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The Art and Craft of Language

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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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Jon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Is communication an art or a science? I would suggest that communication is a science, the foundation of which can be described as an understanding of the use and application of the language. The goal might be art, but the medium requires a studious approach similar in fashion to the way in which one would endeavor to learn a hard science.

Additionally, the inclusion of a bunch of humility insures that the writer/speaker considers the impact of their communication (application of language) on the audience... Think not, what am I implying, but more, what might others infer... By considering the impact of the application one has a much better chance of insuring the communication achieves its desired goal, whatever that may be...

People just don't do this anymore - the world, as evidenced by the explosion of "ME" based communication (twitter, myspace, etc.) has altered the way information is packaged... Sure, there might be a few folks who craft their missives with an eye to how it is processed, but I would think that is the exception, most definitely not the norm...

But, while I agree with everything you suggest, does anyone really care? Or, alternatively, does it really matter? The nuance, the subtle, the implied, the perspective - slightly askance... Other than those of us who are attentive to these things, do they really matter? Will the abilities of my children, to perceive the difference, help them get a better job? Provide for their families? Be happy or content? I don't know, but really hope it does (matter).

kristi Kraemer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I disagree with you, Edward. The average Elizabethan knew the language that s/he needed to be engaged, entertained, or efficient in the business of life. Many average Americans are the same. The fact that average Americans have to grapple with Shakespeare's language simply indicates that the language has changed. My guess is the Shakespeare would grapple with current words -- twitter, for one -- internet, for another. How about edutopia? Methinks your argument doesn't quite work.

You are right, though, that those who have control of the language (even those who can't spell it) have control over much in this world. Maybe, instead of spelling curricula, we should have kids read and read and read to learn as much as they possibly can about how the world works. That way, they'd also learn vocabulary, syntax, focus, fluency, and background knowledge...probably in greater amounts than anyone during the Elizabethan era.

Paul.Moore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would have to agree that the art of the written language is becoming lost in this technological age. Kids today are terrible spellers. What to do about it is the issue. online casino

printer cartridge supplies's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you in some point but I firmly believe that language is both an art and science. Why? Language can be learned and enhanced. A person can engage to any language he wishes. I agree with some of the suggestions you're made.

Bronwyn Griffith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My soon to be 6 year-old is now learning to sound out words in both English and Swedish which makes me starkly aware of how abstract written language is. I sometimes worry that he will get slowed down when he puzzles over whether to spell cat with a 'K' or a 'C' in English (cat=kat in Swedish). Yet I see that he rolls with these oddities and is somehow more open to the fact that there are many ways to say the same thing-different languages, different vocabulary words...

While visiting potential schools, I found myself in a heated parent meeting with British parents horrified at the thought that their children would be learning English from American teachers (of particular concern was spelling). Spelling is still unimportant for my son, and his letters are often written backwards, yet I hope that when he starts school that he learns how to spell correctly (English OR American spelling will do).

This discussion of language as an art or science makes me think of the fine arts and how many great artists first mastered the academic style (perspective, scale, etc.) before boldly going to opposite extremes. Their discipline and knowledge of established techniques made their new aesthetics stronger, more complete. So I agree with the value of learning proper spelling and the knowledge of the language that comes with that. Twitter haiku might surprise us yet!

Still stumbling through Swedish newspapers and getting corrected by small children, I take refuge in a well-written English book full of nuance and turns of phrase. So, for me, it matters and I am glad to see I am not alone.

laurie tanner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you that language, out of necessity, changes through the centuries. Most people alive during Elizabethan times did not have access to literacy, and so out of necessity were adept at listening in order to learn language. I also agree that modern students, who fortunately do have access to literacy, and who are avid readers, are more cognizant of all the components of language; they actually are much better at at spelling and grammar as well as having gained all the other knowledge that you mentioned. I also know that the norms of written language are quite different than those of spoken language, and this is true of many languages. Kids that speak in dialect (Ebonics, Spanglish, Southern, etc.) can learn correct written English language without having to give up the way they have learned to speak within their cultural context, and nor should they. Reading is really the only way to successfully achieve this. Teaching spelling in the context of reading, however, should be included in the curriculum - just because there is a high frequency of times someone sees a word spelled correctly does not mean that she or he has understood the rules.

One of our country's most important strengths is potentially our diversity, and it is a fact that English (or even more so, American) is a composite of centuries of borrowing from other languages. One way to teach vocabulary development is to investigate the origins of words, and encourage students to examine unfamiliar words in their everyday reading through understanding word parts. I have my classes engaged in a pen pal program with Romanian students. None of my students nor I speak or understand Romanian, but when we used the google dictionary to translate some phrases from English to Romanian, students were able to use Latin roots they knew from Spanish and English, and some English roots inherited from Slavic languages to analyze the words.

I think that before students CAN actually grapple with Shakespeare's language, they need to learn how to break down and understand the written language of our times, and our primary task as teachers of language is to bring written language to life so that they can achieve this.

laurie tanner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'd like to respond to Kristi Kraemer's comment above. I agree with you that language does change, out of necessity, over the course of time. Most people alive in Elizabethan England did not have access to literacy, and so were adept at using listening skills to understand language. I also agree that modern students who have access to literacy and who are avid readers are much better at spelling and grammar,and are most likely acquired all the other forms of knowledge that you have mentioned. Furthermore, written language is quite different from spoken language, and this is true of many languages.

For students whose spoken language is a dialect (Ebonics, Spanglish, and the most recent forms of media/slang-based dialects) the challenge of written language can be quite daunting, and even downright confusing. The only way for them to be successful in acquiring the language skills necessary for them to be successful is to distinguish between written and spoken forms, and to teach vocabulary, spelling, and grammar in the context of what they read. Just telling them to read is not enough - seeing a word in print does not explain its orthographic rules, nor is it automatically linked to another word with same root. These kinds of things can be taught in context, however.

For example, my classes are engaged in a pen pal project with students in Romania. None of us speak Romanian, yet when we translated English phrases into Romanian using a Google dictionary, we were able to break down and analyze the words using Latin roots that the students are familiar with in Spanish and English, and other roots that English inherited from Slavic languages. Acquainting all students with the terms "long and short vowel sounds" can help with common spelling errors, and these common words can be found in almost any reading context.

My last point is that yes, it matters. Language is an essential feature of culture, and if we are at all concerned with keeping our culture alive and bright, there need to be standards for language, even if they change over time. Teaching language is in itself a form of communication, and although spoken and written language may be merging in areas like texting, Twitter and Facebook, it is still important to pass on the currently accepted standards for written communication, so that students who have the desire will have access to discussions like this.

Joanne Hall's picture

Thank you, Owen, for your thoughtful ideas...and all of the follow-up comments are also insightful. I'm evaluating a new program for my 6th graders called Verbalearn. It's an online vocabulary builder. I'd love feedback, criticism, input. They had a free version I thought I'd try.
( There are other similar software programs out there. I'm eager to see if it works.

Sue J's picture

What bugs me is the implication that to care about spelling requires snobbery: perception of being above the norm. I care about spelling and I'm fascinated by language, and I'll call myself a "word nerd," but if you say "dark ally" instead of "dark alley" I'm going to mention it, and when you say "gosh, do you know how many typos *you* have?" I'm going to say "it happens, but your words were confusing, and feel free to correct me."
I'm *hoping* to get to some flash exercises for spelling this summer; a little sound mapping and pattern exploring could go a long way, I think.

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