Wednesday, November 08, 2006

All together now!

This is one that we can all join in on.
My friend Cassie wrote a more thorough diatribe than i have time to recreate anew, inspired by this article:
Original post is here is you want to comment to Cassie directly.

I don't know if I am spelling evisceration right...
Simon Jenkins, once a self-anointed defender of Standard English, is now celebrating the fact that the Scottish Qualifications Authority has decided to allow SMS speak in their exams. Oh, thank the heavens, that this lofty knight has coming riding out of the backwoods and given up the cause of archaism!

Sir Simon seems to think that a revolution is coming, heralded by the decision of the SQA, a revolution carried on the backs of the ‘champions of reason’ – and that these champions are the people lazy enough to use SMS speak in examinations.

The revolution for Sir Simon is one of spelling reform, but I am confused as to how SMS speak can signal a reform any of us would want.

I have no problem with SMS speak as a functional language for short, simple conversation – necessity being the mother of invention, in this case she invented a way to circumvent character restrictions on a cheap form of communication. What I object to is its use in longer, more in-depth communications, such as essays, fiction or opinion pieces, when it clearly doesn’t have the range of meaning to convey what needs to be said.

Sir Simon seems to be confused: on the one hand he wants spelling reform, to make the English language more democratic and accessible, but on the other he is championing this ludicrous new ‘language’, which is patently incapable of speaking for the multitude.

SMS speak is fine to tell people you’re running late, or you’ve got the job, or any number of other teaser messages – a way to give the bare bones and wait to flesh out the story when you’ve a keyboard or a person in front of you – but it won’t allow you to tell your story there and then. You can condense basic words – you, two, then, etc – all you like, but what about more complex words – terrified, ecstatic, depressed? How can they be incorporated into SMS speak?

I notice that Sir Simon doesn’t use his lauded SMS speak in his own opinion piece on the matter. Perhaps because it can’t adequately convey his meaning?

Sir Simon goes on to champion spelling reform, saying that our labyrinthine and archaic orthography is a way of, essentially, keeping the rabble out, as Latin was once used, when “knowing your ‘ie’ from your ‘ei’ or ‘-ible’ from ‘-able’ does not affect a word’s meaning one jot.”

What about, Sir Simon, the difference between a good, honest knight, such as yourself, and the perpetual night of orthographic antiquity, which you long to save us from? What about, Sir Simon, the difference between wholesome, as it is currently spelt, and holesome, as you suggest we spell it?

I suggest Sir Simon’s argument is holesome, indeed.

For example, Sir Simon gives the Americans as an example of those who readily embrace spelling reform (and suggests that the British have rejected it only because it reeks [or would you prefer wreaks, Sir Simon?] of Americano). Sir Simon has obviously forgotten the uproar that occurred when Webster’s Third was published – this edition had the audacity to suggest that the meaning of words could be dictated by their use. “How will we know the correct way to speak?!” the Americans cried.

Of course, this isn’t the same as spelling, but it shows that Americans are as willing to be told how to use language from on-high, and to use these commandments to distinguish themselves from the rabble, as the ‘deplorable’ British.

Sir Simon also gives Shakespeare, and his multifarious spelling choices, as an example of how it was possible to “convey the clearest of messages with random spelling”. He is, of course, ignoring the fact that Shakespeare communicated in a primarily oral medium, which meant spelling was a non-issue, and the fact that Shakespearean spelling isn’t clear, and has to be regularly tidied up for the general public.

“[George Bernard Shaw] was right in claiming that archaic spellings were maintained to keep the poor illiterate,” Sir Simon writes, insulting poor people everywhere by calling them too stupid to understand something rich people have no trouble doing. I was always under the impression that what kept the poor illiterate was not the confusion of two, to and too, but inferior or no education. Does Sir Simon know better?

Obviously not, because earlier in his piece, he claims that whenever he writes ‘cough’, ‘bough’ and ‘through’, he thinks of the “teeming millions of students who ask their teachers: why? There is no answer.” An example of bad education if ever I heard one. There is an answer and reason to every spelling quirk – from its language of origin, to a craze for a particular clump of letters, to popularisation by an author. It may not be a reason you like, but it exists.

The fact is, English is a confusing language, its spelling especially so. It is so confusing because it is confused – a hodgepodge of loan and portmanteau words, a vital and changing language. This is why I and thousands of others love it. It’s confusing, but millions have mastered it, and millions more can – all they need is a decent education.

Sir Simon brings Orwell to his arsenal, claiming that he associated the dogma of orthography with totalitarianism. But what I remembered from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was a language stripped of meaning by being rendered simple and dull. A language which shares a lot in common with SMS speak.

I doubt Orwell would be praising the rise of ‘ur’ ‘2b’ and ‘l8r’ as heralding a new wave of spelling reform. By suggesting that it is, Sir Simon offers us a brave new world in which, because we are too stupid to understand Standard English, we must use a language too cramped to express anything but the meanest, poorest sentiments.

Rage, rage against the dying of the lite.

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