A centenarian explains why we can’t spell

| July 29, 2010 | 1 Reply

In this two-minute video, a man who is purportedly 102 years old uses a simple flip chart to demonstrate why Americans have such trouble spelling.

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Category: Whimsy

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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Colloquial pronunciation has always been a problem when it comes to standardized spelling. The only written languages that do not have this problem are those that use representative symbols for entire concepts or words, like kanji. Other written languages have neglected vowel symbols, and some have argued this makes sense because it is vowel shifts that make up most spoken changes, so the vowels are the least codified in any language.

    None of which explains the whys and hows of language in the first place, because it neglects context, which is one of the most important elements, and one of the things that determines the supposedly nonsensical spelling of english.

    True, english makes little sense on the page, but when considered as a whole english is a composite language incorporating many others and in many cases preserves word origins in the spelling. This makes it a discipline of memory, but not without purpose.

    Comb. Extend the word. Combed. Combing. Now the odd spelling comes into play to differentiate it from "coming" or "came", which the demonstration suggests would not be a problem. But the spelling includes references to the Greek origin "Gomphos" (molar) and Sanskrit "gambha" (tooth). "Come" on the other hand derives from cumen (Old English) and the spelling rationalized to differentiate it from homophones. (I found it amusing that the chart came up with "cum" which is a proper spelling for one aspect of the meaning of the word, differentiating it on the page if not by sound from the more common usage, and right there you see the utility of certain spelling conventions.)

    All of which comes back to the fact that many of these conventions make perfect sense IN CONTEXT. While in conversation, context is innate in the exchange, but the give and take of body language and facial expression, not to mention vocal intonation, are absent from the written text and much of this is compensated for by these supposedly weird spellings.

    Speaking for myself, I never had a problem with spelling because I understood implicitly that each word is its own thing until you use it in a sentence. It still must convey its own meaning as well as cooperate with all the other words around it to convey sentence meaning. But basically, this is a memory exercise, and we are often loathe to do what is necessary for teaching things that are just hard.

    Just my opinion.

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