Stupid Spelling

y is for wire

My brother never liked school. He had plenty of reasons, but the one that seemed the lamest to me was “The stuff they teach doesn’t make sense. What good is it to sit there all day learning this junk?”

I, on the other hand, loved school. Every question had just one right answer. I got good at coming up with those answers, and I got praised by parents and faculty regularly for it. But now that teachers aren’t handing me gold stars anymore, I am beginning to see my brother’s point. Some of the things they teach in school are downright stupid. One of them is spelling (specifically English spelling, which is the language I know the best. As I’ll go into later, spelling works a lot differently in other languages.)

It is not a secret that spelling is hard. I happen to be pretty good at it, and I still make plenty of mistakes. Ask the people who proofread my books. Spelling is hard because the only sure-fire way to know how to spell a word correctly is to memorize it. That means the average person has to memorize around 25,000 words, and average people aren’t going to do that. Highly educated people know between 50,000 and 100,000 words, which means the more you know, the more chances you have to make mistakes.

I don’t blame teachers for how stupid English spelling is. Spelling is the result of a series of horrible historical accidents that got written down. But I do blame teachers for trying to convince us that there is actually some kind of logical system for spelling that we can learn.

Such as “i before e, except after c.” That’s how I learned to spell believe and friend. But that didn’t work with neighbor, so they added a codicil “… or when sounding like A, as in neighbor or weigh.” Nice rhyme, but it turns out that a statistical analysis of the dictionary shows that there are more words that violate this rule than obey it.  Do caffeine and and heifer look weird to you? When in doubt, it’s back to the dictionary for all “ie” and “ei” words.

A second method teachers gave us was “Sound it out in your head.” When the word is cradle, that method helps you decide it doesn’t start with the letters “W” or “L”. But it can’t help you guess whether it starts with “C” or “K”. And what about the word wrong? Silent “w”, naturally. The trouble with English is our stupid alphabet. Every letter has at least two or three sounds it can make, and every phonetic sound can be represented by at least four or five letters or combinations of letters. My dad’s favorite example of this was an exotic way of spelling the word fish: ghoti

  • “gh” as in tough
  • “o” as in women
  • “ti” as in nation

There’s a favorite family story about my brother learning to read. “A is for Apple. B is for Baby,” my father began. As they neared the end of the alphabet, he prompted my brother, “… and Y is for –”

My brother thought hard for a moment, and then said with a bright smile, “Wire!”

We made fun of him over this gaffe to this very day. But recently I’ve had a change of heart. I now understand why the family legend is funny — but it is not because my brother made a dumb mistake. It’s because he made a perfectly good logical extension of all the unspoken rules of spelling and pronunciation. He wasn’t wrong. Those rules just don’t work! Wire DOES start with the “wye” sound — wye-err. It’s English spelling that is stupid, not my brother.

The third stupid thing teachers did, in a well-intentioned effort to make spelling fun, was the Spelling Bee. Don’t get me wrong. I am not making fun of the kids who compete in Spelling Bees. They are very smart and I commend them for their discipline and hard work. What I am making fun of is the teachers who think Spelling Bees give students an incentive to become better spellers. I think it does just the opposite.

Everybody has had to participate in a Spelling Bee, even if it was only at the classroom level. Everybody stands up, everybody takes a turn spelling a word. Ten minutes later everybody but one has spelled a word wrong and has sat down in shame and relief. That little game teaches us that spelling is so hard that only the very smartest people on the planet can do it perfectly. The rules, with all their exceptions, are not reliable enough. Sounding out words phonetically almost never works. And English, with its 500,000 words, is just too huge for any one person to memorize. The very existence of the Spelling Bee proves that spelling is stupid.

In contrast, I offer the Ukrainian system of spelling. Ukrainian is one example of a real language that has a completely phonetic alphabet. Every letter has only one sound, and every sound has only one letter, or combination of letters to represent it. After you learn the alphabet, you can read Ukrainian out loud. You may not understand any of the words you are saying, but you can pronounce them correctly.

There is no such thing as the National Ukrainian Spelling Bee. Any schoolkid who knows the alphabet can spell any word. No need to ask for a definition or origin. Just listen to the pronunciation and say the letters for those sounds. Schools don’t have spelling tests. There are vocabulary tests, to see if the kids know definitions, but spelling is a no-brainer.  Apparently, somebody a few generations ago decided that communication was too important to make it easy for only the very smartest people, and simplified the spelling system.

Spelling is important. A word has to be spelled correctly to get across the right meaning. So it’s stupid to be proud of how hard it is to spell things in English (that’s the point of the Spelling Bee.) It’s as if the telephone number to 911 was actually 911 digits long instead of three. Sure, a few mental freaks could memorize such a number, but the whole idea of an emergency phone number is to have one everybody can learn and remember. Shouldn’t spelling be the same way? Spelling is important, so we should make it simple enough that everybody has a good chance to get it right.

English spelling has had its reformers: Noah Webster, George Bernard Shaw, Robert McCormick. These big-shots got nowhere trying to change though to tho, so I know I have no chance at all in fixing anything. I love English, and I don’t expect it to change. I just enjoy pointing out the ways that I find it stupid. From now on I’m going to spell wire “YR” in protest.

One single comment

  1. Julie Kordyban says:

    Wonderful! I am a teacher. I hate misspellings, yet find spelling stupid. Reminds me of “winning” the 7th grade spelling bee, only to have to go against the 8th grade winner. First word: stationary, and I even remember the sentence: “The earth is not stationary.” Whew, I had no idea if it was “e” or “a” and to this day I can’t remember it. It was a relief to leave after one word!