An out-of-control language crash diet

27th April 2001 at 01:00
WELCOME to the MOR B household. Yes, for her birthday, my eldest got a txt mssg mobile and suddenly every noun in sight seems to be going on a crash diet.

While I have enjoyed my daughters' discussion about how best to slim down orthographic dinosaurs like "through", and "Cholmondley", I do get precious about Mourby. Not that my daughters give a damn. I once made the mistake of telling them that Shakespeare couldn't spell his own surname and, boy, are they exploiting this excuse now. Of course, what both of them ignore is the fact that old Shagspear would have spelled his name correctly, had the idea of standardised spelling existed 150 years ahead of Johnson's dictionary. When Will wrote "To bee or not to bee", 17th century readers did not fall about laughing because the bard had just proved himself a bonehead. Ours, however, is a post Johnsonian society where irregular spelling marks you down, not only in essays but as a fool.

That's not to say language shouldn't evolve. Were he writing today, Hemingway wouldn't dream of calling his mastepiece "For Whom The Bell Tolls", though personally I can't imagine "The Person The Bell Tolls For" selling as well. There is a certain gracefulness in that redundant dative case, just as there is in the conditional tense which has also all-but disappeared. If I were a teacher today, I'm sure I'd accept "If I was a teacher" instead.

But these are linguistic dodos. Let them die from natural causes and neglect. Our language no longer needs datives and conditionals, and when they go, clarity, the primary requirement of language, won't suffer.

Spelling also needs an overhaul. We have too many words with more unpronounced letters than pronounced. I'm delighted my daughters are joining the cause, but we need a new Dr Johnson to standardise this, not schoolgirls discussing the relative merits of 2B R NT 2B against 2B R 2B.

Johnson's dictionary gave us a language that made sense wherever, and however, it was spoken. Without a new one we'll soon be back to five different ways of spelling Shaksbeer. And people who can't spel luk sil e.


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