[This weekend in the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside, in Stillwater, some of my friends along with normal people are gathering for the Stillwater Poetry Festival. Hello to all of them, and I sip my wine in your honor.]
Spelling 1: A couple of weeks ago I was at the huge VA hospital in Atlanta, doing air quality testing on the psych ward (making sure I carefully closed all doors behind me until they clicked shut). In a room used by the nurses were paper bags on the floor holding stored belongings. One of the bags had a piece of paper attached, with a message neatly printed on a printer, all in capital letters, “CONTRABAND DO NOT GIVE TO PATIENT INTILL PATIENT IS RELEASED”.
Spelling 2: This week I was driving through Georgia backroads on my way to Brunswick, down on the coast, for a brief vacation in a place where seafood is widely available and the live oak trees just drop your jaw with wonder. Since this is the end of summer, farm stands along the way were selling produce. One stand, out in the country, held a sign with letters two feet high proclaiming “Peches”.
Spelling 3: On that same drive, I stopped for gas at a station that was pleasant enough to have enormous planters with blooming flowers next to the gas pumps. In the restroom I found about 20 notices lining the walls, including one on the paper towel dispenser informing me that God loves me, and I was glad to hear it. There was also a notice for fishermen that began with “GOI’N FISH’N?” at the top and went on to name several types of live bait, including “Churping crickets”.
I’m sure I must have written about spelling before on this blog, but I’ll tell you what, I don’t care. I’m doing it again. It’s a big topic, and requires lots of whining. I’m not necessarily whining that nearly every English speaker on earth spells as if they don’t quite get this “alphabet” concept. As a writer and editor, I admit that the ubiquitous ignorance irritates me, and yet I understand why it’s a problem. English spelling is impossible and stupid.
The basic problem is that some of the letters can have multiple pronunciations, and in combinations inside words, they have even more, so that the sounds of the letters can begin to seem rather random. Alphabet? We have an alphabet? There’s a famous example to illustrate how ridiculous English spelling is, which I heard attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but my friend Uncle Wikipedia tells me the example came earlier. The spelling “ghoti” to represent the word “fish” comes by taking the gh from tough, o from women, and ti from nation. Using the pronunciation of those letters in those words, “ghoti” would thus be pronounced “fish”.
There are multiple reasons why English spelling is like an egg truck turned over on the interstate. Part of the problem is that over a period of a few hundred years, all the vowels of English slowly changed. Who the hell knows why? I can’t imagine how a thing like that could happen, but we know it did, and as it was getting started, printing was invented. Maybe in the early days of printing, words were spelled more or less they way they were pronounced. Then as the sounds of words changed, the spelling was already locked in and didn’t change, because things in print look official.
Native speakers of English must have a feeling that the rules aren’t very solid and don’t apply much anyway, because we frequently adopt words from other languages, without changing their spelling but keeping the original pronunciation. Is there a time in English when double “l” is pronounced like “y” other than in words from Spanish (tortilla)? Or is “et” pronounced as “ey” other than in French words (ballet)?
Naturally there have been many suggestions that we correct the spelling and spell words the way they’re pronounced. If we could do that, other than rendering hundreds of years of English literature instantly unreadable, there’s another problem. In America the word spelled “lieutenant” is pronounced (if you’ll allow me a phonetic spelling) “lootenant”. In England it’s pronounced “leftenant”.
Whose pronunciation would be used if we went to phonetic spelling? I only gave one example of a great many. Do you pronounce the famous Georgia nut PEE-kan (like the “a” in hat, the way you should) or puh-KAHN? Which phonetic spelling should we use? Even if we tried to implement phonetic spelling, it wouldn’t work, because for anyone outside the chosen dialect, it still wouldn’t be phonetic.
So all I can say, if you have particular trouble with spelling, is to hire a professional editor. Call me. I do editing on the side while I’m not collecting air samples. And stop using so-called phonetic spelling. Stop it right now. Don’t ever again for the rest of your life use the spelling “lite”. It’s an abomination, just like the beer that it names.