Reviewed: Does Spelling Matter? by Simon Horobin

Phoneme baloney.

Does Spelling Matter?
Simon Horobin
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £20

Do you remember the “initial teaching alphabet” (ITA)? If you are in your late forties or early fifties, you may well. It was designed by James Pitman, grandson of the shorthand inventor Isaac, to make it easier for children to learn to read. I missed it by about two or three years but my younger brother was less fortunate. He appeared as a result to be semiliterate until about the age of 12. Many other children had the same fate; by the 1970s, the idea had been widely abandoned.

Pitman made the classic mistake of spelling reformers. Our otherwise Byzantine system of orthography takes no account of regional accents. ITA had extra characters to represent certain vowel sounds, such as “oo” in “book”, but given that a child in Blackburn or Accrington, before he or she even learns to read, pronounces a word such as “book” differently from (but no more or less correctly than) a child in Purley or Carshalton Beeches, you immediately encounter a problem. It is a nice idea that spelling should be more phonetic and should represent better the sound of the words, until you realise that not everybody chooses to pronounce the words in the same way.

In this captivating and scholarly book, which as well as describing the evolution of spelling is also a neat primer on the history of the English language, Simon Horobin explains why our spelling is so odd. More than that, he gives a good account of why it should remain that way. He is right to argue that the ability to spell correctly is not a sign of intelligence – we all know some truly bovine people who can spell perfectly and some allegedly brilliant ones who can’t. Yet he does write that making an effort to learn how to spell (for most people, other than those who have learning difficulties or are dyslexic, it is all about effort) is a good idea, because of the aid that correct spelling gives to communication.

Horobin clearly has little sympathy with those who would write another person off because of a propensity to make spelling mistakes but he also reflects on the inevitability of others making such a judgement. His subtle and persuasive argument in favour of rigorous learning is the perfect antidote to those academic linguists from the “anything goes” school of grammar and spelling, whose advice is ideal until one has to write a job application that will be read by someone with more traditional views.

Horobin starts with runes and hieroglyphics and how these symbols conveyed sound and ideas to anyone who read them. From there, he deals with the development of the Greek, Etruscan and Roman alphabets and how, once what became western civilization adopted the Roman one, it found it needed to add letters to it to cover all the sounds that might be used.

In England, the dialect of Old English around the see of Winchester gained prominence in much of the south of the country and became the first sort of standard English but was swept away by the Norman conquest. In time, the language of the oppressor (or part of it) was subsumed into a Saxon tongue that obstinately refused to die; the infusion of French was just one of several such invasions of the native tongue. With the Renaissance, more Latin and Greek words came into the language and necessitated new spellings. With the coming of empire, so did African, Levantine and Indian words.

The language grew with the population and from the time of Caxton and the printing press there were attempts to standardise how words were spelled. Some spellings appear never to have been settled – the Oxford English Dictionary records a long history of the fight between “despatch” and “dispatch”, and “admissible” and “admissable”.

In the great vowel shift of the 16th and 17th centuries, the sound of words travelled ever further from their spellings – the English had long since stopped sounding the silent letters in words such as “knight”; other than in one pedantic attempt, they never sounded those in “psychic” and “psalter”. As sound became less of an indicator of spelling, the need arose for a dictionary. Horobin is complimentary about Samuel Johnson’s efforts, published in 1755, but he points out that Johnson admitted that he was unsure of some of the etymologies and therefore about what the historical authority was for certain words to be spelled as they were (and, indeed, in many cases still are). The OED, a project that has now been under way for more than 150 years, has ironed out most of those doubts but it increasingly goes with the fashion when spellings change under the popular pressure of usage.

The book ends with a warning against trying to reform spelling. In other countries where this has been attempted, it has been disastrous, awakening the latent conservatism of almost entire nations. It also discusses the effect of texting and tweeting on standards of written English, citing evidence, on the one hand, that children claim they would never use the spellings used in those media in their schoolwork and, on the other, complaints from examination boards that the evidence of children doing so is regrettably obvious. This book is a sane, comprehensive and authoritative lesson in why we spell the way we do and why, in order to preserve the richness, subtlety and history of our language, it is right that we keep doing so.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail

A spelling bee in progress in 1870. Image: Getty/Hulton Archive

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

All photos: BBC
Show Hide image

“You’re a big corporate man” The Apprentice 2015 blog: series 11, episode 8

The candidates upset some children.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching The Apprentice. Contains spoilers!

Read up on episode 7 here.

“I don’t have children and I don’t like them,” warns Selina.

An apt starting pistol for the candidates – usually so shielded from the spontaneity, joy and hope of youth by their childproof polyester uniforms – to organise children’s parties. Apparently that’s a thing now. Getting strangers in suits to organise your child’s birthday party. Outsourcing love. G4S Laser Quest. Abellio go-carting. Serco wendy houses.

Gary the supermarket stooge is project manager of team Versatile again, and Selina the child hater takes charge of team Connexus. They are each made to speak to an unhappy-looking child about the compromised fun they will be able to supply for an extortionate fee on their special days.

“So are you into like hair products and make-up?” Selina spouts at her client, who isn’t.

“Yeah, fantastic,” is Gary’s rather enthusiastic response to the mother of his client’s warning that she has a severe nut allergy.

Little Jamal is taken with his friends on an outdoor activity day by Gary’s team. This consists of wearing harnesses, standing in a line, and listening to a perpetual health and safety drill from fun young David. “Slow down, please, don’t move anywhere,” he cries, like a sad elf attempting to direct a fire drill. “Some people do call me Gary the Giraffe,” adds Gary, in a gloomy tone of voice that suggests the next half of his sentence will be, “because my tongue is black with decay”.

Selina’s team has more trouble organising Nicole’s party because they forgot to ask for her contact details. “Were we supposed to get her number or something?” asks Selina.

“Do you have the Yellow Pages?” replies Vana. Which is The Apprentice answer for everything. Smartphones are only to be used to put on loudspeaker and shout down in a frenzy.

Eventually, they get in touch, and take Nicole and pals to a sports centre in east London. I know! Sporty! And female! Bloody hell, someone organise a quaint afternoon tea for her and shower her with glitter to make her normal. Quick! Selina actually does this, cutting to a clip of Vana and Richard resentfully erecting macaroons. Selina also insists on glitter to decorate party bags full of the most gendered, pointless tat seed capital can buy.

“You’re breaking my heart,” whines Richard the Austerity Chancellor when he’s told each party bag will cost £10. “What are we putting in there – diamond rings?” Just a warning to all you ladies out there – if Richard proposes, don’t say yes.

They bundle Nicole and friends into a pink bus, for the section of her party themed around the Labour party’s failed general election campaign, and Brett valiantly screeches Hit Me Baby One More Time down the microphone to keep them entertained.

Meanwhile on the other team, Gary is quietly demonstrating glowsticks to some bored 11-year-old boys. “David, we need to get the atmosphere going,” he warns. “Ermmmmm,” says David, before misquoting the Hokey Cokey out of sheer stress.

Charleine is organising a birthday cake for Jamal. “May contain nuts,” she smiles, proudly. “Well done, Charleine, good job,” says Joseph. Not even sarcastically.

Jamal’s mother is isolated from the party and sits on a faraway bench, observing her beloved son’s birthday celebrations from a safe distance, while the team attempts to work out if there are nuts in the birthday cake.

Richard has his own culinary woes at Nicole’s party, managing both to burn and undercook burgers for the stingy barbecue he’s insisted on overriding the afternoon tea. Vana runs around helping him and picking up the pieces like a junior chef with an incompetent Gordon Ramsay. “Vana is his slave,” comments Claude, who clearly remains unsure of how to insult the candidates and must draw on his dangerously rose-tinted view of the history of oppression.

Versatile – the team that laid on some glowstick banter and a melted inky mess of iron-on photo transfers on t-shirts for Jamal and his bored friends – unsurprisingly loses. This leads to some vintage Apprentice-isms in The Bridge café, His Lordship's official caterer to losing candidates. “I don’t want to dance around a bush,” says one. “A lot of people are going to point the finger at myself,” says another’s self.

In an UNPRECEDENTED move, Lord Sugar decides to keep all four losing team members in the boardroom. He runs through how rubbish they all are. “Joseph, I do believe there has been some responsibility for you on this task.” And “David, I do believe that today you’ve got a lot to answer to.”

Lord Sugar, I do believe you’re dancing around a bush here. Who’s for the chop? It’s wee David, of course, the only nice one left.

But this doesn’t stop Sugar voicing his concern about the project manager. “I’m worried about you, Gary,” he says. “You’re a big corporate man.” Because if there’s any demographic in society for whom we should be worried, it’s them.

Candidates to watch:


Hanging on in there by his whiskers.


Far less verbose when he’s doing enforced karaoke.


She’ll ruin your party.

I'll be blogging The Apprentice each week. Click here for the previous episode blog. The Apprentice airs weekly at 9pm, Wednesday night on BBC One.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.