June 03, 2004

D-O-L-T-S Protest Spelling Bee

IT WOULD APPEAR that Noah Webster's disciples have struck again, this story says:

Members of the American Literacy Society picketed the 77th annual spelling bee, which is sponsored every year by Cincinnati-based Scripps Howard.

The protesters' complaints: English spelling is illogical, and the national spelling bee only reinforces the crazy spellings that they say contribute to dyslexia, high illiteracy and harder lives for immigrants.

"We advocate the modernization of English spelling," said Pete Boardman, 58, of Groton, N.Y. The Cornell University bus driver admitted to being a terrible speller.

Protester Elizabeth Kuizenga, 56, is such a good speller that she teaches English as a second language in San Francisco. She said she got involved in the protest after seeing how much time was wasted teaching spelling in her class.

Good God. Where does one begin with this? We mean, aside from the fact calling these folks the "American Literacy Society" is like calling La Cosa Nostra "The Society of Legitimate Businessmen Who Have Never Been Charged With Any Crime?"

Now, the reason we mention Mr Webster is that he had a thing for phonetic spellings, and as a result of his meddling, American English actually has plenty of changes compared to the Queen's English. On the other hand, if we recall correctly, many of his phoneticisms were deemed silly; and as such, the American people didn't accept them. This is why we still write, for instance, head instead of hed, except when you are writing layout code. So, to make a long story short, we tried it once. It didn't work. No reason to screw things up again.

Still, we don't know if certain easy words to spell (C-R-A-N-K-S comes to mind) would be affected by a phonetic change. And while we certainly are sympathetic to those with language difficulties, we do also know these difficulties can be overcome. Hence, screwing up the English language is right out. One in five Americans may be functionally illiterate, but we do think that a combination of various factors (whether one grows up in a home with books, whether one reads newspapers, quality of education, etc.) which are not directly related to the language cause that.

Finally, we must point out two things. The first is that language is always changing, and even today we create new words and let others rust away. The grammatical rules have nothing to do with this: consider how the acronym COBOL, for instance, would be recognizable to many folks over the age of say 50, but acronyms such as LOL and ROTFL might not make any sense. To take this to a further extreme, consider this:

English, 14th c.

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

English, 2004

When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March's drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;

The second thing we would note is that it is illogical to protest English spelling when doing so does one absolutely no good. Perhaps it would have made more sense for the protestors to do some book-learning (or teach others) instead of traveling across the country to demonstrate. We're just saying.

Of course, we do not wish to sound as if we are entirely antagonistic to the protestors' cause. After all, Ms Kyzenga -- oops -- may have a point. Simplification might have its uses: for instance, it would be so much easier to write Frisco instead of San Francisco. But then, it wouldn't be proper for us to do that, now would it?

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at June 3, 2004 08:11 PM | TrackBack