Guy Keleny: Let me spell it out - our language is chaotic

If you care about the language as a medium of poetry, you should cherish its absurdities
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When my Hungarian cousin Zsuzsi was learning English at school in Budapest she used to complain that you had to learn each word three times: first its meaning; then how to pronounce it; then how to spell it. As English reaches an unassailable hegemony as the international language, the lovable lunacies of English spelling are taxing millions of brains across the world. Not that that deters anyone. When the Iron Curtain fell, Zsuzsi and her friends instantly dropped Russian (until then compulsory in Hungarian schools) and took up English.

But how would they react to a forthcoming BBC television show, a nationwide spelling competition for children on the lines of American spelling bees? It is difficult to imagine a spelling bee in Hungary, or any other country where orthography was reformed in the 19th century and nearly all spellings are phonetically consistent. There simply wouldn't be any problems for the contestants to grapple with.

The wild phonetic inconsistency of English was classically illustrated by George Bernard Shaw, playwright, socialist and fanatical advocate of spelling reform. He pointed out that if English spelling were phonetically consistent the spelling of "fish" might be "ghoti". That is gh as in "laugh", o as in "women" and ti as in "station".

The chaos of English spelling is perhaps best illustrated not by the obviously difficult words that pop up in spelling bees, the ones most people cheerfully admit they cannot spell, but by the words people think they can spell but can't. This newspaper's style book contains a list of them. Here it is: accommodation; bureaucracy; canister; clamouring; dignitary; embarrass; expatriate; harass; inoculate; linchpin; marshal; manoeuvre; millennium; minuscule; predilection; publicly; statutory; supersede; tranquillity; unforeseen. Try that on your friends and family: I have never found anyone who scored 100 per cent, even people who pride themselves on being good spellers.

But what an absurd idea that is. Why should anybody take pride in being able to spell properly? Is it not insane that such a simple thing as writing your own language is difficult enough to take pride in?

The trouble is that the reasons for English spelling being so annoying are also among the reasons why it is such a rich and poetic language. It is a Germanic language, brought to this island in the 5th century by the invading Anglo-Saxons, stripped of its inflections and then infused with a massive dose of Romance vocabulary, first from French in the Middle Ages and then from Latin in the Renaissance (it is no coincidence that most of the words in the list above are derived from Latin). The orthography that has come down to us from Samuel Johnson's pioneering dictionary of 1755 pays as much respect to the origins of words as to their present-day pronunciation. No one can deny that it causes problems. How often do we see "Dalmation" on the analogy of "station", written by people who know no Latin and so do not immediately recognise that the one is derived from dalmatianus - from Dalmatia - and the other from statio, a stopping place. So, cries the spelling reformer, to be able to spell your own language easily you need to know a language that no one has spoken as a mother tongue for more than a thousand years? Yes, I'm afraid it does help a lot.

To spelling reformers all this is deplorable. They point to the years of effort children have to put into learning to read and write; to high rates of functional illiteracy among adults. They deplore the snobbish and pretty well universal assumption that good spelling denotes good education and background. The difficult question is how to harmonise spelling with the many pronunciations of a world language among the many millions who use it. It is all very well making your spelling conform to the speech of 10 million Hungarians, but I should like to see anyone try it with the English of Scots, Texans, Indians and Australians.

Does spelling matter anyway? If you only want to use language as a tool for the communication of facts, then perhaps not as much as pedants like me would like to think. Until the 18th century we got on perfectly well without consistent spelling. In most of the transactions of everyday life the message would get across whatever might be the spelling - not to mention the grammar and punctuation, as a glance at any greengrocer's shop window will show. Novelists could no doubt ply their trade without too much attention to consistency of spelling. It is, however, difficult to imagine how a newspaper could be produced without agreed spellings, it being the co-operative work of many minds all working on different bits at the same time. And without consistent spelling, internet searches would be almost impossible.

But if you care about the language as a beautiful object and a medium of poetry, you may cherish its absurdities and dread the day when the forms of its words no longer carry the imprint of their origins, like the marks of the adze on an ancient oak beam.

In any case, that day is unlikely to come. Spell-checkers are in their infancy. When they are as advanced and universal as calculators are today, knowing how to spell words will be as important as knowing how to do long division.

Guy Keleny is the author of the 'Independent' style guide