Let me spell it out: we're never going to change

4th July 2008 at 01:00
Goldfish apparently have longer memories than we give them credit for

Goldfish apparently have longer memories than we give them credit for. So instead of thinking, "Wow, that's new", every time they do a circuit of the bowl, what's really going through their not so tiny minds is, "Oh no, not again!"

There are certain issues in the lives of us humans that are like that too. They just seem to come around and around with predictable regularity. One of these is the way we spell our words in English.

We all know that it's a bit of a bugger that the combination of letters that makes "ough" can be pronounced about 14 different ways. But don't we just have to get on with it? Not according to the Spelling Society, founded in 1908 as the Simplified Spelling Society, but later dropping the "simplified" - no doubt in the interests of simplicity.

At its recent conference in Coventry, the society was once again banging the drum for reform. There has been regular pressure exerted on this issue since at least the early 19th century, with no tangible results to date.

Andrew Carnegie, the great Scottish philanthropist, once donated a quarter of a million dollars to the cause. Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw both campaigned for spelling reform, Shaw leaving money in his will for a contest to design a new phonetic alphabet for English. This was duly produced and just as duly ignored.

There are, of course, lots of good reasons why we should tidy up English spelling. As someone who has to teach it, for instance, it would make my life a whole lot easier. Rather more importantly, it could help English children to read and write with greater facility.

This was the angle highlighted at the Spelling Society's conference, with speaker Masha Bell arguing that it is the inconsistencies in our language that are to blame for our poor literacy results compared with much of the rest of Europe.

Other countries have shown the way. In 1928, the Turks switched their entire alphabet from Arabic to Latin. And, more recently, both the old Soviet Union and the Germans introduced reforms.

Would it work here too? Possibly. Will it happen here? Not a chance.

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