Friday, October 14, 2005

Eating ghotifingaz and coming from da endz

It's been a week in which teachers have been criticised for their poor spelling and questions have been asked about children's levels of literacy. So what's that headline all about?

Well, in case you didn't know, "ghoti" spells "fish" and "da endz" is some form of youth slang for "the area you live in" (as in "You coming round my yard tonight?", "No, why don't you come round my endz", or something...) but both examples highlight issues with English spelling: its bizarre rules and its susceptibility - or otherwise - to the powerful forces of slang and language variation.

First off, in an article on the TES website, Bill Hicks talks about the uproar among teachers when The Times poked fun at their dodgy spelling in an online debate about literacy. I've got to admit, I've seen some really awful spelling among teachers of all subjects and feel embarrassed when I spot reports going home with howlers like "recieved", "Mark must work too his full potential" and "I hope this isn't to late", but isn't it a bit much to criticise teachers for what they write on discussion boards. Isn't it all down to context?

Most young people don't text in standard grammar or using standard spellings, and most teachers probably slip into a different register when they're contributing to internet discussions or sending colleagues emails. After all, we switch between registers when we speak to each other and use different elements of our "linguistic wardrobe" (as Jennifer Coates puts it). On top of that, there are the usual typing errors and technological cock-ups that lead to unwitting mistakes.

But beyond this discussion about appropriateness within given contexts, there's a bigger problem: the illogicalities of English spelling. If you can write the sound "ee" in 12 different ways, as a colleague at another college, Susan Wilde, has done in one of her resources (available for download from the resources site - thanks Susan!) then what hope is there for children trying to learn how to spell?

English spelling is notoriously tricky and contains relics from all sorts of bygone eras, and borrowed words from all over the world. If we take the noun "debut" as an example, you can see that in its original language (French, I assume), the "t" sound is silent. We've converted the noun into a verb as well, since importing the term and can now write "debuted" (using an -ed suffix to denote the past tense) but it sounds nothing like how it's written. For more on the history of English spelling have a look here, while if you want to check your own spelling have a look at the BBC's hardspell site here.Today's Daily Mirror also carries a feature on spelling here. Elsewhere, campaigners for spelling reform put their case, arguing for a change to the way we spell words to help bring spelling closer to pronunciation.

Finally, with texting and email language embedding spellings like "da" for "the" and "dem" for "them" into the lexicon of younger people, perhaps reflecting a Caribbean influence on the phonology of many youngsters in London and beyond, is the spelling system being pulled in conflicting directions? Is English spelling caught between the fossilised remains of the Great Vowel Shift and the shiny I-Pod English of the present day?

"Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold" - or should that be "center" ?!

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change and Varieties
ENA6 - Language Debates

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