English Spelling

by Karim Jessa

I am spellbound by spellings, and I'm working desperately to save them. Being the most endangered species of human invention, they need all the protection they can get.

This is a serious endeavour, underlaid by serious commitment and serious ability; working seriously in mounting frustration to counter the seriously deleterious effects of sloppiness, that scourge of humankind. Encountering it at every step has led to a serious case of seriousness.

I had said a while back, quite a while back, before I became famous, that broadening the mind can take various forms. Going about it too seriously may actually contribute to clogging up the passages of thought. Sometimes it helps to just look at the words we use. In the play of words we allow free rein to the mind to imbibe whatever wisdom it is inclined to.

Like I told you, these enlightening words were uttered by Yours Truly in the days of obscurity, of which no record exists. Lucky for you I'm here to repeat my own statement so that it is now on record that I've said it.

Going about it too seriously, that is, going about broadening your mind too seriously, may contribute to clogging up the passages of thought. So...what was I going to say?...all this seriousness has clogged up my trend of thought...oh yes, I remember, I had said that it helps to simply look at the words we use.

And it is at words that we are going to look. And we are going to do it with the help of someone who may actually alter the course of humankind. Rather than following an erratic course, sometimes up, other times down, mostly just drifting sideways, now, with the guidance of our benefactor we can lock ourselves into autopilot heading straight down. No doubts; no looking back.

It helps to simply look at the words, I said; look, not listen. This is where the difference between written and spoken language comes in. Before writing was invented, there was the age of poetry, where everything depended on the sound of the words, for effect as well as for the ease of memorization.

With the advent of writing there were concerns, as voiced by Plato, that people's memories would become weaker. This came true, and no feats of memory are encountered now which used to be so common in the olden days. But if we look at it from today's perspective, we can see that it was a trend in the right direction because the computers have become our adjunct memories. We can devote our minds to what they are there for: thinking.

Coming back to the looking at words, looking means reading. And reading gives rise to abstraction, which promotes thinking. The more complex the language, the more complex the thinking; the link is undeniable. If you want a language that relies only on sounds, that is, if you want only vocal language, the best, the highest, the most variable repository of such languages can be heard in the Congo and Amazon rain-forests, where not many bipeds are encountered.

I said all this formerly, but this is not what I believe now. I mention this only so as to put on record my misguided thinking of the past. This is what I used to expound, to the detriment of the mental development of my children. But I'm working at remedying all this with the help of this article I came across, titled: "How Spelling Reform Would Promote Good Writing," written by Philip Yaffe. The article can be read in its entirety at articlecube.com.

"....A major reason most people write so poorly is the chaotic state of English spelling," he says.

Right away this explains what I've always been so intrigued about: Why is it that there are no poor writers in other languages. I used to think it was some disorder that hampered the English writers from writing well. But it was always the state of the spelling. Other languages, having no irregularity in spelling, give no rise to poor writers.

"It seems evident that the more you must concentrate on the correct form of the words you use, the less you can concentrate on how best to use them, i.e. putting them together in clear, concise, persuasive sentences and paragraphs."

I know all about it. I've been suffering this all my life. English not being my first language, compounded with the chaotic state of its spelling, has resulted in my lack of adequate command of writing; I never attained the level of fluency required to succeed as a writer - always hampered by the exceptions to every rule.

"Even with more than 50 years of writing experience, I still occasionally trip over homophones..."

Tripping, I have to agree, is an occupational hazard when writing, with or without homophones. And to think that after 50 years one still has problems with spellings! Just imagine to what extent this has contributed to retarding the blossoming of writers in English.

You have to understand, the person voicing this dissatisfaction with spellings is not your average writer. Philip Yaffe is a former writer with The Wall Street Journal. If he still trips over his homophones what can you expect from the ordinary mortal who simply needs to produce a college essay?

"More importantly, everytime I use a homophone, I have to stop for a nanosecond to be certain I have chosen the correct spelling. A nanosecond's hesitation once or twice in a text probably won't do much harm. But 10-20 nanoseconds every page almost certainly will."

This is the crux of the whole matter! The sheer loss of precious time! At the steady rate of one thousand millionth of a second per indecision our life is dribbling away. And all this could be saved if we simplified the spellings; and we could have "clear, concise, persuasive sentences and paragraphs" in the process.

You see now why I have taken up so much of your time; why I have treated this matter with such seriousness. This is no laughing matter. Rather than wasting time trying to teach youngsters critical thinking; rather than encouraging them to hone their skills in expressing their ideas; rather than showing them that persuasive ability rests on adequate knowledge and the ability to organize and present that knowledge coherently; we should be campaigning, along with George Bernard Shaw, to have the spelling of ghoti straightened out to fish.

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