In 1855, publisher Charles Ollier sent a letter to a friend in which he mentioned that his son had come up with a new way to spell the word “fish”. This went on to become the famous example that many gleefully use to point out the inconsistencies of English. The revised spelling was ghoti: gh as in rough, o as in women, and ti as in nation.
For all you know, this could appear in classrooms soon. According to recent reports in the British press, university tutors are being told not to deduct marks for spelling mistakes because requiring good English could be seen as “homogenous north European, white, male, elite”.
Such “inclusive assessments” are part of an effort to narrow the attainment gap between white and black, Asian and minority ethnic students and to reduce higher dropout rates among those from poorer backgrounds. In Worcester University, for example, academics have been told that if spelling, grammar and punctuation are not central to assessments, students should be judged only on ideas and knowledge of the subject.
Certainly and unhesitatingly, allowances should be made for those facing difficulties with the English language, for whatever reason. And spellings need not be given undue weight in scientific and allied subjects. But to use this as a free pass for errors in general sounds misplaced.
There’s no denying that English spellings – among other aspects – are notoriously erratic. Many have called for reform. George Bernard Shaw, for example, felt that “consistency is not always a virtue; but spelling becomes a will o' the wisp without it.” And Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “the present bad spelling is only bad because contrary to the present bad rules: under the new rules it would be good.”
Such concerns appear to be corroborated by a Dundee University study which found that children learning to read and write in English are slower to master it than other European youngsters learning their own language. It was likely, researchers said, that factors such as complex syllable structures and an inconsistent spelling system were responsible.
How did this come about? As linguist James Harbeck has pointed out, it’s “a story of invasions, thefts, sloth, caprice, mistakes, pride and the inexorable juggernaut of change.”
When the Romans invaded Britain, they brought their alphabet with them, and when the Angles and Saxons took over, another language became a coloniser. The Vikings and their tongue subsequently occupied some parts of the country, and after 1066 the Normans added French to the mix. Later, when the British decided to venture overseas, words from Africa, India and elsewhere were part of the haul. Thus, as Harbeck puts it, the English language is “a museum of conquests”.
Standardised spelling for this mongrel tongue was always going to be a fraught endeavour. Along came the Great Vowel Shift to further complicate matters. This took place in roughly the 14th and 15th centuries, when words such as ‘mate’, ‘name’, and ‘while’ began to be pronounced with so-called long vowels. Further, some letters became silent, such as the ‘k’ in ‘knight’ and ‘knife’. While pronunciations changed, spellings didn’t.
The printing press, and then Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, went a long way in rationalising spelling and usage. In his preface, though, Dr Johnson acknowledged that his optimistic plan to “fix” the language had been thwarted by its ever-changing nature. Such changes are inevitable. Technology, inventions, and exposure to different cultures are just some of the tributaries that cause ebb and flow. Think of textspeak, lol.
Notwithstanding these tangled roots, to jettison or overlook current spelling conventions seems inapt. This needn’t be seen as an elitist or even conservative stance. For a start, random variations could cause confusion: is “peek” a dog, a summit or a glance? Clearly, proper spelling leads to proper communication and comprehension.
On the other hand, wholesale reform would mean virtually universal re-education, not to mention different sets of printed material, causing more problems than it resolves. Better to let evolution take its course, with an open-minded attitude to organic changes.
Outside the classroom, it may seem as though the spellcheck function makes such knowledge unnecessary. However, as most of us already know and as publisher Anne Trubek points out, “this sometimes corrects spelling to a different word than intended; if the writing is not later proofread, this computer-created error goes unnoticed.” Which explains why a Trump-era White House press statement once called for “peach in the Middle East”.
If non-standard orthography does catch on, there’s one segment of the population from whom we can expect the loudest protests. Raise your voices, all you Indian-American teenagers swotting for the next spelling bee.