George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

The Art and Craft of Language

August 4, 2009

Not long ago, while reading an article about political life in the time of England's King Henry VIII that quoted various letters and documents, I was struck once again by the free-form inconsistency of English spelling in those days.

Or perhaps I should write "spellynge," since that would have been fine for a writer or court scribe back then. Nobody cared about "right" or "wrong" spelling, because the only rule seemed to be that a word should be understood by a reader. Even that great man of letters, William Shakespeare (or Shakspeare), saw nothing wrong with spelling the same word two or three different ways on the same page.

This got me thinking about what a spelling snob I am. Show me one misspelling in an otherwise intelligent piece of writing and I may disregard everything else about it. But I am a child of modern education, and correct spelling was (and is) held in high regard -- witness the fervor of the national spelling bee, that beauty pageant for young brainiacs, which has reached such a fever pitch that it veers close to child abuse.

The truth is, knowing how to spell a word is not the same as knowing how to use that word well. It is really just a metric, a quantitative way of ranking kids that is easier than making a real qualitative judgment. And, as any foreigner learning our language knows, English spelling sometimes seems the work of sadists; just think of dough, enough, through, slough, and thought.

Spelling is actually so mechanical that software programs do it for us, making one wonder whether there's any point teaching it in the word-processing age. It was when I reached the point of running spelling -- one of a handful of things I'm actually quite good at -- out of town (and the curriculum) that I came to my senses.

Knowing how to spell, I realized, if not a sign of intelligence, is nevertheless a first step into the wonderful complexities of language. If a kid can accept the arbitrary fact that the way English words are spelled is very often not at all the way they sound, he or she has started on the intriguing path that will lead to understanding that the phrase "If I were you" conjugates a verb in what's left of the English subjunctive.

We live in a time when the English language, a vastly rich treasury of great literature, has been put on a starvation diet and grows ever more gaunt. To read King Lear and Hamlet today, and understand that average citizens of Elizabethan London considered such plays entertainment, not daunting puzzles, is to understand what a downward slide we're on linguistically.

Television was an early culprit, with its increasingly spare vocabulary and sentence structure; that in turn affected movies (just compare the dialogue in Hepburn/Tracy films with that in Jolie/Pitt movies, for instance).

Now, arriving to administer another assault on English, we have the monosyllabic shorthand of texting and the banal brevities of Twitter. (Perhaps someone is using this last sophomoric semaphore to write exquisite haiku, so please correct me if I'm missing something sublime.)

In an interview recently, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, star of the HBO series In Treatment, explained that he had learned Gaelic because it's a complex and beautiful language. The keyword here, I think, is complex. English, like Gaelic and most languages, is more complex the deeper one delves into it, and the more of its nuances one learns. And the beauty of language is its complexity, its capacity for describing the immense complexities of life and the human experience.

There is much said in praise of simplicity, and rightly so. And certain writers in English -- Ernest Hemingway, for example -- have managed to express complex themes while stripping their sentences of the arabesques of the writers who preceded them.

But plumbing the depths of the language is a good and necessary thing. Starting with the rote learning of spelling and progressing through the fine points of grammar toward personal style, students can develop the crucial ability to present -- clearly and memorably -- an understanding of the world, and to decipher the meaning of life's many mysteries.

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  • English Language Arts

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