“Superstition they said provided cures
And now we know it’s a deadly disease
Yet belief in miracles endures
We sing their hymns and litanies
We want the lame to walk again
And the blind be made to see
Martyrs court their deaths and then
Find that they have ceased to be.”
From Jagnu’s Paradoxes by Bachchoo
The Inturnashunul Inglish Speling Kongress has this week voted to propagayt sumthing kold Trudishunul Spelling RivIzd. Thay wont a noo set of rools to bekum dhu noo norm…
I suppose, gentle reader, you’ve got the drift and are, like me, a stick-in-the-mud antideluvian dinosaur, then perhaps I ought to spell it out for you: An outfit called the International English Spelling Congress (IESC) wants to perpetrate a new simplified English spelling. They want to make it as phonic as possible. So, for instance, they want to get rid of the w from wrong. And this in order to make it simpler for the dim to learn. Patronising or what?
Several names from my beloved city of London will no doubt engage their attentions: names like Knightsbridge, Cheapside, Marylebone and Holborn? All the common words with redundant unsounded letters such as know, knock and knife or pseudo and psychiatry will be easy to modify. But what will they do with P.G. Wodehouse’s characters like Featherstonehaugh, pronounced as “Fanshaw” -- and what about our own Willy Dalrymple who told me at the beginning of our friendship that it may be spelt that way but should be pronounced “Drimple”?
Very many English names are notorious for not sounding the way they look. St. John is “sinjin”; in Oxford and Cambridge Magdalene and Magdalen are both “maudlin”; Menzies is, incredibly, pronounced “ming”.
Some of these absurdities, meyrey yaaron (phonic pronunciation), make one side with the IESC, whoever these bods be -- but no! This revision is a foolish idea for two very good reasons. The first, pretty obvious one, (witch enny ful can c) is that one can’t legislate for a change in language, neither in vocabulary nor in spelling. Language evolves through necessity breeding invention, through absorbing words, meanings and nuances from other languages, and through sheer misuse becoming common practice and therefore part of the accepted and official, dictionarised thing. See? I just invented a verb, meaning to appear in dictionaries. I don’t know if any dictionary yet recognises that cool means hot or wicked means desirable or hot means compellingly attractive. When I speak to the young and ask them if they want more spinach, they say “I am good!” -- by which they mean “I don’t want any” and perhaps even “thank you”. If you ask them how they are, they profess their moral rectitude, instead of telling you that they are well.
And then, all and sundry, including the late Princess Diana in a televised interview, use the word hopefully, which used to strictly be an adverb -- to mean “I hope that”. A sort of “Inshallah”.
One accepts it, language changes and evolves through usage and not through committees and self-appointed sages legislating for it. One may, in evidence for this argument, cite the cases of Esperanto and Volapuk. These were languages invented to take the place of all others so that humanity could be one huge communicating family. No doubt this would bring a uniformity to our troubled planet, but wouldn’t it be the most boring place on earth? (Earth is the planet you fool – Ed).
I must confess that when I and some of my friends were sixteen, we embraced this ideal and thought we’d make a start by teaching ourselves Esperanto. I still remember how to ask someone if they spoke it. It’s “Chu vi parolas Esperanto?” and I still remember that boys were called knabo, with the k pronounced and girls were called sitabo -- I always imagined after our Hindu goddess/princess of the Ramayan.
The second reason to reject the attempt to turn English phonic is a bit more subtle, but as readers and writers, gentle reader, of phonic Indian Devnagari scripted languages, you won’t find it hard to follow. When I read Hindi in the Devnagari script, or even when it is written in Roman script, I have to read every letter and absorb its meaning through the sound. I find it impossible to just look at the shape of the word and understand what it is a hundred per cent of the time.
Is that perhaps because the reading brain doesn’t just recognise meaning through the sound of a word, but rather through a combination of sound and the shape of the word in sight? I would argue that it does. I may be wrong and only a linguistic psychologist will be able to judge, but I find I can skim a sentence when reading English, but have to sound the words internally and swiftly, even subconsciously, when reading Hindi.
Despite its anti-phonic spelling, English has become the language of many nations — albeit through colonisation and conquest, but it has also become the language of global communications even in a continent like America. I don’t just mean that people with the intelligence of Donald Trump can sort of read and even write and say “bigly” and other words like that. I mean that there were contending languages such as Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, German and French. And English won....