. A heartfelt poem in the Sunday Times dealt with one:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.

4. Teachers and children.

MW. Primary school teacher, Charlotte Pendlebury, St Peter's school in Rawdon, Leeds, takes a class of 7 year olds over the hurdles of fonemes, the word-sounds central to today's National Curriculum. And much older challenges like the 'curly' /k/ and the 'kicking' /k/. And terrible traps, which her retired colleag, Sylvia Dennison well remembers.

CP: And what did magic 'e' do? Makes the vowel say its name. Well done. What are the vowels? Children. a-e-i-o-u.

SD. Small children get 'said' wrong such a lot, and 'they'. They put an 'a' in instead of 'e'. And 'went' is quite a tricky word. They confuse it with 'when' and don't know whether to put an 'h' in or not.

CP. Yes, 'what'. They nearly always miss the 't'. 'when'. They forget the 'h'. Or forget the 'e'. Yes, poor little things. Yes. But you just keep rolling them over, just keep giving them again and again until in the end they get so used to them.

Children trying to sound out words. l-ike like. jer-arf jraffe.
MW. That is a hard one. Can you spell 'giraffe'?
Children. No.
Children. l-arf laugh!

SD. 'castle'. I would point out the 't' and say, 'well we don't sound the 't' but it's there'. I can't give any reason for it, but they just have to take my word for it . And a word like 'friend'. Children write that such a lot, and they invariably forget the 'i'. And I just have to say to them, "Say to your next-door neighbour, 'You are my fri-end'" and hope that that would stick.

CP. 'or'. We have been doing this week about six different ways of writing 'or'; you know, o-r, a-w, a-u, -o-u-g-h like in 'bought'. I have to apologise for the English language. It is difficult for them all the time.

SD dictating to class. 'Jim is thin' And he's not a fish with a fin. Look at me. Watch my mouth. Watch! Watch! 'thin' not 'fin'.

SP. 'er' How many 'er's are there? /i-r, u-r/ and ? Not /a-r/. That's /ar/.

MW. Is it worth it in the end?

SP. They get a lot of satisfaction, I think, when they can spell them. And it's rich, isn't it? And at least it's never boring.

MW. That Government strategy for teaching spelling, the initial teaching alfabet, clicked with Slade's fonetics. But it was anything but simple. To help children get started it created 14 new letters, for sounds like /oo/ and /th/.

CP. My God, was that a dire thing. It was learning some alfabet, which didn't seem to bear a great deal of resemblance to the alfabet that we all know and love and use. And I couldn't really see the point of it at all. It just seemed to me that it was a bit of a backward step.


5. Show-off spellers.

MW. It's a challenge that some children relish. My finest hour was spelling 'floccinaucinihilipilification' that's 29 letters, one letter longer than the famous 'antidisestablishmentarianism'.

Pratish Bedida is only 13, but he won the national spelling competition last year in the United States.

PB. I think I realised I was a good speller in second grade which is when I was seven. I'd take extra words like 'ventriloquist', when other kids were learning stuff like 'cat' and easier ones like that. This word will probably never be used in competition, but the word I would use to trick everyone out would be the longest word in the English language which is 'pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis'. It's 45 letters.


6. Richard Wade and free speling.

MW. Richard Wade had a distinguished career in broadcasting and public administration. But he has given it all up to run the campaign for free speling - that's speling with only one 'l' please note. The message is - liberation. Don't spend hours agonizing over odd words! Just spell them as you like.

RW. Quite a lot of people, who in every other way perform extremely well, but spell badly, would be very, very good at doing job A or job B, but they simply don't get the interview because they have spelt it wrong. I think that attitude should go.

What I'm proposing is that one should free-spel, that is, on any given page, if there are two or three words, half a dozen words, which you find difficult, and you can't remember whether the word 'personnel' has one 'n' or two, don't worry, just spell it the way you've got it.

It was my fortieth birthday. I got a birthday card from my boss on Radio 4 - that's 'f-o-u-r', and they'd printed it with the word 'forty' f-o-r-t-y. And I thought "You know, this is just ridiculous. You've got 'fourteen, forty, fortieth, fourteenth, four'. We need to do something about this."

People who are most opposed to changing spelling, are of course, the intelligent, articulate people, who are broadcasters or writers or whoever they may be, because they have invested a lot of intellectual capital in it, and it is also a very nice class distinction between those who can and those who can't.


7. Text messaging. Andrew Wilson.

MW. The beeping youthful world of texting now sends 50 million messages a day from mobile fones. Not to mention e-mails awash with short cuts like L-O-L, meaning 'laugh out loud'. Andrew Wilson is editing a book of text message poems.

AW. People need to write in a concise way and they need to save their thumbs from hurting. Those two things are driving people to invent their own spelling. In a text message, you can only write 160 characters, so you've got to keep it short, basically. 'wait. That's spelt w-8. That's one of my favourites, using the number 8 in that way, because I think it just looks cute. And 'later' spelt 'l8r'.

MW. They are very disconcerting when you first see them. One starts, 'omg, jst mt yr bf! 'Oh my god, just met your boyfriend.' That is a pretty good condensation. They have got those words down to 12 letters.


8. Dyslexia experts, John Stein and Maggie Snowling.

Professor John Stein, physiologist at Oxford University [and the National Dyslexia Trust]:
Many children who have problems with reading and spelling, have problems with controlling their eye-movements so that their eyes don't fixate steadily on the letters they are trying to read, but they sort of slip from one to the other, and therefore the order of the letters that they are looking at slip and therefore they can't build up a good representation of the correct spelling of words. I think there is a spectrum of abilities on the visual side of reading and writing that goes from the extremely good, thru to the extremely poor, who you would call dyslexic, and just plain bad spellers are somewhere in the middle. Just plain bad spellers don't have as good a representation of the visual form of words, or their orthografy as we call it, as do others who have a better visual memory. And exactly the same is true, by the way, on the fonological side, on the auditory side. Some people have very good representation. They remember and pronounce a word like 'antidisestablishmentarianism'. Others would have huge problems with it, even tho it is perfectly regular, because they don't have such good representation of the sounds that letters are meant to stand for and the order in which they should come out.

My idea is that we can produce tests that you can administer to children before they learn to read to find out where their weakness is going to lie, and these will be basic visual tests where we test people's ability to spot fine visual motion. There are similar kinds of tests that you can use on the auditory side. When you tell the difference between different letters, like when I say /b/ or /d/, you are actually picking up on changes in frequency that occur during the utterance of those sounds. And that change in frequency happens over a short period of time. So people who can detect change in frequency of this sort well, are going to be good at phonological kinds of things for their reading. Ones who are less good at that and find it difficult to order them properly are going to be bad. So, it won't be long at all before we have tests and we will be able to say, 'Ah, you've got a weakness in the visual side; you've got a weakness in the fonological side. These are the kinds of teaching methods that we feel will help you. And I think, to a large extent, armed with this knowledge, we will be able to compensate for any differences in the brain. I wouldn't like to call them damage to the brain in a child. They are just differences in the brain.

Maggie Snowling, professor of psychology at York University, [a vice-president of the British Dyslexia Association]:
What we know is that some language skills, particularly the ability to process speech-sounds, seem critical to learning to spell. What children seem to me to have to do, in order to learn to spell, is to be able to reflect on words at the level of the individual sounds in words.

What we think is that, the reason that some good readers are poor spellers is actually because they are really too good at reading, so typically these people would have very good linguistic skills. They'll have a very good vocabulary. They'll probably read very, very quickly and they may even skim-read to some extent. They are the sort of people, who, maybe if they are reading a Russian novel, would just miss out all the names because they would just sort of pick up the gist of the name and be able to continue and still follow the story. All this is excellent in terms of the efficiency of the reader. What they are not doing is abstracting the kind of detailed information from words on the page that they need to learn about the irregularities of English. So when they come to spell, they can't remember if it is a double-letter or they can't remember if it is t-i-o-n, or c-i-a-n, so what they have to do is to resort to a fonetic version or else just the most frequent way those sounds are represented in the language.

Commonly people think poor spellers are either uneducated or else just lazy. I think neither of these things are true. These are intelligent people, often very intelligent. It's a pattern of individual difference.


9. Dictionary editor, John Simpson.

MW. So who made the rules? Even Shakespeare famously spelt his own name in a variety of ways? Dr Samuel Johnson is the man who usually gets the blame. Critics reckon that our crisis set in with his famous standardizing dictionary, published in 1755. Today, the doctor's role is played by the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, John Simpson.

JS. We want to see what is the most frequent form of a word in a given variety of English. We are not working on rules.


10. Tony Fox defends current spelling.

MW. Dr Tony Fox, from Leeds University, is an eloquent defender of English as she is spelled.

TF. One could, of course, say in English, that the letter 'c' is totally unnecessary and in fact, it is a nuisance, because it could easily be replaced by 'k' on the one hand, the kicking 'k'. But in fact, not in all words, but in a number of words, this is actually quite useful, this ambiguity of the letter. For example, let's take a lot of words ending in 'ic' like 'electric'. Now you could say, "Let's spell it '-ik'." That makes more sense.

But what about 'electricity'? In this case, the 'c' suddenly is changed into an 's'. That is very regular. Take any word ending in '-ic' like that, add 'ity' and it is automatically pronounced 's'. If you like, 'c' is a kind of symbol to indicate this is pronounced 'k' in some contexts and 's' in others. That is very useful. What it does it to preserve the picture of the word 'electric' no matter what you do to it. And other things happen in other contexts. For example, 'electrician'. There you've got the 'ci' is now 'sh'.

It has been estimated that between 90 and 95% of words in English are spelt regularly. Of course the rules are a bit complicated. It is not that all the words are spelt in such a way that there is one letter for every sound and one sound for every letter. It doesn't work that way. But nevertheless, there are rules to be observed.

MW. That is a very good defense, but can you defend the terrible 'o-u-g-h'? I think there are seven sounds for 'ough'. Is there a rule?

TF. In a word, no. I think that to defend that would be indefensible, except on grounds that most of us manage to cope perfectly well with the 'o-u-g-h'es. You could argue that because there is a lot of history in our spelling, its historical spelling system, you might even say that to abolish the present spelling system would be something like demolishing a listed building. You might adapt it, you might want to tinker with it here and there to make it a bit better, but you wouldn't knock it down. And the same thing could be said about English spelling. It is such a fascinating monument to the language.


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