The Unbearable Blightedness of English (and the Fools who Love it Like That)
By Jean Tan
I spend approximately as much time thinking about the foibles of the English language as the next person, which effectively means pretty much none at all. I also spend approximately as much time thinking about the foibles of English football as leading British paper and news site Guardian Unlimited, and seeing as guardian.co.uk/football is the "best football site on the internet, period" according to (their sports editor) Sean Ingle, that is likely a lot of time indeed. The English national football team's woeful inability to qualify for the 2008 European Championships has given both the Guardian and I plenty to think about as far as the foibles of English football are concerned, and really, it is only because of this that I have come to even begin ruminating on the foibles of the English language in the first place.
The absence of their country from the clash of Europe's greatest has sent the Guardian's sports writers' caustic cynicism levels into scintillating overdrive; as a result, their minute-by-minute live Euro 2008 match reports has become the 'it' place to be for the web-savvy football connoisseur. As a web-savvy football connoisseur, I naturally made it my port-of-call for the play-by-play opinion of the games underway; however, on my way into harbour I was distracted by a little jetty that was rather out of place among heavier hitters such as "Wall Street plunges as oil price jumps": "English is too hard to read for children." It thus follows that my immediate thought upon reading the opening line, "The English spelling system is 'absolutely, unspeakably awful'" was: 'Typical of the Empire. Now that they've insinuated their property into everyone else's lives and made it our problem, they complain it's not good enough for them. Just, in fact, like their bloody useless football team.'
"English has an absolutely, unspeakably awful spelling system," alleges Masha Bell, literary researcher and presenter of the study "The Most Costly English Spellings", identifying a massive list of phonically unreliable words that cause reading problems for children. Consequently, the spelling system, thus to blame for England's poor literacy results relative to the rest of Europe, imposes a "huge financial burden" on Britain's schools. Bell and others, such as Spelling Society president and phonetics professor John Wells, would like to see things change. I would like to see them shut up and go away. I cannot imagine where this wellspring of vitriol comes from; my bitterness might well rival the Guardian's sportswriters'. I can only surmise it is a deep-seated compulsion to defend the language I dream in, engraved into my lingual soul from countless years of painstakingly inscribing fully-spelt sentences in forum posts and (yes, even) text messages. When I read "there were 200 words on the list that could be improved by simply dropping 'surplus letters' such as the 'i' in friend or the 'u' in shoulder" I don't see revolutionary spelling progress, I see the horrifying triumph of lazy texting and pidgin Lolcat talk. Frend what kind of English is that? I guess the Queen's chatspeak is srs biznz.
There has to be another way than dropping letters from words like two-minute acquaintances from blogging friends-lists. Perhaps a solution of sorts can be spotted in Bell's assertion that "[English] is the worst of all the alphabetical (emphasis mine) languages." Methinks it's time to add a non-alphabetical language to the mandatory curriculum in Britain's schools. I nominate Chinese because, what can I say: it's a combination that worked really well from personal experience. My family was so Chinese in my childhood, English was like a foreign language reserved only for English lessons in the predominantly Chinese-speaking kindergartens and primary school that still haunt my darkest nightmares one of my earliest memories is of woefully dividing my Chinese penmanship boxes into six little squares to fit just one character of my name. When English became the language du jour of the Gifted Education Program I was eventually hauled into, you can believe I was on it like a ton of bricks; after Chinese, English was like a breath of fresh air if that breath was the first you had ever taken in your entire life.
Of course English made no more sense than Chinese to me but it made no sense in an entirely different way, a way more mercurial, slipping shackles and shifting shapes with little warning but always great amity, a way dare I say it? infinitely easier to comprehend. Even if basic conversational Chinese rolls off my tongue twenty years on with the simulated ease expected of someone forced into a kind of domestic Chinese exclusivity, I never got Chinese the way English got me, while English you could say English saved my life: when silly things like family trouble and school-induced woes made me decide to become a juvenile delinquent at the ripe old age of nine, my daily increasing fascination with the language led me to believe disregarding my math homework in favour of reading the great classics was perfectly respectable delinquent behaviour. None of that sissy beer and cigarettes crap for me! I promise, dear Britons, that if only a language like Chinese were foisted upon your children, they will never complain of the English spelling system again.
But seriously, there must be something more to this profound bitterness of mine that bubbles over like a subterranean spring at Bell's claims than hazy memories of the misery and torture of kindergarten Chinese spelling tests. Something I don't want to say it, but here it comes postcolonial about my insistent ardour for the English language and all its eccentricities. Chris Davis, National Primary Headteachers' Association spokesperson, states that there would be resistance to widespread changes to English among the Brits: "I think it is an ownership thing, that it is our language." The thing is, it really isn't. As sci-fi reviewer James Nicoll famously wrote, " English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." English is about as English as chicken tikka masala that is to say, absolutely, and at the same time, absolutely not.
When I was in Junior College I was once forced to take part in an intra-school speech competition in the name of "Speak[ing] Good English." The speech itself was BYO as far as the topic was concerned, but the contestants had also to present why they loved the language (enough, presumably, to stand up in front of the school and make absolute fools of ourselves several times) during morning assembly. "English," I detailed in the blurb we had to submit for vetting, "was my first love, being as it is that bastard language." Unsurprisingly, vetting happened. I received my transcript back with a neat line across 'bastard', 'hybrid' penned above it in place. My teacher, having handed me the type-out from tentative fingertips, sported a kind of ginger plastic smile. "We thought," she supplied delicately, "that the other students might get the wrong impression." Incidentally, a flash flood obliterated the relevant morning assembly, and no follow-up was ever scheduled. Perhaps they had feared that I would have decided, 'Hybrid be damned,' and let slip the unspeakable in front of the impressionable young crowd and perhaps I would have, because, let's face it: a long time ago a bunch of dialects had an orgy, and then there was that affair with Latin, and then there was that affair with Norse, and then French at least, that's how they say it went. And a right old bastard it is too, anyway, wielding that cosh with the brawling efficacy of a West Ham hooligan set on carrying out the dark deeds of Nicoll lore. Which languages have not fallen prey to the English thirst for lingual smash-and-grab? I'll say it loud and proud English is a bastard (language) and that is why I love it. Sure, it belongs to the English people, but possibly only in that it doesn't really belong to any one other person else.
English speaks English, but also French, and German, and Latin, and eats chicken tikka masala. I am Singaporean, but also Chinese, think in English certainly watch the English Premier League (consequently making the bloody useless English football team my problem), and eat any kind of food I can get my hands on. Not that I'm equating English to a postcolonial subject, but there is certainly something postcolonial about that fractured psyche, that schizophrenic multi-existence, that unending love affair with any number of things at the same time, that insistence on being exactly what it is, even and especially when that 'what' is myriad and impossible to pin down all at once Is it any surprise I love it for the bastard it is? Are not their attempts to simplify it, to carve out the dodgy bits, to slice it up into convenient shrink-wrapped school lunches on some level albeit perhaps some level only connectable by a fractured psyche, a schizophrenic multi-existence an attempt to simplify and thus deny me, and those like me, too? If you prick us, do we not bleed gerunds?
Well, alright, so I don't bleed gerunds something that in any case I have had problems with all my life and to embrace English's hybridity with a postcolonial sympathy forgets the fact that it is the coloniser's language: we weren't the ones doing the smashing and grabbing after all. It seems gerunds aren't the only thing I have problems with. This devotion to English that I cannot discard speaks volumes of the way it has gotten its insidious hooks into me just the way Raffles probably hoped, much in the style of Shakespeare, Coke, and the everlasting Golden Arches. For the sake of the little children staring with dread incomprehension at 'asparagus,' it is time for me to take a deep breath and admit that as much as Bell's proposed simplification of English rubs me the wrong way, making me feel that she and her assenters have an agenda to wipe out the uniqueness of the language I adore especially for its quirks, it is hardly an attack on the hybrid postcolonial subject rather the opposite, if anything, considering our history. Without this self-righteous hybrid-defensive anger, it is not much of a leap to concede that I see their point, even without much consideration for the economic reforms they are trying to undertake. In spite of my protests, I do remember well a period of time I spent in my early formative years just after learning to read silently, when I walked around for two weeks fully convinced 'island' was pronounced 'is-land' hey, it made perfect sense. All I can say is I'm lucky my English teacher got round to that part of the syllabus before music class started on any songs about 'sunny islands set in the sea.'
A quick collapse of opinion? Maybe so maybe the truth of the matter is that I've just spent a week in Australia, another former British colony which I am convinced is driven to pervert English pronunciation as much as is humanly possible. To-die is an old one that has been the punchline of so many jokes it's not worth getting riled up about, but a full week of see-vens is honestly more than any sane English-speaker can possibly take. See-ven? Really? It's not even like there's a precedence for that except of course, that there is, like in, er, semen. Which is pronounced, of course, like (former bloody useless English football team goalkeeper David) Seaman. This, I'm sorry to say, demonstrates Bell's point any lingual system that allows such wilfully disparate spellings to be pronounced the exact same way has got to be "absolutely, unspeakably awful." Perhaps the changes Bell is pushing for would finally deprive Australia of any excuse to continue mangling the language. "Not 'pie' 'pu-hy'" I had a barista genially inform me as we ordered a basic mash. Why wu-hy would you do a thing like that? Although Davis highlights that "it would be such a major revolution that people would find it very difficult to contemplate," Wells also indicates that linguistic changes are hardly uncommon, happening across Europe as recently as a month ago in Portugal, and points out that English itself has developed through the ages, "with words such as 'olde' and 'worlde' dropping the 'e'." If the English spelling system is simplified according to Bell's demands, not only would England's literacy results be "transformed," Australia would never more have an excuse for 'todie.'
Even so, even if the atrocities that are 'seeven' and 'puhy' must continue to exist in perfect legitimacy, in the innermost chambers (atrium and ventricle) of my heart I still hope the idiosyncrasies of English will survive. Even if poor little children, English or otherwise, must continue to struggle with 'orange' and 'rhinocerous'. For if we had to flounder in an English spelling system that actually makes sense, those such as I who love it for its foibles and finer foibles you will never find elsewhere (save the bloody useless English football team) would feel as wretched as a ghoti ('gh' as in 'laugh,' 'o' as in 'women,' 'ti' as in 'nation,' thanks either to George Bernard Shaw or William Ollier, depending on who you ask) out of water. Especially if said ghoti is as out of water as yes, one last time the bloody useless English football team during the Euro 2008 tournament period: bloody wretched ghoti indeed!QLRS Vol. 7 No. 3 Jul 2008