Letters: Eccentric English

Millions struggle with the eccentric spelling of English

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Sir: To Philip Hensher (9 June) the peculiarities of English spelling seem just harmless eccentricities. He seems ignorant of the harm that spelling inconsistencies cause and deems people calling for improvements, from Benjamin Franklin down to Darwin, Shaw, Orwell and me, amiable eccentrics.

Unfortunately, inconsistent spellings like "touch, ouch, much" do a lot of damage. They leave nearly half of adults terrified of putting pen to paper. They make literacy teaching much more expensive: the average time taken by our children to acquire rudimentary competence in reading and writing is three years. Other Europeans need just one.

Even this disadvantage is not as serious as leaving one in five children still struggling with reading at the age of 11. This results in more of our teenagers ending up not in employment, education or training than anywhere else in Europe.

No spelling reformer currently alive would want to respell "it's always nice" the way Mr Hensher imagines. We can live with the majority of awful English spelling. What we urge people to appraise critically are the 800 words that make learning to read English difficult during the primary years. We are not even suggesting changing all of them. We want to make the early lives of children a bit more bearable by at least shedding totally useless letters in words such as "early, touch, friend, have, are" thereby making hundreds of other words less confusing too (ear, ouch, fiend, gave, care).

Masha Bell

Wareham, Dorset

Sir: Philip Hensher is reassuring about English orthography: no one may presume to claim power and authority over it. Unfortunately, he is wrong about the effects on literacy in the English-speaking world, and how the Oriental languages have coped with the lack of a relationship between spoken and written words.

Opaque orthographies, such as English, have a profound effect on literacy acquisition, acting as a social filter: the conditional probabilities of the code are beyond the capabilities of young children, resulting in much longer learning times compared with simpler codes found in transparent languages such as Italian. Many children who do not have the advantage of literate family environments remain functionally illiterate for their entire lives, passing this on to the next generation.

The Chinese government realised the devastating effect illiteracy had on pre-1949 society and effected a simplification of their character-based orthography. It didn't work, so they introduced pinyin, a transparent system of writing based on Roman characters. Chinese children learn this system in about 60 hours, and thereafter can read anything. Over time characters are introduced in their reading books with the pronunciation written above them in pinyin, and eventually pinyin is phased out. This also works for English. Our research shows that when a simplified version of English is used to support standard orthography children who are failing to acquire literacy skills make excellent progress.

Dr Ken Spencer

University of Hull

Biofuel doesn't have to clash with food

Sir: The debate about the role that biofuels may be playing in the rise in global food prices needs to be carried out with a greater awareness of the realities of developing-world agriculture. Your article on Jatropha curcas ("World food summit split over benefits of the toxic 'wonder plant' ", 5 June) is a demonstration that some NGOs are opposed to all biofuels per se. Even new crops that might help poor farmers in the developing world are attacked.

In this case, the NGO Grain claims that big business is enclosing poor men's land for "huge plantations" of jatropha. This is not correct. While jatropha has the potential to be grown on a larger scale to produce inedible vegetable oil for biodiesel, the crop is currently in the early stages of development. The bulk of jatropha planting in India by our company, D1 Oils, is on plots of one hectare or less.

Farmers want better and more productive crops, whether for food or fuel. No rational farmer will plant jatropha, still a new crop with a high level of agricultural risk, on good land that could grow established cash crops such as cotton or maize. Neither will he tie up the land he needs to feed his family with an energy crop. Jatropha offers farmers the prospect of incremental income. Developing countries that need to import diesel could benefit significantly.

How different the biofuels debate at the World Food Summit might be if delegates included more farmers and fewer NGOs claiming to speak for them. While the biodiesel debate remains a proxy fight for those who oppose capitalism and globalisation, we are unlikely to have an informed debate on how the balance between future food and fuel production can be achieved.

Elliott Mannis

Chief Executive Officer, D1 Oils London WC2

The Archbishop's leap of faith

Sir: Ian Quayle (letter, 9 June) suggests that the Archbishop of York's employment of a parachute in his skydiving exploit indicates lack of faith in the power of prayer. The Archbishop would have known that his Lord resisted temptation, when asked to jump off a high pinnacle, refusing in particular to test the presumption that angels would lift Him away from harm (Luke 4:9-12), a presumption the archbishop also refused to make.

The tempter? Satan. Ian Quayle keeps interesting company.

Douglas Smart

London E9

Sir: All over the UK, every year, people of all faiths and of none do extraordinary things to raise money for charity. From marathon running to sky-diving, from bungee-jumping to Land's End to John O'Groats bike rides, Britons of every class and creed are active in the name of worthy charitable causes, often at great personal risk.

However, the minute a clergyman in a cassock decides to publicise his personal effort, worthy as it is, the nation is apparently required to step back and gasp in collective awe at what Tini Brodie (Letters, 10 June) calls "people of courage and vision proclaiming the message of the Incarnation".

Alistair McBay

National Secular SocietyLondon WC1

Why Jews left Arab countries

Sir: Alan Halibard claims that 700,000 Jews were driven out of Arab countries in 1948 (letters, 5 June). In fact there was never any mass migration of Arabic-speaking Jews in that or any other year. Their history in each country was different.

The Jews of Iraq, for example, left over a period of several years, alarmed by a bombing campaign that has been attributed to Mossad. The Yemeni Jews left in bewilderment, thanks to a deal between their government and Israel's. In Morocco I met many contented Jews in 1961. Most Algerian Jews left for France at independence in 1962.

Without the violent creation of Israel, the ancient Jewish communities of the Arab world would still be where they had been for centuries, safe from the persecution suffered by their fellows under Christian rule.

P J Stewart


Tough decisions on siting of wind farms

Sir: Given that climate change is the most significant long-term threat to the natural environment, Terence Blacker is absolutely right to highlight the Government's renewable energy targets as an important measure ("Shouldn't local people have a say on wind farms?" 10 June). So Natural England makes no apology for our view that space must be found for clean energy, even if this means taking difficult decisions in return for long-term gain.

But these need to be well informed decisions. The maps we will publish to identify suitable areas for onshore wind energy development will tell us where development could go rather than where it should go. The information is intended to inform our thinking and that of others – surely preferable to taking a series of arbitrary decisions based on poor evidence.

If we're going to get serious about tackling climate change, we all need to play our part in developing positive well-informed solutions in order to reduce our carbon emissions.

Sir Martin Doughty

Chair, Natural England,Sheffield

Biblical bans on gay sex and shellfish

Sir: When drawing attention to the critical comments of Iris Robinson on the subject of homosexuality, Keith Gilmour makes the common error of mixing up the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity (letter, 9 June). He seems to suggest that Christians should follow the Old Testament laws verbatim as Orthodox Jews would do and he quotes similar condemnation in the Bible towards eating shellfish as towards homosexual sex.

We do not know what Jesus thought about homosexuality, because no one asked him during His ministry, although we are told that He loved His disciples. Yet we do know that He condemned heterosexual sex outside marriage as a sin, and as the Christian church does not recognise homosexual marriage, you can draw your own conclusions here.

However on the subject of eating shellfish, Jesus was precise in what He said, recognising that it was a major break from the Old Testament laws. He said that it is not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, but it's what comes out of it that matters. Gordon Ramsay and the producers of the "F" word might do well to chew on this fundamental tenet of Christianity.

David Owen

Mold, Flintshire

Anti-smokers have finally gone too far

Sir: John Smith (letter ,10 June) sees no evidence of non-smokers siding with smokers because he hasn't looked for it. I am a non-smoker and I have been most concerned at the demonisation of a sizable minority by the fanatics of the anti-smoking brigade. I have many similar friends who feel that enough is enough, including my local publican, whose financial position has been severely affected.

I would also like to address the question of smokers' costs for the NHS (letters, 7 and 9 June). Smokers help the economy in two ways. They pay taxes which exceed the NHS costs incurred, and they die younger. In general, whereas smokers have a single episode of terminal illness, non-smokers incur greater NHS costs in treating the many illnesses and disabilities associated with an extended senility. Smokers also have reduced personal care costs and they are less of a burden on the state and private pensions systems, resulting from their shortened lives. All of this reduces the burden of taxation for the rest of us.

Peter Janikoun

Holyport, Berkshire

Sir: Stephen Lustig thinks smokers are denied a proper social life, but he and other smokers impose their habit regularly on the social lives of non-smokers even with a so-called smoking ban (Letters, 10 June).

Should any non-smoker happen to sit outside a pub or cafe on a beautiful day, it won't be long before smoke from an adjoining table wafts across one's pint or food, leaving the non-smoker with no choice but to retreat indoors.

Richard Millett

London NW4

Sir: There is no ban on smoking in public (letter, 9 June), only in public buildings. So now those addicted to the noisome weed stand outside the buildings and blow smoke into the faces of those who pass by on the pavement. I have sympathy with smokers who can't give up, but it doesn't extend to stepping into the traffic to avoid inhaling their smoke.

Susan Gidden


Free ride on radio for TV refuseniks

Sir: I wonder how the smug TV licence refuseniks whose letters have been published in recent days make a contribution to their BBC radio listening. Or do they, unlike the other 22 million households in the UK, have no radio in the car, tranny in the kitchen or radio alarm clock that wakes them with the Today programme.

Perhaps they are smug because they get a free ride from their radios. In a just society they would put a cheque and a note of thanks in the post to Mark Thompson every year.

Jeff Wright


Tax in time

Sir: I don't know about Dr Vernon Coleman's tax affairs (letter, 10 June) but he must have quite a complicated system of records or an enormous income and expenditure account. It took me, a retired teacher, no more than half an hour to complete my simplified tax return.

Jeff Smith

Washingborough, Lincolnshire

Big issues, small effort

Sir: There is a very good reason why RE is the fastest growing GCSE subject in the last decade (letter, 10 June) – it's an utter doddle. The absence of hard facts (the very opposite being prerequisite) has meant it has taken over from sociology has the subject that requires the least input to gain the best results. The "big issues" being explored by RE teachers would be far better off being part of a rigorous and secular philosophy programme.

Stan Broadwell

Yate, South Gloucestershire

Voice of the people

Sir: In a parish poll last week, the village of Thurnby and Bushby outside Leicester voted by 877 to 11 (on a turnout of 33 per cent) to express opposition to the "eco-town" proposed to be built nearby. Does any reader know of a majority greater than 98.8 per cent in any previous election or referendum? (A free and fair one, that is?)

Professor Graham Shipley


Take my tip

Sir: Thanks for Johann Hari's timely article (9 June) on the tipping scam, which should certainly be made illegal. In the meantime, whenever I find a service charge added to a bill I simply ask, when handing over my card, for the charge to be deducted; this request has never been refused. Then of course I just tip the waiter myself.

Julie Harrison


National saviour

Sir: A blue plaque for Wallis Simpson (Opinion, 10 June)? After the abdication, Noel Coward's attitude was that a statue should be erected to her in every town in England for the blessing she had bestowed upon the country.

Geoffrey Myers

Croydon, Surrey

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