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The Liter Cide 2 Spelling

Vivian Cook 
Spelling Topics

SLA Topics

We all have had our bad experiences with spelling. The time the teacher told us off for the twentieth time for spelling 'receive' with an 'ie'. The time we wrote 'goges' on the blackboard rather than 'gorgeous' and everybody laughed. Oh spelling can be a fearsome monster.

Yet we all have to meet it face to face. Go along any street and you see the names of the shops - 'Fleurtations', 'Board Stupid' and 'A Salt N Battered'. Spelling jokes are everywhere, making visual puns out of English. But spelling's not supposed to be funny; it's supposed to scare you, isn't it?  

Or we text each other: 'c u l8er 4 t make sure u stop 4 something 2 eat'. It's fun; it's a secret language with its own rules based on the names of the letters and numbers. But you're not supposed to enjoy making new spellings up, are you?  

Or we buy number-plates for our cars. Do you fancy 'P9 YCO' or 'LUS 7Y' or Liberace's '88 KEYS'? Not cheap of course. 'K1 NGS' supposedly cost £235,000; 'S1 NGH' came a bit cheaper at £86,000 and 'C1 LLA' cost someone (I wonder who?) only £6,750. In England people pay fortunes for personalised number-plates even if in other countries the cost is nominal. People obviously think it's worth spending money on the monster of spelling.  

Even bigger money is involved in naming new drugs. They've got to sound effective 'Prozac' or scientific 'Xenical'. If possible, try to get some scientific-looking 'z's 'Zocor' or 'x's 'Xanax'. Medicine's even more effective if you can double the dose of consonants 'Vioxx'. If you're selling over the counter, make life 'easy' whether 'Polloneze', 'Diareze' or 'Herp-Eze'. Attracting the customer may depend on the right spelling.  

Often people use spelling to make something uniquely their own. The Kennel Club insists that each show dog has a unique name, most easily gained through spelling. So proud owners leave out the spaces between the words 'Kingatheroad', spell out letters 'Essayess' or make puns 'Stella A Trois'. Spelling shows the dog's individual identity, just as humans can have special spellings like 'Cholmondeley' (alias Chumley) or 'Sandys' (Sands).

People treat their houses in the same way. A beach hut is 'Thistle Dew', houses 'Tran Cwlity' or 'Dunbowlin'. A firm that make house signs told me that a common request is for 'Llamedos' (spell it backwards), a joke seen many years ago in Dylan Thomas's mythical Welsh village 'Llareggub'. Giving your house a quaint spelling tells people about your attitudes to life whether 'Itlldo', 'Homeleigh' or 'Sunnymeade'. Spelling is important for people.

So why are there doom-mongers on our radios and newspapers who lament that spelling is getting worse all the time? They treat spelling like the Highway Code – a set of restrictions on what you can and can't do. The pundits set themselves up as spelling cops enforcing the speed limits. Isn't it disgraceful that 40% of people can't spell 'embarrass' and 82% can't spell 'desiccate'? What is the world coming to?

But the rules of spelling aren't laid down by a government or a religion. It's not a criminal or a moral offence if you spell 'liaison' as 'liason'. The spelling rules we are taught are no more than rules of thumb, mostly invented a couple of hundred years ago. They're not set in tablets of stone by some absolute authority nor do they really provide much help in dealing with all the oddities of current English.

Take the most famous rule of all: 'i' before 'e' except after 'c' when 'ei' is said with a long 'ee' sound. Most of us mutter this to ourselves every time we type 'receive' or 'deceit'. It seems to work. But if you count up how many words it applies to you find only about ten base words with a 'cei' spelling, two of which are 'ceilidh' and 'fluorescein'. A rule that only applies to ten words is about as useful as a road-sign used in only ten junctions in England .

Of course knowing that such rules exist does mean that we get a buzz from breaking them. There aren't any fines for 'rebellious' spelling. Pop groups can call themselves 'Gorillaz', 'OP8' or 'Bhang II Rites'. They're proclaiming that they don't want to conform to the conventions.

Yet they still abide by a set of alternative conventions. Use a letter-name or a number for a syllable, 'Torna-K' and 'Pollen 8'; change 's' into 'z', 'Redz' and 'Zwan'; use a 'k' for 'c' 'Outkast'. This 'k' convention is all around us in shop names 'Klass Design' or cartoons 'Krusty the Clown'. It goes back two centuries, as in 'Ku Klux Klan'. There are conventions for being unconventional in spelling, otherwise nobody would understand you.

Of course you mustn't make spellings that look like mistakes rather than rebellion. Only 'Polloneze', 'Old Peculier' and 'Lands’ End' have been brave enough to stick with what at first sight look like actual mistakes. People have to be aware that you are deliberately transgressing, not just ignorant.

The main problem with bad spelling is that people see it as revealing all sorts of character defects – carelessness, lack of education or indeed sheer rudeness. What you have to be careful about is the public spelling that other people are going to see and read and judge you by, not the spelling of text messages and e-mails that are essentially private. The pundits' scorn is not because they can't understand but because they attach more value to spelling than communication – spelling 'accommodation' as 'acomodation' is a sign of not belonging to an educated group, just as texting 'See you later for tea' rather than 'c u l8er 4 t' is a sign of not being a texter.

There are of course real problems with English spelling. We link the letter 'a' to different sounds in 'bait', 'bat', 'combative', 'Bart' and 'many'. We have arbitrary rules that the letters 'ck' can't occur at the beginning of a word 'ckeel', only at the end 'back'. Many eccentric words have be remembered individually, whether 'yacht' or indeed 'of' (perhaps the only word in which 'f' stands for a 'v' sound). Children have to spend long years mastering these complex areas.

But English does after all get along quite well. The British Council estimates a billion people are learning English around the world. English has been highly successful and adaptable to modern uses in web-pages and e-mails. We shouldn't sell it short by complaining that a few rules at the fringe of the language are being ignored. Rather we should celebrate the richness of English spelling and the way that it figures in our lives in every street-sign, newspaper or e-mail.