Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Semester of Language

Several weeks ago, I had dinner with a friend who's a professor of literature and philosophy at a nearby university. We were discussing the teaching of grammar and, in particular, the difficulty students face when trying to understand grammatical rules (e.g. "never split an infinitive") that seem (and sometimes are) arbitrary. He tells his students that demonstrating a command of grammar is like wearing a tie: a tie serves no utilitarian function, yet in certain situations people expect you to wear one, and if you don't, they will look down on you. The same is true regarding the words you speak and write; you can often communicate effectively without following grammatical conventions, but some people will ignore you before you finish your first sentence. Of course, beyond impressing others, there are many good reasons to teach and to learn grammar—as well as to use it precisely. Still, his analogy rings true.

This term, I spent a lot of time thinking about language. In November and earlier this month, I had the joy of participating in a two-day seminar on the English language offered by Princeton University's Teachers as Scholars program. The seminar brought together 30 or so educators from across central New Jersey to learn from Professor Joshua Katz, a linguistic polymath whose wit and energy matched his knowledge. Together, we examined English synchronically, considering, for example, varieties in contemporary spelling, pronunciation, and syntax. And we studied English diachronically, using an Indo-European dictionary and texts from Old and Middle English in order to understand how English has evolved.

Today, I was reminded of my conversation with my friend and of the seminar when I read a review of three books on the history of English in the Financial Times. Here's how the review begins:
Employers have told David Crystal that if they receive a job application with a spelling mistake, it goes straight in the bin. I am not sure I believe that. Who throws anything, apart from food wrappers and empty coffee cups, in the bin these days? I imagine the misspelling applicants get an email saying “We are afraid your application has been unsuccessful” and never discover why.

Misspelling is not a modern malady. In Spell it Out, Crystal reproduces a 1910 cartoon from Punch magazine in which a boss berates his secretary for typing "income" as "incum". "Good Heavens!" exclaims the secretary. "How did I come to leave out the 'b'?" And in 1750 Lord Chesterfield, the statesman, advising his son to brush up on his spelling, warned: "I know a man of quality, who never recovered the ridicule of having spelled 'wholesome' without the 'w'."

You would not get either "incum" or "holesome" today. As soon as I typed them, Microsoft Word inserted wavy red lines beneath telling me I had made a mistake. But, as Crystal points out, electronic spellcheckers are less helpful when you misspell a word in such a way as to spell another, as in a poem by Mark Eckman and Jerrold H. Zar:
I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.
Why, for centuries, have people struggled to spell? Because English spelling is horribly hard. It is not just that we have "for" and "four", "stake", "steak" and "mistake". We also have "peak", "peek" and "pique". "Horrid" has a double consonant in the middle, "timid" a single one. "Prefer" has one "f", "proffer" two.
The review continues and is well worth the read, as is an article from the most recent edition of The New Yorker about Ithkuil, an artificial language designed to be more precise and concise than any natural language. I look forward to sharing these articles with students when we next examine the function and development of language.