Vivian Cook  Obscure Writing  SLA Topics

Is spelling really hard?

The only time that spelling usually features in the news is when some pundit is shocked by text messages – ‘c u l8er 4 t’ – or when some politician makes a gaffe – Dan Quayle’s spelling of ‘potatatoe’. So it is a change for space to be given to the American tradition of spelling bees, first filmed in Spellbound, now to feature in the BBC spelling competition Hard Spell in two weeks time.

How central is any of this to the actual spelling system of English? While languages like Finnish are ‘transparent’ in that virtually every letter corresponds to a distinctive sound of the language, English is largely ‘opaque’ with complex links between sounds and letter. The letter 'a' goes with different sounds in 'bait', 'bat', 'combative', 'Bart' and 'many'. The sound ‘k’ can be spelled with a ‘k’ ‘kill’, a ‘c’ ‘call’ or ‘ch’ ‘chaos’. 'ck' can't occur at the beginning of a word, only at the end 'back'.

Yet there is a system to this. The only spelling ‘rule’ people can usually quote is: 'i' before 'e' except after 'c' when 'ei' is said with a long 'ee' sound. Many of us summon up this mantra every time we type 'receive' or 'deceit'. It seems to work. Yet there are only about perhaps ten base words in English the rule could apply to, two of which are 'ceilidh' and 'fluorescein'. A rule that only applies to ten words is about as useful as a road-sign used at only ten road junctions.

So are there any better ‘rules’? Spelling rules aren't laid down by a government or a religion. It's not a criminal or a moral offence if you spell 'liaison' as 'liason'. The rules we are taught are rules of thumb, mostly invented a couple of hundred years ago. They're not set in tablets of stone by some absolute authority nor do they really provide much help in dealing with much current English.

Correct spelling is often identified with certain limited ‘rules’ affecting a handful of words. These are rarely based on the extensive research of the past few decades. To examine how people drive, we’d probably check the rules for cars and motorways, not for stagecoaches. Yet the traditional ‘rules’ spelling probably go back as far. If we’re going to complain about spelling or try to improve it, lets make certain we’re talking about the English of today not of the day before yesterday.

Several few more powerful rules of thumb do exist. For example one ‘rule’ is that ‘grammatical’ words like ‘so’ or ‘in’ may have less than three letters, ‘content’ words like ‘sew’ or ‘inn’ must have three or more. While there are a few exceptions like ‘ox’ and ‘pi’, this simple rule helps with almost every sentence.

Spelling bees however mostly draw on that aspect of spelling which is not related directly to rules. Many eccentric words have be remembered individually, whether 'yacht' or 'of' (perhaps the only word in which 'f' stands for a 'v' sound). According to psychologists, we process common words as idiosyncratic visual wholes without thinking of their sounds. Get someone to cross out all the ‘e’s in a piece of English; the chances are they will miss some of the ‘e’s in ‘the’, because it is seen as a whole.

The peculiarities of individual words are then the basis of spelling bees, whether ‘xoniomania’, ‘precibal’ or ‘ephapse’, all frequent in the American bees. These three words do not occur in the 616,000 different word forms in the Oxford English Dictionary or in the 100 million words of running text of the British National Corpus. Remembering them is different from the ability to spell ordinary English, on a par with remembering the Derby winner of 1893 or the names in a phone directory.

Of course there are one-off spellings such as ‘lieutenant’ and ‘colonel’ that everyone does need to remember. The BBC Hard Spell word list starts with ‘aardvark’ , which does occur in the Oxford English Dictionary (albeit with a hyphen ‘aard-vark’), even if British children are unlikely to encounter one on their way to school. And the list ends with ‘zoology’, probably part of most people’s active vocabulary. The Hard Spell list is more relevant to everyday use. Of course there are exceptions – ‘winceyette’? ‘toponomy’? ‘rambunctious’? And ‘lurgy’ probably only makes sense to children who still play the ‘dreaded lurgy’ in the playground or their grandparents who listened to the Goons.

Being able to remember the 3000 odd words in the Hard Spell list is a considerable intellectual feat and is likely to go with the type of memory that shows up well on IQ tests and quiz shows. On the other hand any educated writer of Chinese knows about 5000 different character symbols; any Japanese child has to learn around 2000 character symbols by the age of 15 plus two systems for showing pronunciation syllable by syllable.

Remembering thousands of isolated words mainly shows the quality of a person’s memory rather than their knowledge of the system linking letters and sounds shown, say, in the ability to read aloud novel words such as ‘snove’ and ‘terque’. Memory for words and a grasp of the sound/letter system are not always found in the same person, as some children’s difficulties with reading and writing show.

Spelling is then partly dependent on spoken language, partly independent of it.. English spelling has all the history of English within it; its development in children is crucial to their progress in education; the use of English as a lingua franca around the world allows billions of people to communicate with each other; its adaptability to new technology is vital to our everyday communication. We need to take the spelling system more seriously as a crucial aspect of our language use English rather than seeing it as an amusing TV game. At the same time we need to treat it less as commandments that are perpetually doomed to be broken, more as a system that can be explored for amusement, education or profit.