05 May 2006

Casting a Spell[ing]

Saw this in the Christian Science Monitor this morning, and it got me to thinking. The columnist writes,

Who knew that spelling bees could be so hot?

A spelling bee takes a skill by definition connected with the written form of a language and turns it into a kind of audio performance – the oral recitation, on stage, before an audience, of letter names in their correct order. It would be a very different contest if it involved, say, writing the words on a board before the judges.

And the secret of the bee's appeal? In part, it's the appeal that any contest among human beings generates. Spelling bees pit vulnerable young people against the inexorable dictionary. But beyond that, I would suggest that, among all kinds of people, the love of language, including hard-to-spell "championship" words, is often deeper, broader, and more intense than we realize.

My attitude toward spelling for the last several years (in fact, ever since I took my first undergrad English language class at Kansas State University from now-infamous word nerd Tom Murray) has been a negative one. After all, the mix and hodgepodge of the language, as well as the arbitrary spelling conventions around every corner, have made it an exercise in memorization and guessing prowess at best.

This column made me reassess my position on spelling. It made me wonder if maybe there is value in the practice after all? It does several important things for us:

1.) Spelling reminds us of the disjunct between spoken and written language. It emphasizes the constructedness and mutability of each; how else would "knight" ever come to be pronounced "nait"?

2.) Spelling reminds us of where the language came from. The spelling of words like "bread" reflect movements in the language, including vowel shifts in late Middle English and Early Modern English. The contrast between the pronunciations of "bead" and "bread" reminds us of the various origins of words and the different routes they can take.

3.) Spelling reminds us of the wondrous variety of words we have access to. From good old monosyllabic Germanic words to polysyllabic monstrosities introduced by the dang French, we have an enormous array of tools in our linguistic shed.

Of course, spelling can also be a rote process, and this is the kind of thing I object to. But if people take the time to learn why things are spelled the way they are, they learn all sorts of great and interesting stuff about the language they use to express themselves, like that "knight" used to be pronounced just like it's spelled. :-)

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