I was woken from my slumber while ostensibly listening to David Cameron’s speech by the howls of disdain emanating from the assembled throng. (No, Scottish colleagues, not THAT DC but the leader of the Conservative Party. DC of Fife, East Lothian and Stirling is consistently entertaining!)

“Listen to this”, quoth he. “It’s the President of the Spelling Society. He said, and I quote, ‘people should be able to use whichever spelling they prefer.’ He’s the President of the Spelling Society!! Well, he’s wrong. And by the way, that’s spelt with a ‘W’.”

The words of the said president, John C. Wells, a professor of phonetics at University College London, had been lifted from a fuller examination of the changing nature of the way we communicate and the inevitable development of language structures.

Text messaging, email, and internet chat rooms are showing us the way forward for English. Let’s stop worrying if people sometimes spell ‘you’ as ‘u’, ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ both as ‘ur’, and ‘whose’ and ‘who’s’ both as ‘whos’.
… Let’s not hold up our hands in horror – people should be able to use whichever spelling they prefer.
When I was a boy one of my English teachers insisted on our … spelling show as shew. We’d laugh at him today. Let’s allow English spelling to continue to develop so as better to reflect the times in which we live.

The Society’s aims are “raising awareness of the problems caused by the irregularity of English spelling and to promote remedies to improve literacy, including modernising spelling”. (Oops – grammatical errors. The world is collapsing around us).

Scoring political points against what one US President called ‘pointy headed academics who can’t park a bicycle straight’ is political anti-intellectualism, though par for the course (hmm, some mixed metaphors here). I suppose if you essentially believe that you can only go forward by going backwards (”progressive ends through conservative means”, as the spectacularly bonkers tagline has it – an old-style grammar school teacher would lay on a cane for that one) then it must be extremely disconcerting if people who actually know something about your subject tell you the precise opposite. Fingers in ears and bray is just about your only option. (as The People’s Republic of Mortimer put it).

My instinct as the product of a girl’s grammar school in the 6o’s is to want to conform to a standard; and I would never suggest that we stop teaching the conventions of our language. I actually have a strong allegiance to the apostrophe in particular, but am prepared to engage in debate with any other sad people out there.

But (oops, my English teacher would turn in her grave if she saw that ‘But’ there) I think Prof. Wells is right in that we need to adjust our expectations to the needs and mores of current society not to look back to a mythical golden age when all children wrote perfectly in copperplate. Some may have done so of course – but in the majority of cases this was achieved through/thru copying the teacher’s work not composing something for themselves.

Ultimately within my limited time constraints, I sometimes make a choice to favour content over form.

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