Friday, November 26, 2010

Moron Writing

More accurately, of course, the title of this post is "More on Writing." It's not a particularly good pun (is it a pun?), I'll grant you, but it was prompted by something in this article in today's Times about the Royal Spanish Academy's "simplifying" of the Spanish alphabet. The Academy has decided that the letters "ch" (pronounced* "che") and "ll" ("ell-yay") are superfluous and will be omitted, bringing the total number of letters in the alphabet to 27—the additional letter being "ñ" ("en-yay"). It doesn't really change all that much: the ordinary Spanish-speaker will continue to put "c" and "h" together to make the "ch" sound—as we do in English—it just won't be part of the official alphabet.

What inspired me to write about this story is not that I have a problem with the removal of these two letters but this quote from Gabriel García Márquez:
At the first international congress of the Spanish language in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1997... Márquez declared, “Let’s retire spelling, the terror of all beings from the cradle.” But he admitted that his pleas were little more than “bottles flung to the sea in the hope that they would one day come to the god of all words.”
My first thought was: how beautiful—that man really is an amazing wordsmith! But his reference to spelling being "the terror of all beings" got me thinking about George Bernard Shaw's somewhat quixotic attempts to change English spelling to match the way words are pronounced (i.e., "ruf" instead of "rough") and, ultimately, to abandon the English alphabet entirely in favor of a purely phonetic one. I say it was only somewhat quixotic because his spelling reforms were merely 50 or so years ahead of their time: today, we call that texting. The phonetic alphabet, on the hand, seems destined to remain an amusing curiosity for those few people who are even familiar with it.

However much I admire these men, I must, respectfully, disagree with them. Perhaps, as my mother often says, it's because my first and second grade teachers in Odessa, TX, used phonics to teach us spelling—this was in 1969-70, over a decade before "Hooked on Phonics" exploded in the '80s—but I'm a pretty good speller. Of course, I have to look up words all the time— and are always open when I'm writing—and the spell check corrects me much more often than I'd like, but most of my mistakes are due to my laziness as a proofreader: I'll get to typing fast and put down a homophone (most often, the ubiquitous "it's" for "its") and don't read over it again very carefully when I'm done. But one of the things I enjoy about writing is using the right word and spelling it correctly: for me, there's something intensely satisfying about knowing when to use "stationary" or "stationery," and "though" is simply more aesthetically pleasing than "tho."

Returning to the title of this post: no, I don't think that poor spellers are morons. There are plenty of times when I will opt for a phonetic spelling, especially when writing a play—there, how a word sounds and what it conveys are paramount and I will often write phonetically because I hope that gives the actor more information about the character or my intention for a line. It's important to know when and why to break the rules (Finnegan's Wake springs to mind as a good example of this and I know there are plenty of others) but that presumes that the author knows the rules. This really just reinforces my belief that spelling counts.

*If you're really interested in these pronunciations, there's a handy little website that has a child pronouncing the alphabet for you. You'll notice that the website also includes "rr" ("air-ray" with a rolled "r"), which is commonly included in the alphabet, but is not recognized by the Academy.

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