Orl abowt speling
Tom Shippey, reviewing The History of English Spelling by George Davidson and the late Christopher Upward, and Richard Watts’s Language Myths and the History of English in the Times Literary Supplement, addresses the notorious inconsistency of English spelling. ‘Maybe this is just because our alphabet only has twenty-six letters to represent more than forty phonemes, or distinctive speech-sounds, and some of those – notably q and x – are not pulling their weight, while j is not allowed to (see ‘John’ but also ‘George’). If we gave s and z a consistent value (‘seazon’) and extended this to k and c (‘klok’ and ‘sertain’), we could free c up for other duties, such as maybe representing ch, as once it did. But then there are all the vowels…’ – Shippey gets on to the Great Vowel Shift late in the review.
Shippey focuses mostly on Watts’s book, where he gets most interesting on ‘the use of Standard English, and Standard American, to “strengthen social elitism and exclusion.”’
‘I was once present at a lecture urging the use of ‘Ebonics’ (African American Vernacular English or AAVE) as a teaching medium in predominantly black American schools. At the end of the lecture an African American stood up and said, in Standard American, that he was a lawyer specialising in defending African Americans in the courts; and that if he did this in AAVE rather than Standard American, his acquittal rate would be much lower. So, stick to one’s principles, and see young men sent to jail? Lament the prejudice which creates such a situation, and do nothing? Or accept bidialectalism?’ – which, by the way, is the teaching of Standard English, or Standard American, to students who normally use a nonstandard dialect. Want to include it in your next spelling test?
And while we’re on Standard English, the great Steven Pinker weights into the prescriptivist vs descriptivist debate in Slate online. His point? It’s a battle between straw men. Just remember, says Pinker, prescriptive rules are conventions, so the standard form isn’t over the nonstandard ain’t or dragged over drug emereged from the historical accident that the first member of each pair was used in the dialect spoken around London when the written language became standardised.
‘But the valid observation that there is nothing inherently wrong with ain’t should not be confused with the invalid inference that ain’t is one of the conventions of standard English,’ Pinker notes. ‘Dichotomisers have difficulty grasping this point, so I’ll repeat it with an analogy. In the United Kingdom, everyone drives on the left, and there is nothing sinister, gauche, or socialist about their choice. Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That’s the way it’s done around here.’
Read ‘False fronts in the language wars: Why New Yorker writers and others keep pushing bogus controversies’ here.
Since The History of English Spelling couldn’t include all the material collected and written by Christopher Upward before his death in 2002, Aston University has published a substantial collection of companion material to the book online and free here.
Photo by Andy Barrass courtesy of stock.xchng
Ought teachers to use Standard English as the teaching medium or would Vernacular English be acceptable as a way wicked alternative?