John Sutherland: Through or thru? Plow or plough? Beware the sting of the spelling bee

When a professor of phonetics argues for the rules of language to be relaxed to allow words to read as they sound, he knows he is stirring a hornet's nest. But reformers have a point

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The term "spelling bee" doesn't ring much of a bell in the UK. In the US it does. Everyone knows what they are and most of the population have participated in them. And enjoyed them.

Spelling bees are contests in which school kids (typically) compete to see who can deal most expertly with the grotesque illogicalities of English orthography.

But why "bee"? It's an interesting word dragging, as do many words in English, a story behind it. The principal meaning of bee is our busy little pollinating friend. That, however, is not what is strictly denoted in "spelling bee". In the long New England winters, Puritan families would gather round the stove and quilt, gossip or discuss some peculiarly knotty injunction in the Book of Deuteronomy. They would keep their voices low, at mutter level, audible only to their interlocutor(s). The collective sound would be like that of a thrumming hive in autumn. When bible study palled – as it will, even for Puritans – they'd play games. The spelling game ("Who knows how to spell Deuteronomy, children?") was a kind of boardless Scrabble. Jolly humming.

Nowadays every American school has its spelling bee, as do towns and states. And, of course, there is the big one: The Scripps National Spelling Bee. It's held every May for eligible American schoolchildren in the eighth grade (aged 13 to 14) and under. The winner gets a cash reward of 20 grand or more, a truck-load of dictionaries and headlines across the country. It's Rocky Balboa for juvenile geeks.

The glory spills over on to sponsors as well – usually a (very) local newspaper. In May 2008 the winner was Sameer Mishra (sponsored by the Lafayette Journal and Courier) and the winning word was guerdon (ie, reward: contestants don't have to know meanings, just the spelling).

Young Sameer's name – pronounced Shameer – is, for Anglos like myself, itself rather hard. That's often the case and it illustrates why the bee is so symbolic an institution in the US. For "New Americans" the melting pot's principal solvent is the English language. And it's the kids who take on the challenge of mastering it.

There was a charming film following the 1999 Scripps Spelling Bee, called Spellbound. The winner that year was Nupur Lala and the winning word – tougher than most, I think – was logorrhea. It's spelled logorrhoea over here, but Scripps follows Webster's Americanised ("Americanized") version.

American audiences loved Spellbound. Many turned up time and again to see it. At one showing in Pasadena, I heard old-hand members of the audience chanting out the spellings with the contestants.

Most nations couldn't have a national spelling bee because in their languages it's "what you see is what you hear". The Germans, who like competition as much as any of us (and, bugger them, more often win), run instead a "longest word of the year" contest. The 1999 winner I find particularly cute: Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.

It means "beef labelling regulation and delegation of supervision law". There's something wonderfully Teutonic about that megasyllabic mouthful. But no German eight-year-old would have difficulty spelling it. Or, come to that, the German for logorrhea (Gesprächsdrang), which made young Nupur speller of the year. German spell-check programs have an easy time of it.

The Americans wouldn't have been able to have their beloved spelling bees themselves if their great lexicographer Noah Webster (1758-1843) had had his way. One of Webster's revolutionary missions was to liberate English spelling from its English shackles – to decolonise it, if only symbolically. Hence plow (plough), color (colour), center (centre), etc. He could never persuade his compatriots to go all the way. But Webster's mark remains indelibly on American English.

The utter irrationality of British spelling has been most recently attacked by John Wells, a professor of phonetics and president of the Spelling Society. Wells's proposal was, on the face of it, mild enough: "Let's allow people greater freedom to spell logically," adding, "Have we really nothing better to do with our lives than fret about the apostrophe?"

It's stirred the predictable hornet's nest. Lynne Truss, who would go to the stake for the English apostrophe, has come down on Wells like the proverbial ton (tonne?) of bricks.

Most critics assumed, in their fury, that what Wells was advocating was anarchy, with everyone being allowed their own spelling – the kind of "cacography" you see on pub walls. He wasn't. What Wells wants is a little more respect for his beloved phonemes. Bringing, that is, what the eye sees more in line with what the ear hears. A tad more Websterisation ("Websterization"), in other words.

Spelling reform is a culturally important quarrel. It raises hackles. The arguments for and against can be summarised as follows:

The Over My Dead Body Party

1) The English language is not just a semiotic sign system, like Morse code or semaphore. It's a museum. Change the spelling and you vandalise that museum. English words have history inscribed in their eccentric lettering. Websterise plough into plow and you lose a link to the Scandinavian-Viking origin of the word, plogr, and with it, a great chunk of Dark Age history. Change paedophile to pedofile (or "pedo", as the lynchers' placards do) and you lose the Greek origins of paedophilia.

2) The Orwellian argument links into the foregoing. Simplify, or rationalise, language and you impoverish thought. Simplified spelling would, as sure as night follows day, bring with it a simplified vocabulary: "Newspeak", as Orwell called it. Why do we need five words for stop (desist, refrain, cease, halt, etc)? We need them because they refine thought and create epistemic liberty – the kind of liberties that dictators, tyrants and bureaucrats love to iron out. In the above, for example, there's no reason for having both "Teutonic" and "German" available for the point being made. One word would handle the root meaning. But don't the words, in context, have subtly different flavours? And what if one went further and used "Hunnish" or "Kraut"? More words, more freedom.

3) English spelling is inherently lovely, and irregular spelling is part of its loveliness. What English skin doesn't crawl when passing under that huge Freeway sign on the I-210, outside Los Angeles, "Thru Traffic OK"? Could Shakespeare write in Esperanto? Enough said, change nothing.

Change Everything

1) George Bernard Shaw left part of his fortune to the reform of English spelling by means of a new English alphabet or phonetic system (what he called "sound writing"). It looks like Pitman shorthand: all curves and squiggles. Shaw's case rested on two passionately held beliefs. First, that traditional spelling wasted time, space and printer's ink. Second, that traditional spelling locked the English into pernicious nostalgias for their glorious past. It would be good for our souls to get rid of all that archaeological baggage. We'd travel more lightly into the future.

2) Nowadays, much of our conversation is with computers. They're intelligent machines but they're not always smart and they have a terrible time with English spelling, particularly if, as happens, the users themselves are poor spellers. Google searches, for example, don't bother with apostrophes. They'd lose millions of hits if they did. Spelling and punctuational simplification would lubricate our relationship with the chips that increasingly rule our lives.

3) As Wells points out, spelling and pronounciation anomalies perpetuate unpleasant snobberies in British life. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, is, by those of her own class, pronounced Jorjana. Anyone who does not know that the sound of her name is nothing like the letters is, clearly, an oick. The kind of oick who asks for "Cockburns" port. Or who calls Keira "Kyra".

4) Economy ("Haven't we something better to do with our time?") is Wells's strongest argument. It takes many months of a child's school education to master "correct" spelling. That time could be more productively spent than mastering the mysterious applications of "i after e, except after c".

5) Disabled Access. There are many of us – 10 per cent of the population, according to some estimates – who are dyslexic. They can't spell well and never will. They are not dumb (check out "famous dyslexics" on Google). Logical spelling would be for them what stairlifts and ramps are for the physically challenged.

Myself, I'm relaxed on the subject, as, I suspect, most of us are, though we can see the force of both the traditionalists and the reformists. I think there is a case for a bit more Websterisation. And a strong case (are you listening, Independent?) for an English newspaper to follow its American counterparts and sponsor a National Spelling Bee. They're fun. 2012 would be a good year to kick off.

John Sutherland is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London

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