Miss Pelling

Recently I was asked to share a post about The Most Misspelled English Word in Every Country and State, Based on Two Billion Tweets.

The most misspelled word in every country and state

However, on a list of the 100 Most Commonly Misspelled Words on YourDictionary.com, foreign and miniscule do appear, but coolly and promise don’t.

Miniscule is in fact a “disputed spelling variant of minuscule”, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It as been around since the late 19th century and often appears in print, although is “widely regarded as an error”.

This got me thinking – if a word is widely misspelled / misspelt*, is this a sign of language change? Maybe one day the misspelling will be accepted as an alternative way to spell the word, or even as the standard way to spell it.

*misspelt is used in the UK, though has become less widely-used since the 1970s, while misspelled is used in most English-speaking countries, including the UK [source].

English spelling is not entirely fixed, and some words may have more than one standard spelling, particularly in different varieties of English.

According to Wikipedia, “Spelling is a set of conventions that regulate the way of using graphemes (writing system) to represent a language in its written form … Spelling is one of the elements of orthography, and highly standardized spelling is a prescriptive element.”

Standardized / standardised spelling is a relatively recent phenomenon that developed along with dictionaries, universal education, literacy and language academies. It is enforced by teachers, proofreaders, editors and pedants.

In the past, spelling was very much a matter of personal choice. For example, there are six known signatures written by William Shakespeare, each of which is spelled differently: Willm Shakp, William Shaksper, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere and William Shakspeare [source]. In printed works his name appears as Shake‑speare, Shakeſpeare, Shak‑speare and Shakeſpere. The Shakespeare spelling became popular from the 1860s [source].

Does spelling matter?

It does, at least in formal writing. In informal writing, it may not be so important, as long as your message is clear. In fact, non-standard spellings might be preferred in some contexts. They are certainly a popular way to make brandnames distinct – Kwik Fit, Krispy Kreme, etc.

Illiteracy and standard language

Many primary school children are not becoming fully literate in English because their teachers are apparently letting them use “street talk” in the classroom, according to a report commissioned by the mayor of London and reported in The Guardian today.

One third of children in London have reading difficulties at the age of 11, and the report claims that reasons for this include teachers’ reluctance to ‘correct’ pupils’ English so as not to interfere with their self-expression; indifference among working class parents to their children’s education; and imperfect knowledge of “spelling and syntax” among teachers.

The report’s author, Miriam Gross, a teacher and journalist, recommends a structured use of synthetic phonics to teach literacy.

The report appears to be based, at to some extent, on anecdotal evidence, so the conclusions aren’t necessarily the most reliable. It describes the language used by pupils as “argot mixing linguistic influences from Cockney to Indian” and comments that “White and non-white children alike in deprived inner-city areas often speak “street”, with its own grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.”

The dictionary definition of literacy is:

  1. the ability to read and write
  2. the ability to use language proficiently

However there are different degrees of literacy, ranging from ‘functional literate’ – those who can read and write what they need to function in everyday life; and ‘highly literate’ – those who are very well-read and write elegant, standard language. Those at the latter end of the continuum might view those at the other end as illiterate, and might describe their language as inarticulate, argot, patois, incoherent grunts or use similarly scathing terms – the report certainly does so. Such judgements are rarely based on a thorough understanding of the varieties of language in question.

Are pupils corrected when they use non-standard language in your country?

Playing school

The subject of children playing school came up today in a lecture in the context of how children acquire literacy. The study we were discussing focused on literacy in monolingual English families and polyglot Bangladeshi families in a poor area of London. The researchers found that in the Bangladeshi families it was almost always the older siblings helped their younger siblings with reading, while in the monolingual English families, it was often the parents who helped with reading.

The Bangladeshi children saw reading as something very serious and they all went to classes almost every day after school to learn to read Bengali and Arabic, while the English children saw reading outside school as a fun activity that they enjoyed doing, but didn’t take seriously.

When playing school the Bangladeshi children took it seriously, were strict and imitated their teachers both from their day schools and their evening classes. This involved the younger children reading aloud until they came to a word they didn’t know, which the older children would tell them. The older children also corrected their mistakes. As the younger children became more confident in their reading skills, the older ones gradually removed this supportive scaffolding. This is a technique used in their Bengali and Arabic classes, but quite different to the methods used in the day schools, where the teachers will often simply repeat the words the children have read rather than helping with the next ones.

For the English kids the emphasis when playing school was on the play rather than the school, and it was more popular with the girls than the boys.

Did you play school when you were a kid? Do your children do this? How seriously did you/do they take it?

Irregular English spelling

In a speech at the centenary dinner of the Spelling Society, a professor of phonetics from University College London claimed that people should be allowed greater to spell English logically. He believes that the ways of spelling English found in text messages and online chat are a good model to follow. He also said that the apostrophe “causes unnecessary linguistics barriers” and could simply be omitted, or we could use a space instead.

There are some details of the professor’s proposals on the BBC site.

Many have proposed reforming English spelling, few have made any difference.

Do you think the benefits of reforming English spelling would outweigh the drawbacks?

Fluency and literacy

Is it possible to achieve spoken fluency in a second language without being able to read it?

This question was sent in by Ian McGilloway and comes, in part, from a discussion he had on holiday where the local staff at a diving company in a small fishing village on an island spoke pretty good English with English accents but could barely read and write. He wondered how far they could take their range of language and if they would plateau out without the extra input from reading.

He thinks it possible to speak a second/foreign language fluently without being literate in it, but it would be considerably easier if you could read it. Largely because the range of vocabulary you’d be exposed to would be far greater. In particular, with languages which have different registers that depend on the social status of people in the group and so on.

In some cases language learners might learn to read a language only in transliteration if it’s written with a different alphabet or other writing system. This is especially true for Chinese and Japanese. They can achieve spoken fluency in such languages, I think, but might miss out on some literary aspects.

Have you learnt to speak any languages without learning to read them?

Or conversely have you learnt to read any languages without learning to speak them?