This is an old article which I wrote for the (now defunct) Borders website when I worked for the company as a supervisor. Like I say, it’s old, and a little amateurish; but I think its heart is in the right place…
I have recently re-read an article from last week’s Times which both frustrated and aggrieved me. I now feel compelled to comment about it here, and would be interested to hear any opinions you may have, should you wish to make a remark.
The article was on page 9 of the Monday September 8th 2008 edition, written by Alexandra Frean. The piece concerns John Wells, Emeritus professor of Phonetics at University College London and his call for a ‘freeing up’ of the English language. What he means by this is that he would like to see the textual representation of English simplified in such a way that espouses a systematic ‘logic’ over an ostensibly archaic visual form. Thus our three spellings ‘there’, ‘they’re’ and ‘their’ would be replaced by a singular version (‘there’) to be used in all instances because, apparently, it’s obvious from the context of a sentence which meaning is being employed. So, such sentences as: ‘There are some children playing with there ball; there playing quietly’ would become acceptable.
Wells’ argument focuses explicitly on the point of simplicity with regards to education. His ‘freeing up’ suggestion would remove any of the ‘problems’ of unusual spelling in English.
Further to this, Wells advocates a simplification of punctuation, so that contracted words such as ‘it’s’ or ‘wouldn’t’ would be employed without the attendant apostrophes. ‘Its a cold day’ or ‘Its there problem’ would henceforth become normal.
There are numerous reasons why I find such suggestions to be entirely facile, unhelpful and inexcusably ignorant. Please forgive me, for I am about to start ranting.
Firstly; spelling and punctuation are not factors of language which are independent and separable from meaning. Wells states that multiple spellings of words with phonic similarities are unnecessary and complicated. Well, Wells, let’s take, for example, the words ‘flour’ and ‘flower’ shall we?; two words with the same phonic identity but different textual and semantic ones. Should the former spelling be disposed of, as Wells seems to suggest, the written form of English would not become simpler, but significantly more difficult to understand. The sentence ‘Look at that flower’ could refer to a bag of white, powdered carbohydrates or a plant in a garden. Doing-away with multiple spellings of similar sounding words is not logical or simplistic; rather it’s an asinine and brazen destruction of the breadth and meaning of English (Lynne Truss’ ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ has good examples of the importance of textual diversity in English spelling).
Similarly, the argument that this simplification of English would be a help to education is just another example of lefty-liberal laziness and cultural self-hatred. Wells states that many of today’s school children find learning English a tedious, difficult and stressful experience. If literacy education is causing as many problems as this, then surely it is the techniques and systems of education which need re-evaluating, not the subject of study. Why should the majority of competent school children who have no difficulty with language or, indeed the rest of us, suffer from a systematic simplification and destruction of the tongue just to benefit a minority of individuals? Anybody read ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’? It is not the English language that is failing such children, it’s the method of education. I’m frustrated at the wishy-washy, statistics-fiddling, political correctness that has become so rampant in modern education theory, and which states that if one group of people have a problem, then the rest of us should be forced down to their level, lest we risk causing ‘offence’ or ‘humiliation’, as Wells puts it. Problems in literacy education will not be solved by removing the wonderful breadth and subtleties of the English language to the detriment of everybody else.
If a mountain is difficult to climb, you don’t flatten it to the ground and proudly walk over its remains, claiming the same victory as those who bested its highest peaks through hard-work and determination.
These are just some of my thoughts…