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The Joys of Spelling

Gennaio 2005
Per gli studenti inglesi (e non solo) lo spelling è uno spauracchio, perché non segue alcuna logica. Ma grazie a un recente concorso televisivo destinato ai ragazzi delle medie, lo studio dell’ortografia sta diventando addirittura chic.
A Scrabble board
A Scrabble board

Five schoolchildren aged 12 and 13 recently did battle on prime time television to find Britain’s best young speller. In a BBC series watched by millions they leapt over ellipsis, conquered pugnacious and survived cryogenics. The programme, Hard Spell, has struck a remarkable chord among schools and youngsters. Suddenly spelling is hot: so hot that it’s cool to know your coccyx from your humerus. The idea tapped into a passion for spelling words and 100,000 children applied to take part.

Spell “Ironic”

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.”

Keeping it Simple

The success of Hard Spell raises 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?
At first sight it seems obvious that correct spelling is necessary, indeed vital, since without it we are vulnerable to all manner of misunderstanding.  
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a spelling error could alter the course of history. In the recent power struggle in Ukraine, one candidate for the presidency  mocked his rival for being unable to spell the word professor. In 1992 the American vice-president Dan Quayle famously misspelt potato. Would you vote for someone who cannot spell?
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 entries as embarrass, accommodation and onomatopoeia.

Whoops!

Though almost a quarter of children still leave school unable to read or write properly, the drive to improve literacy has pushed up standards. Certainly many children are now better spellers than the education department civil servant who sent out 48,000 posters promoting literacy. They had to be withdrawn, at a cost of £6,000, because they contained two spelling errors.
But, 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.

Evolution

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 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.
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.

Change the Alphabet

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 “secretary” 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.
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 trouble is that getting everyone to follow large changes at once is extremely difficult. Instead, change seems to happen incrementally in small steps. To this end one campaign, “freespeling”, is running an internet vote on the best way to spell 500 awkward words. Its suggestions for yacht include yot and yat, and those for enough include enuf and inuf. Ugly? Probably, but in language brevity is a powerful force. “Change is happening at the moment with text messaging,” says Wells. Even some Scrabble players claim text-message neologisms should be allowed in the game (tho so far it hsnt hpnd mch).


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Glossary

leapt over... pugnacious... cryogenics - per gli inglesi lo spelling di queste parole di origine greco-latina risulta molto più difficile che per gli ita­liani.

has struck a remarkable chord - ha particolarmente colpito l’imma­ginario.

to know your coccyx from your humerus - distin­guere il coccige dall’omero.

tapped into a passion - ha sfruttato una passione.

piquant - stimolante, interessante.

to raise - sollevare.

to mock - prendere in giro.

entries - voci.

literacy - alfabetizzazione.

education department ... servant - impiegato del mini­stero dell’istru­zione.

withdrawn - ritirati.

it is a damn poor mind - è una mente assai ristretta.

oddities - stranezze.

debt - debito.

awkward - goffo, inutile.

sheer - puri e semplici.

scissors - forbici.

wholesale - totale.

scrapped Arabic script - eliminò l’alfabeto arabo.

enough - abbastanza.

text messaging - messaggi SMS.

Scrabble - Scarabeo (il gioco).