Gospell… August 7, 2017

…in which Yr Obdt Svt contemplates the mysteries of English orthography before an audience of Australians who spell things all weird and wrong and who think I spell things weird and wrong:

Some comedian once remarked that when he was a child, television led him to believe that quicksand was going to be a much bigger issue than adulthood revealed it to be.

Spelling is a bit like that. It is one of the first great obstacles we meet as children when we hit elementary education. First, you learn the alphabet and after mastering the awesome power to just draw letters correctly with your #2 pencil you then began the baffling task of learning how to spell the colossal range of words in the English language. You learn “rules” which, unlike actual rules, mean nothing to somebody who actually is trying to learn English. “Rules” like “ea” is pronounced with a long E sound as in “meat”, except for when it pronounced with a short E sound as in “sweat” or long A sound as in “great”. And “ae” is pronounced with a long E sound as in “Caesar” except when you are talking about Caesar’s praetor, which has a long A sound.

And that’s just scratching the surface. If you brought enough through your spelling class, you learned that “ough” could sound like aw, uff, and oo—and that this made no sense but was Just the Way Things Are So Shut Up. You learned that “debt” had a b in it for no reason other than that somebody thought it made the word look cool and Latiny sometime back when people cared about things being Latiny. You learned that other letters were there for the same reason your appendix is still there: because it used to do something but now it doesn’t but it still hangs around because it’s too much trouble to get rid of it. So all that ink spilled (or spilt, you can spell it both ways) on billions of silent e’s will just go on being spilled or spilt. Likewise, there will go on being mice, but not hice; oxen, but not moosen; many sheep, but not many goat; cow and cattle, but not sow and sattle.

For some reason, my brain had an affinity for learning spelling when I was a child. I can’t explain it because while I was learning it, I had the brain of a child and therefore had no capacity for meta-analysis of why spelling was so easy for me to pick up. I just kept my head down and learned it. Certain rules helped (“I before E, except after C, or when sounding like A as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’”). But mostly I just internalized the cardinal rule that spelling “rules” were, as Captain Barbossa says in Pirates of the Caribbean, not so much a code as a guideline.

Spelling is one of those things we are supposed to transcend. You are to learn it so well that the day comes when you don’t think about it anymore, like getting potty trained. The goal is something else: being able to communicate. Being able to write, not in the sense of “having the ability to grip a pencil and form the word ‘dog’”, but being able to write in order to, say, pen a letter to your sweetie, or communicate with stockholders on the year-end profits of the National Widget Company of Australia, or pen, “If this be error and upon me prov’d/I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.”

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