5 Dec 2004. The Sunday Times. Excerpts.

Focus: It's tough, it's cool, its ... spelling

English may be difficult, but a national TV spelling contest has proved a big hit. Richard Woods reports.

The success of Hard Spell follows the phenomenon of spelling competitions that has swept America. A documentary on the subject, ... Titled Spellbound; a book Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary.

And yet there is a piquant irony in all this fervour. In many other countries such a spelling competition would be absurd because their languages are far simpler. Words are spelt as they sound.

"A contest comparable to Hard Spell in Italian would be ridiculous," says John Wells, a professor of phonetics at London University. In Italian, words tend to be spelt as they are pronounced. "Hard Spell reflects the fact that our spelling is hard. It's a pity that we have to have this type of contest."

There is no denying the skill of tonight's contestants and they deserve their moment of glory, but ought their effort to prompt wider questions? Does proper, accurate spelling matter in the age of computers? And could English, a language that millions of foreigners have to acquire, be made easier to spell and therefore easier to learn?

The Labour government certainly believes spelling to be important and in 2001 it dispatched to schools a list of 700 words that every pupil ought to know how to spell. It included such treacherous entries as embarrass, accommodation and onomatopoeia.

As Andrew Jackson, US president from 1829 to 1837, once said: "It is a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word." Over the years some words have been left with alternative forms and others with unnecessary oddities. Take the "b" in debt. Though the word originates from the Latin debere, it comes via the Old French dette. Do we really need that awkward, silent "b" that was put back in later?

As Wells points out: "Our spelling comes from a variety of etymological roots, sheer cussedness and sad accidents of history."

The word scissors, for example, started out as sisoures and moved through sisours, sycers and other forms before ending up where it is today. Somehow a "c" (s)nipped in near the beginning. Even Shakespeare's name has had different spellings at different times, from Shakspere to Shaxberd.

The result is a complicated system in which the same letter can have different sounds, while same-sounding words can have different meanings. Such talent for linguistic fecundity is still with us, helping the language evolve - but also keeping alive campaigns to have the spelling system simplified.

George Bernard Shaw was so infuriated by English that he suggested starting again with a new alphabet. And in fact in the 1960s campaigners persuaded the government to run a pilot project in primary schools using a modified alphabet.

"It worked well, but the government terminated it after a couple of years," said John Gledhill, membership "secretery" of the Simplified Spelling Society. He claims that countries with simple spelling, such as Italy and Spain, have high rates of literacy, while English-speaking countries generally have some of the worst.

The society believes we should adopt a more phonetic approach and declares that it is "werking for pland chanje in english spelling for the bennefit of lerners and uzers evrywair".

Although wholesale reform might seem a mountainous task, it does occasionally happen. The most striking example is that of Turkey, which scrapped Arabic script and adopted the Latin alphabet. The Dutch, too, have tried to simplify what they splendidly call "bastaardwoorden" borrowed from other languages; and the French have had a crack at reforming plurals and circumflexes.

The trouble is that getting everyone to follow large changes at the same time is extremely difficult. Instead, change seems to happen incrementally in small steps.

To this end one campaign, called freespeling, is running an internet vote on the best way to spell 500 common but awkward words. Its suggestions for yacht include yot and yat, and those for enough include enuf and inuf.

Ugly? Infelicitous? Probably, but in language brevity is a powerful force. "Change is happening willy-nilly at the moment with text messaging," says Wells.

Corruptions and compressions are creeping into hallowed sanctuaries. The word "pjs" for pyjamas now appears in some dictionaries. Even some Scrabble players claim that text-message neologisms should be allowed in the game (tho so far it hsnt hpnd mch).

To defenders of current spelling, there is far too much to lose to entertain any change. One of the greatest linguists of the day, Noam Chomsky, believes that the complexity of English has many advantages, signposting roots and connections while allowing subtleties that might otherwise evanesce.

Others argue that technology has moved the debate on. "I think the Simplified Spellers have missed the boat," said Sue Palmer, an independent literacy specialist. "Now we have computer spell checkers, many of the problems can be overcome."

Palmer readily admits the devices are no panacea. She remembers one instance when a computer turned a misspelt tentacles into testicles; a computer will also happily announce you have given birth to squads, not quads.

But more importantly Palmer argues that good spelling using the current system is perfectly feasible, as well as desirable. Teach phonics and spelling early, she says, and reading becomes easier, and a virtuous circle takes shape.

"On top of that, so much of our history is enshrined in our spelling," she said.

And those who remain befuddled by orthographic rectitude should remember that all is not lost. On the internet there is "research" claiming that as long as you get the first and last letters of a word right, it doesn't much matter what happens in the middle. [N.B. It needs the right letters, but not the right letter order within the first and last letters.]

The Hrad Sllep comttiton, you see, may be a tfirric cotsnet but the fcat is taht the brian smoohew ebanles msot peepol to dephicer wirtng even wehn its slepped as blady as tihs.

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BBC News 24. Breakfast. 8:50am. Sunday 5 Dec 2004.

Vivian Cook, Professor of Applied Linguistics, author of 'Accomodating brocolli in a cemetary', and Chris Jolly from the Simplified Spelling Society.

What do you think of the Hard Spell program?

VC. It's very nice to have spelling on primetime television, and it's nice that they've got the right kinds of words (on the American ones, they had the wrong kinds of words!). I'm not convinced that it is really a test of spelling, because what they're doing is saying words aloud letter by letter. Spelling to me is reading and writing and what you can test is how well they can read things and how well they can write things. Just saying words aloud, letter by letter, is not really using written language, it is using spoken language.

Chris Jolly, correct spelling is not the be all and end all in your book so to speak?

CJ. Oh yes, correct spelling is right. My concern is that we have so many words that are irregularly spelt and therefore it makes it more difficult for children to learn to read. It takes them longer, and is more likely to lead to failure in learning to read.

So what do you think should be done?

CJ. I would like to see some of the words in our language simplified, made easier to learn. Particularly I'd like to see letters removed from words where they only serve to confuse.

You'd like to change the system, wouldn't you?

CJ. I'd like to change some of the spellings.

Can you give us some examples?

CJ. Yes, a word like 'friend', which should be spelt like 'trend' or 'send' or 'bend'.

So f-r-e-n-d, instead of f-r-i-e-n-d?

CJ. Correct.

And would you like that to change in the method of teaching or would you actually like 'friend' to be re-spelt for everybody?

CJ. Re-spelt for everyone. I would say that it should start with adults, that as adults we should be prepared to accept the word 'frend' spelt that way. And then that could filter through to the teaching.

Vivian Cook, what do you think about that?

VC. I've never been convinced about spelling reform, to be honest. One of the snags is that it would then have to correspond to a particular accent of English, rather than the variety of accents we have been seeing on the program. People do link sounds to their own accent.

Do they pronounce 'friend' any differently in North Wales than they do in Devon?

VC. No, but if you took the word 'bath', for instance, in Essex, children would spell it b-a-f 'barf', because that is the natural pronunciation.

What does spelling matter? Your book is 'Accomodating brocolli in the cemetary' but if you spelt 'broccoli' wrongly, what does it actually matter to the person who is spelling it as long as he knows what it means?

VC. That is quite true. The first stage is thinking about getting the meaning across, in spelling that people can understand. The second stage, with spelling, is a bit like manners, a social thing; getting things wrong can be a social offence, and show certain things, that people are supposed to be less educated and so forth.

Chris Jolly, do you think we've been barking up the wrong tree, having programs like Hard Spell?

CJ. No it's fine, we all enjoy competitions, and I think the children will enjoy it as well. Correct spelling matters, and we're not going to change that. My point is that we could make the whole process simpler.

3 Dec 2004. Times Educational Supplement. Spelling. p6.
"The first gameshow on British television, in 1938, was called 'Spelling Bee'." "One of the few happy consequences of the Second World War was that it took 'Spelling Bee' off air, a critic later remarked."

Spelling Progress Bulletin. Spring 1972. pp10-16:
"After World War II, the American occupation forces in Germany tried to introduce the spelling bee as a part of the democratization program but they failed because of the uniformly high level of spelling prowess."

Accessed in September 2000 on:

David Blunkett's 600.

600 words that David Blunkett, then Minister of Education, believed children should be able to spell by year 7, age 12 years.

Common homophones and confusions | Science | Maths | History | Geography | RE | Music | Drama | PSHE | PE | Art | D&T | ICT | Library | English.

General spelling list.

accommodation actually alcohol although analyse/analysis argument assessment atmosphere audible audience autumn beautiful beginning believe beneath buried business caught chocolate climb column concentration conclusion conscience conscious consequence continuous creation daughter decide/decision definite design development diamond diary disappear disappoint embarrass energy engagement enquire environment evaluation evidence explanation February fierce forty fulfil furthermore guard happened health height imaginary improvise industrial interesting interrupt issue jealous knowledge listening lonely lovely marriage material meanwhile

miscellaneous mischief modern moreover murmur necessary nervous original outrageous parallel participation pattern peaceful people performance permanent persuade/persuasion physical possession potential preparation prioritise process proportion proposition questionnaire queue reaction receive reference relief remember research resources safety Saturday secondary separate sequence shoulder sincerely skilful soldier stomach straight strategy strength success surely surprise survey technique technology texture tomorrow unfortunately Wednesday weight weird women.

Common homophones and confusions.

advise/advice a lot of affect/effect allowed/aloud braking/breaking bought/brought choose/chose cloth/clothe conscience/conscious course/coarse our/are practise/practice quiet/quite sites/sights source/sauce thank you threw/through to/too/two.


absorb acid alkaline amphibian apparatus chemical circulate/circulation combustion condensation cycle digest/digestion disperse/dispersal dissolve distil/distillation element evaporation exchange freeze frequency friction function growth hazard insect laboratory liquid mammal method nutrient organism oxygen particles predator reproduce respire/respiration solution temperature thermometer vertebrate vessel.


addition angle amount approximately average axis calculate centimetre circumference co-ordinate decimal degree diameter digit divide/division enough equilateral estimate fraction graph guess horizontal isosceles kilogram litre measure metre minus multiply/multiplication parallel/parallelogram negative perimeter perpendicular positive quadrilateral radius regular rhombus rotate/rotation square subtraction symmetry/symmetrical triangle/triangular vertical volume weight.


agriculture/agricultural bias castle cathedral Catholic chronology/chronological citizen civilisation colony/colonisation conflict constitution/constitutional contradict/contradiction current defence disease document dynasty economy/economic/al emigration government immigrant imperial/imperialism independence invasion motive parliament politics/political priest propaganda Protestant rebel/rebellion reign religious republic revolt/revolution siege source trade traitor.


abroad amenity atlas authority climate contour country county desert employment erosion estuary function globe habitat infrastructure international landscape latitude location longitude nation/national physical pollution poverty provision region/regional rural settlement situation tourist/tourism transport/transportation urban wealth weather.


baptism Bible/biblical Buddhist/Buddhism burial celebrate/celebration ceremony Christian commandment commitment creation disciple faith festival funeral Hindu/Hinduism hymn immoral/immorality Islam Israel Judaism/Jewish marriage miracle moral/morality Muslim parable pilgrim/pilgrimage pray/prayer prejudice prophet religious/religion shrine sign Sikh/Sikhism special spirit/spiritual symbol synagogue temple wedding worship.


choir chord chromatic composition/conductor crotchet dynamics harmony instrument/instrumental interval lyric major melody minim minor musician octave orchestra/orchestral ostinato percussion pitch quaver rhythm scale score semibreve synchronise syncopation tempo ternary timbre triad vocal.


applause character/characteristics costume curtain director dramatise entrance exit freeze improvise inspire lighting movement perform/performance playwright position rehearse/rehearsal role scene/scenario script share spotlight stage theatre/theatrical.


able/ability achieve/achievement addict/addiction approve/approval communication control dependant/dependency discipline discussion effort emotion/emotional encourage/encouragement gender generous/generosity involve/involvement prefer/preference pressure racism/racist reality relationship represent/representative reward sanction sexism/sexist stereotype.


active/activity agile/agility athletic/athlete bicep exercise field gym/gymnastic hamstring injury league medicine mobile/mobility muscle personal pitch quadriceps qualify relay squad tactic tournament triceps.


abstract acrylic charcoal collage collection colour crosshatch dimension display easel exhibition foreground frieze gallery highlight illusion impasto kiln landscape palette pastel perspective portrait sketch spectrum.


aesthetic brief carbohydrate component design diet disassemble evaluation fabric fibre flour flowchart hygiene ingredient innovation knife/knives linen machine manufacture mineral natural nutrition polyester portfolio presentation production protein recipe sew specification technology tension textile vitamin.


binary byte cable cartridge CD-Rom computer connect/connection cursor data/database delete disk document electronic graphic hardware icon input interactive interface Internet justify keyboard megabyte memory modem module monitor multimedia network output password preview processor program scanner sensor server software spreadsheet virus.


Alphabet/alphabetical anthology article author catalogue classification content copyright dictionary editor encyclopaedia extract fantasy genre glossary index irrelevant/irrelevance librarian magazine non-fiction novel photocopy publisher relevant/relevance romance section series system thesaurus.


advertise/advertisement alliteration apostrophe atmosphere chorus clause cliche comma comparison conjunction consonant dialogue exclamation expression figurative genre grammar imagery metaphor myth narrative/narrator onomatopoeia pamphlet paragraph personification playwright plural prefix preposition resolution rhyme scene simile soliloquy subordinate suffix synonym tabloid vocabulary vowel.

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