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     Volume 4 Issue 46 | May 13, 2005 |

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Straight Talk

The Spelling


How do you explain to a child why the word 'high' is spelt with a silent 'g' and 'h' and the word 'pie' is spelt with an 'i' and an 'e'. This is the biggest problem with the English language --- we just cannot find any rhyme or reason for the way certain words are spelt or pronounced. When you think you have finally figured it all out, you are confronted with a word like "laughter" or "tongue"! And you are back to square one.

I still feel amazed that we ever managed to learn English the way we did. When we were in school, we were taught to spell in the traditional c-a-t cat, b-a-t bat, way. But nowadays, children are taught phonics which is a method of teaching beginning readers to read and pronounce words by learning the sound of letters, letter groups and syllables. In other words, Phonics is the study of the way in which spellings represent the sounds that make up words and of the ways in which they are represented by conventional spellings. In reading education, children are taught the sounds of letters and how those letters combine to form words. It seems like such a more logical way to learn the alphabets and to spell words and read in this manner. If you can sound out the letters then you have a chance of figuring out how the word is going to end up sounding like. As I seem to be on a streak of self pity and self sympathy, I might as well continue and carry on with my diatribe about the irregularities of the English language! Going back to my c-a-t gripe, how were we expected to know that 'see' 'ay' 'tee' actually spelt cat? In fact what the majority of us did was memorise most of the words we learnt and read more or less by word recognition. But having school going children of my own and living in the U.K, I have had to learn the modern method of teaching children to read which is phonics as well to be able to help them with their reading and spellings when the need has arisen. And trust me from personal experience, it seems like a much easier way to go through the process than when we were young.

But even with phonics, we still have the mystery of the silent letters and groups of letters that sound like another letter in the alphabet. Take for example, the word "photograph", if 'ph' sounds like an 'f', why can't we just substitute it and write "fotograf"? Would that not make life simpler? And why bother having the silent 'c' in the word "Leicester". Writing it as "Lester" would possibly give our poor little brains a little respite and very likely reduce the worlds' hair pulling syndrome drastically. I am sure there is a valid reason behind these dormant alphabets but I sadly am not aware of those underlying principles. I still want to know where the word pneumonia was derived from and why in Gods name there is a 'p' at the beginning of it! I am sure some smart Alec is going to tell me it is derived from Greek or Latin but that is of no comfort to you when you are trying to explain this to a six year old child. Maybe I am being a little pedantic but why do we pronounce b-u-t 'but' and p-u-t 'poot'?

Well maybe I shouldn't complain as I might have had to learn to spell in German where I am told that the word for "bus stop" is "Autobushaltestelle"! I am reliably told that this is spelt phonetically but when a word has that many letters, who cares anyway? And the upside to the English language is that we don't have to figure out if the "bus stop" is feminine, masculine or neuter. Nor whether it is in the nominative, accusative, genitive or dative cases --- I'm sure you get my point. How come the Americans are allowed to get away with spelling words like "colour" and "honour" without the 'u' and we are not! And why do they get to use the letter 'z' in places where we use's'? To add to the chaos they say "erbs" where we say "herbs". As it is the whole English spelling and pronunciation situation is confusing enough without the added worry of having to remember the correct spelling depending on which side of the Atlantic you happen to be sitting in.

And someone tell me why you have to put the 'i' before 'e' except after 'c'…

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