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Language and Spelling



     Language is a marker for ethnicity, class and literacy. Unfortunately clarity and facility of world communication, which are my main concerns, are not generally given that priority. In the old England, the King's English, broadcast by the BBC, set a high and generally accepted standard for clarity. Then the BBC began encouraging local speech, less clear and sometimes hard to understand. Welsh, which is spoken only in some corners of Wales, was pushed by a nationalist minority, and there are now BBC broadcasts in Welsh.
     At the same time, class and literacy markers were snobbish. There was U and non-U. We cringed when someone said "Pleased to meet you" instead of the silly "How do you do." I remember that at Oxford the son (fat and homo) of a nouveau riche, bought an estate and upbraided me when I sent him a letter addressed to Mr. rather than Esq. I trust that this nonsense has disappeared.
     "Nouveau riche" (above) was one of many Gallicisms used to show that one knew French and was therefore educated. The French cannot bear the thought that their once international language is no longer in the first league and has been surpassed by once-despised Spanish. To assert its international role the French invented "la Francophonie," which has just held a meeting in Quebec. France claims to be the great promoter of democracy, and it was pathetic to hear Chirac lecturing about it to delegates, most of them from black Africa and countries like Vietnam. The organization was ridiculed as "la Cacophonie."
     The meeting was a feast of anti-Americanism, even anti-Canadian but pro-Canadien. Chirac spoke before the statue of Charles de Gaulle, and, with an eye on French farmers, said he hated MacDonalds. The group avoided English-speaking Canada, visiting the Inuit parliament (where Chirac spoke in French), the old Acadien settlements and the islands of Pierre and Miquelon. Whether Chirac succeeded in avoiding the numerous Anglicisms which have infected French I did not notice.
     I was amazed by the strong feeling which the posting on English spelling reform evinced. This is a common phenomenon. When it was proposed that, in this computer age, Spanish should get rid of the "", there was an outbrst of anti-Americanism among the defenders of the Spanish language.
     Bernard Shaw, who illustrated the absurdity of English spelling by pointing out that "fish" could be spelled "ghoti," left half his fortune to a plan to reform English spelling. The court ruled that he was insane and canecelled the clause.
     Since it was the article about the "lead gift" of Stanford trustee Peter Bing which opened this debate, I sent him the article, and he responded with this poem by former president Wally Sterling, which I trust will be taken in the humorous sense it was intended.


     THE POET'S CURSE


     We pick and peck at rhyming verse
     To better it, not make it worse,
     Perceiving all the time, of course,
     That "WORSE" as spelled should rhyme with "HORSE"


     Our language is absurd enough
     Without such words as "COUGH" and "ROUGH,"
     When both, as spelled, should rhyme with "BOUGH!"
     The pen is mightier than the plough;
     It carves a deep cerebral furrow
     Digging up a rhyme for "THOROUGH."
     Even when we know, right off,
     That "THOROUGH" ought to rhyme with "TROUGH."


     I must conclude there is a curse
     On him who ventures English verse,
     For when one stops to think it through
     "THROUGH" as spoken rhymes with "SIOUX!"
     Yet "THROUGH" as spelled should rhyme with "DOUGH,"
     While "DOUGH" does rhyme with "BEAU" although
     It does not rhyme with "PLOUGH" or "SLOUGH."
     Egad! Enough! It's just too tough
     To match the spelling with the rhyme.
     What's more, for me (as you can see)
     It's AWL an OFFAL WAIST of THYME!
    

J. E. Wallace Sterling & Ken Darby July 1st, 1973

Ronald Hilton - 09/18/99


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