The Week in Culture: The discreet charm of the misspelling


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The Independent Culture

I want to write about the charm of speling this week – or orthograffy if you want to be more specific. And, before you give a cry of rage about falling production standards and hurl the paper from you, let me add that both those misspellings are deliberate.

Because it's not accurate spelling or orthography that I'm interested in here but the wonky, defective kind. The sort of thing you find in David Almond's new novel, The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, for example – a book whose impeccably conventional title gives no advance warning of what you will find inside. There, within a couple of lines of the opening, the narrator is described as one who "grew in isolayshon wile the enjins of destrucshon flew & smoke rose over the sitys & wile wilderness & waste crept all across the world". We learn too that "he was tort to read & rite & spel by his tenda littl muther & by Mr McCaufrey the butcha" – and we infer that something must have gone very wrong with the world for their diligent tuition to end up in this bastardised form of English.

That's one of the conventional things that misspelling does, of course, as seen previously in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (which seems to have been something of an inspiration for Almond's book) or in Will Self's The Book of Dave. Correct spelling is – whether we think about it like this or not – a fairly reliable indicator of the continuity of social institutions. The writer's obedience to these collective rules is a register of other kinds of social obedience. So when the centralised authority of correct spelling goes missing we immediately assume that other kinds of authority have been overthrown too – or, alternatively, that a great deal of time has passed. The Elizabethans weren't terribly fussy about spelling won way or anuther, but even so some of our correct spellings would have looked very odd to them. Mostly, though, chaos on the page is representative of a matching chaos in the society that has produced it.

What's a bit harder to pin down is why this device has such an effect on us, why it feels so "flavoursome" on the page. Novelty would be one part of the answer, I suppose. When so many books look indistinguishable at first glance there can be no mistaking this one for another, because its oddity is embedded in almost every other word. This can have its irritations, of course. The eye, habituated to certain familiar clusters of letters, finds itself snagged by these unusual knots of consonants and stumbling over missing vowels. Progress is slower and more self-conscious, as some words have to be deciphered rather than merely absorbed at speed. And that sense of alienation can be enlisted by a skilful writer to amplify a more general discomfort and unease, which may be exactly what is desired.

But it's also true that there's a charm to misspellings, particularly if they come from a childish or naïve narrator. In Almond's book the possibilities of comedy are pretty slight – it's bent on a mythical solemnity and heading towards miracle or portent, so it doesn't have much time for gags. But even so an edge of cuteness gets into it through the clumsy renderings of some words. It's as if the language itself had acquired the characteristics of childhood, so that we feel an instinctive protectiveness. Its guileless self-betrayal makes it feel vulnerable, in need of tenderness or protection. But it needn't be that solemn. It can just be laugh-out-loud funny – as it is in those masterpieces of vandalised English, the Molesworth books, where the apparent lack of sophistication of the spelling is linked to Geoffrey Willans's wonderfully cynical prose. Misspelt prose should be too naïve to be knowing, but it isn't here and it makes it twice as funny.

There's a deep seduction as well in the fact that this device is, rather literally, between you and the book. If you want to convey the pleasure of these delinquencies – or their otherworldliness – to another person, you can't do it by reading it aloud, only by handing them the book and pointing to the passage in question. And the odd friction that then takes place between the words as they arrive in the brain and as they appear on the page is curiously delicious. It's among the most purely literary tricks at a writer's disposal.

The advantages of working with a weightier tome

I wrote a few weeks ago about the difference between reading War and Peace in hardback and on a Kindle, one of my points being that the additional kilogram in weight seemed to give the old-fashioned book an additional cerebral heft. It seems I wasn't imagining this effect. Dr Sam Gilbert, a research fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, has kindly drawn my attention to a paper describing the results of some experiments into how touch and sensation can affect our intellectual judgements ("Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgements and Decisions" Science, 25 June 2010). In one of the researchers' studies, 54 subjects were invited to assess a job candidate by reviewing printed CVs that were handed to them either on light or heavy clipboards. Those handed the heavy clipboards rated those candidates better overall and also assessed them as showing a more serious interest in the position, as if the irrelevant "weightiness" of the object the participants were holding had somehow transferred itself to the entirely abstract issue under consideration. Or, as the authors themselves summarise their findings, "Physical touch experiences may create an ontological scaffold for the development of intrapersonal and interpersonal conceptual and metaphorical knowledge". In shorter words, big fat books may genuinely have an edge when it comes to getting us to take them seriously.

Accidental satire raises a smile

The field of inadvertent satire isn't a large one, but nonetheless cherishable for all that. And it acquired another masterpiece last week with the release of Gillian Wearing's new film, 'Self Made', the results of a project in which she invited members of the public to be trained in Method techniques and then make a short improvised film. I wasn't entirely convinced by the results myself, but I very much enjoyed the appearances by Sam Rumbelow, described as the participants' mentor in their "adventure into the self". Sam is very solemn, very serious about the Method and, to my mind, very funny as well. And yet I don't think for a moment that Wearing intends him to have a comic aspect. I was reminded of the experience of watching Joanna Hogg's film 'Archipelago', which includes a character called Christopher, a painting tutor who discourses with delicious gravity about the challenges of capturing the marine light. I took him to be a subtle exercise in social comedy, guying the pretensions of a certain kind of Sunday painter. But then I discovered that he was the director's painting tutor in real life – and had presumably been included because she's an admirer. Perhaps it isn't inadvertent at all, but if not it's hard to see how either director could take the credit and stay on speaking terms.