A Crisis in Linguistics:  Johnny Can't Spell
M. Joseph Young
The Problem
An Historical Overview
The Options
Ramifications of Our Choice
My Preferences
The Self-Breaking Rules of Grammar
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 Some years back, we were told that "Johnny can't read."  It was considered a crisis in education--our teachers were not able to give our children essential basic skills.  There have been some improvements on that front--standards have been written and raised, scores are climbing, and the education of American children may be improving.  However, there seems to be a failure in at least one area:  the spelling of children and many adults is terrible.  Despite the fact that easy-to-use web page design programs contain spell checkers, web pages are riddled with incorrectly spelled words--and even when there are no words which would stop the spell checker, there are still horrendous errors, such as using "there" for "their", "accept" for "except", and (my personal favorite) "dose" for "does".  If you wonder why this is, you need not look far:  from notes I've received--even officially printed announcements--it appears that Johnny's teacher can't spell, either.  There is an overall failure among speakers of the English language in the ability to sequence letters correctly.

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  Must we redouble our efforts?  Is there a problem with this aspect of the educational system which has caused it to fail?  Should we all become "Hooked on Phonics®"?  I'm sure that there are many valuable insights which we could learn from this, and we could improve spelling immensely.  But I think there is a fundamental problem with spelling itself which has crept into not merely our schools but our entire intelligentsia, a way of thinking about language which has corrupted it and made it difficult to teach correct spelling in any way at all.  The problem is that in critical ways, spelling doesn't matter, or perhaps more precisely, the linguistic concepts upon which the notion of correct spelling are based have been altered, such that the concept of "correct spelling" is more difficult to defend.

  It may be best to approach this historically.  English is a difficult language to spell because of a series of events which altered the way it was approached--our orthography went through stages and our pronunciation went through somewhat independent stages, so that today things are pronounced one way, but spelled another.  Because of this, we must learn to spell--while children who speak many other languages need only place the letters they hear on the page, since for them all words are spelled exactly as they sound, spoken precisely as written.  It is not so in English.

  English has not always been this way.  Hundreds of years ago, words were written exactly as they were pronounced.  Each letter had a specific sound, with a very few letter combinations creating unique sounds (most of these involving the letter "h", as in ch, sh, gh, th).  As you wrote the word, you represented each sound with a letter on the page; when you read it, you reproduced the sound of each letter in sequence.  Two t's were different from one, two consecutive vowels were each pronounced, whether the same or different.

  We know this is so because of some of the work of those who spoke this language.  Chaucer, especially, is known to have commented on this.  In his poems, he would often rhyme an English word to a foreign word, especially something French or Latin.  He complained in writing on one occasion that the spelling of his scribes was atrocious--but he attributed this not to some failure in their education or upbringing, but to the fact that they did not pronounce the words as he did--a serious matter for him, since the way they spelled the words, representing the way they spoke them, the words didn't rhyme.  This is very important to the story:  Chaucer perceived the letters on the page as a representation of the sounds which would be made by the speaker; he did not expect that his readers would pronounce words he wrote in their own way, but in the way they were written, and so he required that those words be written as he spoke them.

  Why did it change?  It was certainly the combination of three events, three influences, which changed the way English-speaking people viewed--and learned--their own language.  They are listed here in no particular order.

  The first of those was the work of Shakespeare.  "The Bard" wrote prolifically and emotively and creatively, and left a stamp on the world of English unlike any writer before or since.  In his time, it was still the case that words were pronounced as they were written, written as pronounced--not at all the way we pronounce them today.  Although it was probably not his intention to write something which would last the ages, his works and his words were revered, and preserved with great accuracy--not, indeed, as the Masoretic text of the ancient scriptures, but with something of that attitude.  They were viewed as great and important writings, which to change would be paramount to sacrilege.  And they didn't have to be so preserved for so long, for the next event was close at hand.

  The second was the invention of the printing press.  Printing captured language in a form more fixed than it had been before; it did so for two reasons.  First, the use of printing plates meant that the preservation of the written word no longer depended on the life of a single sheet of paper.  Now what was written was nearly etched in stone--it was recorded on a rack of metal letters and reproduced hundreds, possibly thousands, of times on many sheets of paper.  Printers who had what they considered important or valuable pages would often save them so that they could rebuild the rack and reprint them later--and sometimes would save the rack itself, so that they could print more at need.  Suddenly, more people were exposed to far more written material than ever before, more began reading, more began writing.  There was an explosion of written communication.  But also, words were no longer recorded on the page by carefully educated and trained scribes and monks.  They were recorded on the page by technicians--people trained in the use of the new technology.  A scribe will read--or hear--a word, and then write the word.  He writes it the way he spells it--in those days, the way he said it.  But a technician will not rely on his own meager abilities to tell him how to spell.  He will copy the work before him exactly as it appears.  Thus the words of Shakespeare were printed the way he wrote them, and, in the main, continue to be so printed, despite the fact that perhaps not a single word (perhaps "O!") is pronounced as it was.  And these words to some degree became standardized:  if you spelled a word as it was spelled by The Bard, it could not be wrong, and it could not be misunderstood.

  The third event or influence was the creation of the King James Bible.

  As a theologian I could discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this--it was the first "modern committee translation", that is, the first time a group of scholars were gathered to compare multiple copies of the ancient text to determine what the original words must have been, the first time several experts in the ancient languages had to agree on the correct translation of each passage.  For this methodology, it deserves great praise.  Unfortunately, they had no means of dating their documents or understanding the concept of "text families".  In their New Testament work, they had five complete copies of the Greek.  Four of these were all copies of the same earlier version, and the fifth, far older and far more accurate, was often overruled by comparison to "the majority" of available authorities.  The inaccuracies are not in any way heretical; but they are unacceptable to the modern scholar.  (This is complicated by the fact that the meanings of many words used by those scholars have changed.  One need look no farther than the concept of the Holy "Ghost".  To them, a ghost was not more nor less than a spirit being; to us, it is invariably a haunt, the spirit of a departed person which fails to rest.  As a child, I once imagined that the "Holy Ghost" was the ghost of the dead Jesus, and that somehow Jesus was alive again, but that because he died and his spirit remained here, that was his ghost--nonsense, but a good illustration of the confusion which results from teaching children in another language which seems so much like their own.)  But it was not the historical, theological, or scholarly influences of the King James Bible which made the difference.  It was its impact on education.

  Very quickly, the King James Bible became revered above the writings of Shakespeare; by the beginning of the 20th century, it was in many quarters revered above the ancient texts of which it was intended to be a translation.  Parents read it to their children; and they taught their children to read from it.  Nary a jot nor a tittle would be altered for centuries:  the text was holy, the words were sacred, and no change could be tolerated.  Words would be spelled as they were spelled by King James, or they would be wrong.

  But English was still a young language undergoing transitions.  Centuries before, the Angles had conquered the Celts, and the two languages melded into a new tongue; then the Saxons brought their Germanic words, which created what we call Anglo-Saxon.  In 1056--not at all so long ago in terms of language history--the Normans conquered.  These Normans spoke French--although not exactly; they were early descendants of the Norsemen who attacked France; their social structure was built on the concept that the world was immeasurably large, full of places to conquer:  the eldest son would inherit his father's lands and castle, and all other sons would go out into the world and conquer their own lands and build their own castles.  But the peace treaty with the kings in Paris prevented them from taking more of France; so from Normandy, Anjou,  and Brittany, they attacked England--and infected the tongue of the natives with their hybrid French/Norwegian language.  You had a composite language which still included many sounds from many languages.  It may be that English is the most eclectic language spoken.  It took many years for it to become the language we speak.

  But as books became more basic to our lives, new concepts were developed.  Webster published a dictionary--in part because he believed that Americans should record the correct way of pronouncing and spelling their own language.  The transistion was made:  there were now correct spellings and correct pronunciations, and to speak or write otherwise was to be ignorant and uneducated.  It was now possible to teach spelling as a subject, because there were correct answers to the obvious questions.

  Linguistics began to come into its own.  I won't go into details on the contributions of the Brothers Grimm, Lewis Carroll, Noam Chomsky, or the many others who added significantly to our understanding of language and its development.  As scholars, we gradually realized that our language was an anomaly.  Language did not remain the same from generation to generation.  Speakers were lazy; they slurred sounds into different sounds, eliminated those which were too difficult.  At the same time, they mispronounced things for hearing them incorrectly.  In the days when people were geographically isolated, languages would diversify as local speakers listened to each other and took their cues on grammar, pronunciation, and structure from each other.  In China, the language fractured into dialects so diverse that they would be considered different related languages--much as the romance languages of Europe--were it not for the common almost hieroglyphic orthography which held together the structure.  That is, throughout China, the same symbolic representations had the same meanings, and they were written in the same order to form sentences with the same grammatic structures; the fact that the words were pronounced so differently as to be entirely unrecognizable from one part of the land to another did not alter the ability of all to communicate on paper.  The same would have happened in the English-speaking world, but that the English were extremely mobile--through their empire, they constantly sent those who spoke the current version to be respected governors of their provinces throughout the world, and the current version of the language was so promulgated to all; the American version did not have time to divert adequately from its sire before the next step in technology--radio--created a tendency toward universal agreement in pronunciation, as the printing press had in spelling.

  But linguists recognized that language was fluid, constantly changing; and that the primary way language changed was through the "mistakes" of its speakers, the tendency of localized and isolated groups to invent their own way of speaking.  Suddenly, the usage of the undereducated was as valid as the usage of the educated; it became socially incorrect to suggest that someone spoke incorrectly--he only spoke differently.  Today, you cannot as a teacher teach a child that he speaks improperly.  His grammar, pronunciation, syntax, and vocabulary are all learned from his family, and therefore representative of a valid version of the language.  He uses it to communicate with those in his neighborhood, those in his life--whether it is "Black English", "Valley Talk", or any of a number of other "dialects" which approach incomprehensible to those outside the community, it must be regarded as "correct", because it is the language learned by those people, a segment of the English-speaking population.

  But if the basics of the language cannot be defended, the nuances are lost.  For some still alive, "where" does not sound like "wear", because the "h" in the former alters the sound of that consonant; but you cannot teach this to children--since for some speakers, there is no difference in pronunciation between "w" and "wh", it is improper to teach any that there is such a difference.  And we move toward the lowest common denominator in speech.  In the modern dictionary, nearly all vowels in unaccented syllables have been replaced with the "schwa"--a character which I am unable to reproduce on this page without inserting a picture.  This upside-down "e" is intended to represent the fact that there is no significant difference in the pronunciation of the sounds in those syllables.  Yet it is not so!  I am one of those who recognizes that the "or" in "vector" and the "er" in "farmer" do not have precisely the same sound--but the dictionary no longer admits this distinction!  It has moved to the lowest common denominator in pronunciation, leaving those of us who would more accurately define our pronunciation lost without a guide, unless we have a well-preserved older dictionary which had not succumbed to this concept.

  But what has this to do with spelling?  It is the reason why Johnny can't spell:  he can't pronounce his words with the distinctions necessary to inform him that words are different.  I am a superior speller--I seldom run the spell checker on my pages (a mistake, as they will often catch an error in my typing when I do).  There are some words which give me trouble, which I consistently have to check; but I've always been in the top one percent in spelling.  (I will admit to being amazed by the children who win the National Spelling Bee--they sometimes spell words I could not have used in a sentence, and I am also very high in vocabulary as well; but if you're playing Outwageous with me and it's a spelling question, you'd do well to bet on me.)  The reason I spell so well is because I pronounce well--because I perceive differences in the way words are spoken; even if I slur them sometimes, I know the "correct" pronunciation, and because I know the correct pronunciation, I know the correct spelling.

 But what is the answer?  How do we correct the spelling problems of our children?  How do we restore language in a way which enables users to speak it and write it consistently?

  The answer is that we must stop being ambivalent about language, and especially about our own language.  Either there are correct answers in language, or there are none.  Either we allow ourselves to choose a "fixed" form of the language we speak, and teach that variations are incorrect, or we permit the language to change in every direction it will and cease to teach that there are any rules at all.  And either way, we must understand the consequences of our decision.

 Just because language is not fixed doesn't mean it can't be taught.  We teach ancient languages spoken by no one--Latin, several past versions of Greek, and other ancient languages are still studied by those wishing to read and study the vast literature of the past.  We can teach our children what the rules once were.  When Shakespeare wrote, it was expected that every sentence would contain a noun and a verb; people would not dangle participles; infinitives were never split.  Although all of those rules have fallen by the wayside in modern speech and writing, they were once signs of intelligence and education, and for some today still are.  We might also teach a concept I learned with my music theory:  you must first learn the rules; then you must learn the reason for the rules; then you will understand what you will achieve if you break them, and so know when to break them and when to follow them.

  On the other hand, just because language is fixed doesn't mean it can't grow.  English is noted among languages for the richness of its vocabulary--I recently heard someone complain that in German, you often had to build large compound/complex words to express something which can be said with a simple common word in English.  Although there are many who do not know the difference between further and farther, loquacious and verbose, the fact remains that we have one of the richest vocabularies in the world--and it can still grow and expand.  New ways of expressing things can come into the structure.  And even if we respect the rules, we will learn to break them to achieve a desired effect--and since the rules will remain, the effect will last into future generations.  I would note that when Clark Gable first swore in the major motion picture "Gone With the Wind", it shocked audiences; today, that line would have been lost in the plethora of cursing which the modern director would have incorporated (perhaps anachronistically) into the story; even family films are often as harsh as that.

  But if language is fixed, we will have to pass through a period of resocialization related to language.  We have become so accustomed to the view that there is no correct form of speech that it will be some time before we are able to determine quite what the correct form is now.  Some of the differences in pronunciation date back to pre-revolutionary days.  Our preferred northern pronunciations are descended from the pronunciations of the British lower classes--and quite intentionally, as a rejection of all that was representative of our "despised oppressors"--while the somewhat derogated drawl of our southern relatives (for me quite literally--mom's from an immigrant family in New York, and Dad's from an old Mississippi line) recalls the British nobility of that day.  Defining "correct" speech will take a long time, and will include many variations for some time to come.

  On the other hand, if it is fluid, we must accept the possibility of a future in which it has diversified into incomprehensible dialects, such as it has in China.  We may allow people to spell things as they say them, to structure their written sentences as they speak, to say things however they like--but over time, it will be more difficult to communicate with each other.  Perhaps this will not happen--it is likely that television will continue to influence speech patterns toward a commonality, perhaps eventually globally.  But even with television, pockets of almost incomprehensibly diverse speech have developed already; I would not be one to bet that that trend would not continue.

  As a communicator--trained in theology and law, experienced in writing and broadcasting--I would prefer to have language skills taught, and therefore fixed.  As an educator--former professor of undergraduate New Testament studies--I would prefer to have our ability to communicate protected and preserved.  I would vote for bringing back the rules, for saying that there is a right way to speak, to write, to spell--and that to do these things incorrectly is to be wrong, at least insofar as the English language is concerned.  At present, those who take this attitude are viewed as narrow-minded; but as C. S. Lewis once suggested, there are a thousand ways to look at anything until you know the truth, and then there's never any more than one.  If there is a correct way to handle language, then those who teach it and insist upon it are as narrow minded as those who insist on the rules in mathematics.  The rules in language are not so strict as those in arithmetic, but that is not to say that they should be freely discarded.

  But I may be prejudiced; after all, although I'm no English professor, I'm quite skilled at this tongue.  It's to my advantage for the things at which I am proficient to be valued.  If you have a different opinion, write to me; perhaps you can enlighten me.  I have more than once copied correspondence to web pages (with your permission, of course) when I thought the notions were particularly valuable or enlightening.

 Many years ago, I saw a list of "rules of grammar"; although I had seen several of them before, the idea of a list of rules which broke themselves has stuck with me.  Indeed, some of my own understanding of what these rules mean comes from the fact that I have these examples of how not to do it.  I cannot say that I have reproduced it precisely, or that I have not--but since I don't know who created them, I cannot credit them, either.  Thus I have decided to present my own
Rules of Grammer

1.  Don't abbrev.
2.  When dangling, don't use participles.
3.  Never write a run-on sentence you must punctuate it.
4.  Remember to never split infinitives.
5.  About sentence fragments.
6.  Ending sentences with prepositions is something we will not put up with.
7.  Check to see if you are words out.
8.  Be sure your nouns agrees with your verbs.
9.  People must be careful with there use of homonyms.

I'm sure there was at least one more; I'll add it if I think of it--or if you send it to me.
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M. J. Young Net
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