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

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In Kid Gloves, the stories tumble out like washing from a machine

Adam Mars-Jones' has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism