Sunday, June 06, 2010

Spell Baby Spell

High on the list for dumbest non-story of the week is the "protest" at the National Spelling Bee. Friends 'n' neighbors, try as you might, you just can't make this shit up:

The Associated Press reported that this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee was picketed by four protesters, some dressed in bee costumes, who distributed buttons reading "Enuf is enuf. Enough is too much."

The demonstrators were from the the American Literacy Council and the London-based Spelling Society, organizations that aim to do to English orthography what the metric system did for weights and measures. The American Literacy Council endorses SoundSpel, which seeks to "rationalize" the English language by spelling each of the English language's 42 (or so) phonemes one way and one way only. In SoundSpel, "business" becomes "bizness," "equation" becomes "ecwaezhun," "learned" becomes "lernd," "negotiate" becomes "negoesheaet," and so on.

Oh yeah, that's much easier. Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with these people? Who is keeping them in, erm, "bizness", so that they don't have to get out in the real world and actually earn a living doing something useful?

This sort of thing is not merely annoying, it's a pernicious lie. Illiterate people are not illiterate because they are bad spellers, or because English orthography is too irregular and opaque for them. People who don't spell well typically don't read very much, and those who do read but still can't spell well find ways to work around whatever relatively mild learning/memory issue messes up certain words for them. They sure as hell don't want or need the entire language to be reconfigured to accommodate their inability to spell (which is usually a pattern of certain word forms anyway, not an inability to spell all, most, or even very many words).

I suppose I am something of a snob on the subject, because I am a good speller and take pride in it, and won quite a few competitions in school, winning the Northern California regionals three times and getting into the state finals twice. The thing is -- and this pissed off my competition chaperones, believe me -- I never studied, refused to in fact. The state spelling competition (at least in the early eighties) gives each contestant a 200+ page manual of fifty-cent words, complied of lists from encyclopedias, word-of-the-day calendars, obscure word sources, etc. It's even more tedious than it sounds, and there was no fucking way I was ever going to sit down and memorize it for a stupid spelling bee. I learned to spell by -- get this -- reading. Yeah, real tricky, huh? Read books, and you will pick up most spelling conventions, not to mention irregularities, by osmosis, I guaran-fucking-tee it.

It probably also didn't hurt that I proofread court documents for five years, and can spot a misspelled word before I even read the sentence or paragraph it's in. But bottom line, there's no real trick to any of this. I honestly can't recall any point in my life where I just stamped my wittle feet and insisted that everyone else dumb the language down for me because it was too hard and I just couldn't get it. If I encountered a word I didn't know or quite get, I looked it up, I familiarized myself with it. It's really not that difficult. Takes anywhere from three to five minutes, if you're a complete vegetable. The horror.

So beyond my obstinance on the subject, I suppose my real suspicion is that the people who are whinging the most about it are putting in the least amount of work, and would prefer that everyone else -- you know, the majority of people who can read -- accommodate them. As my Sunday school teacher used to say, fuck that noise. Spelling is practice, just like reading is practice, just like math is practice, just like every skill requires practice, repetition, and attention to cultivate. It's not everyone else's fault parents of electronic-addled troglodytes would rather watch Dancing with People Who Useta Be Sorta Well-Known than force their kids to take an hour a day to turn the toys off and read a book.

Spelling itself is an overrated skill anyway. The National Spelling Bee is just a quaint artifact, fun for the kids, and profitable for the tutors of children from bizarrely obsessive Indian families. But the ability or inability to spell arcane, esoteric words will probably not make a difference in your employability. What it is, if it is anything, is a somewhat useful barometer for how well people pay attention to detail, how rigorous their thought processes are, but even there, it's only a piece of the puzzle. There are plenty of people who spell poorly, but are extremely intelligent and skilled, and there are plenty who cannot spell who are borderline retards. (There don't seem to be many stupid people who can spell, so there is probably some correlation.) All poodles are dogs, not all dogs are poodles, yada yada.

Functionally, this ankle-biting claque of senile lexitardrophers haven't thought through their half-baked scheme in the first place:

An overhaul of English spelling would be not without its pitfalls. Even if you could get every printer, publishing house, signmaker, and blogger to agree on a new system, there would still be the problem of those who have learned only the new system of spelling being unable to read literature printed in the old one.

What's more, in giving a fixed value to each letter, someone has to decide what counts as "correct" pronunciation. It's easy to imagine the holy wars that would erupt over whether "either" becomes "eether" or "iether," or whether "envelope" becomes "onveloep" or "enveloep"?

Ah yes, and what a valuable use of time that would be, as opposed to, say, just learning how shit works. I got a better one for the phoneticists, though -- in their endless, tedious oversimplifications of what is a magnificent hodgepodge of word histories and origins, what do the phoneticists propose to do about homophones?

Look, nobody knows how to spell every single word, and because misspelling typically revolves around pattern recognition habits, different people have different sets of words that they misspell. This is so obvious, it scarcely merits mentioning. The only group that will gain a clear and instant benefit from dumbing down orthographic conventions is idiot protest-sign makers.


Tehanu said...

Absolutely right. I personally am a good speller, but I used to work with a guy -- in fact, I hired him -- who was lousy at it. But he never turned in a document with misspellings because he kept a dictionary on his desk and used it instead of acting like a lazy idiot.

Another reason important only to admitted weirdos like me: English spelling is a record of the history of the language. But the kind of people who push this crap are the same kind of people who couldn't care less about any history -- of the language or of anything else.

Heywood J. said...

Another reason important only to admitted weirdos like me: English spelling is a record of the history of the language.

I totally agree with that. Nobody expects spelling or usage to be encased in carbonite, conventions to be preserved for all time. It's the way these bozos want to set about changing things.

Personally -- and maybe it's because I'm a wabi sabi type -- the appeal of English is its messiness, its irregularities, each of which has, as you say, history.

And because it is such a dynamic, living thing, it changes and evolves all the time, as the people who actually use it every day -- as opposed to douchewads who want to decree changes by academic fiat -- find and create things to suit their needs.

Obviously, the intartubez have birthed a great many subsets of spelling variations, which are by turns funny and useful and empowered with additional collective meaning. That's organic change we can all believe in.

M. Bouffant said...

Put me on the admitted weirdo list.

The Vile Scribbler said...

I was too immensely shy to ever go to any sort of competitions beyond the classroom; I would end up passing on the opportunity to the runner-up. But it was the same story for me -- nothing but reading all the time and the good fortune to have an Asperger's-like memory; I never studied vocab or spelling. There are a handful of words that, for whatever strange reason, will not lodge themselves firmly in my head and have to be considered anew each time I want to use them, but mostly, I just absorb words through reading without having to think about it.

It's funny how the brain works -- there are lots of words I would never misspell while writing on paper, but at a computer, having to coordinate two hands, I find that I have what I think of as "keyboard dyslexia", the tendency to initially mistype certain words because the wrong hand insisted on taking its turn. There's several words that I almost always screw up at first, and I can almost feel the mental strain of trying to force myself to think about the spelling and make my hands react accordingly.