Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Originally posted 9.04.2004 on Limes with Orange

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, lough, and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it's said like bed, not bead--
For goodness' sake don't call it "deed"!
Watch out for meat and great and threat.
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.)
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's dose and rose and lose
Just look them up--and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart--
Come, come, I've hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!
I'd mastered it when I was five.
And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn't learned at fifty-five.

by T.S. Watt (1954)

I was reminded of this poem today while reading "Inglish (iz a tuf languaj to spel)" in the September edition of Saturday Night magazine [update May 30, 2007: this magazine is no longer in publication]. It's about the spelling reform movement that promotes simplification of the English spelling system to better reflect the phonetics of the language. My knee-jerk reaction was to reject reformation out of hand. The three arguments that I subsequently formulated to support my reaction were:


(1) The proper spelling of a word can give you an idea of its origins, which can help you figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word.

(2) What about all of the existing printed matter? Will future generations taught spelling-reformed English be able to understand anything written in pre-reform English?

(3) With all of the dialects within the English language, whose phonetics would we use? I'm thinking that British spelling reform would look far different from American spelling reform.

Well, all of these points were mentioned in the article to some degree. Apparently my first point is proof of my intellectual elitism. Hmm... an uncomfortable, but possibly accurate, assessment. So let's put that one aside for now. The second and third points were acknowledged as obstacles to spelling reform. But apparently there are far more people than you might think trying to overcome these challenges. So maybe someday spelling reform advocates, such as the Simplified Spelling Society, will have answers to those questions that will satisfy even me. But I'm not holding my breath.

Ironic Epilogue: It was with a certain amount of embarrassment and amusement that I found myself reflecting on my strongly held opinions against spelling reform while I was working on my cryptic crossword and realized that I hadn't the faintest idea of how to spell "rutabaga" [the plural of which was the answer to "Turnips in a sack one put in furrows (9)"].

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Anonymous wiccania said...

i've never read that poem, but it made me smile. thanks for posting it.

June 4, 2007 10:15 AM  

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