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Geoff Johnson: Bad speller? Blame the roots of English

After reading that the Reserve Bank of Australia had recently issued 43 million misspelled bank notes, I felt a responsibility (not “responsibilty” as it says on the Oz $50 banknote) to write in defence of the hapless quality-control employee who is
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Oops! 43 million misspelled $50 bank notes were recently issued in Australia. Geoff Johnson, a former superintendent of schools, writes that many cultures find English spelling baffling.

After reading that the Reserve Bank of Australia had recently issued 43 million misspelled bank notes, I felt a responsibility (not “responsibilty” as it says on the Oz $50 banknote) to write in defence of the hapless quality-control employee who is by now probably sitting on a remote beach, cool frothy one in hand, watching waves and re-evaluating his/her career choices.

But I digress.

Many cultures, including our own and these days including our recent influx of immigrants, find English spelling baffling.

No wonder. My favourite example is “ghoti,” which, as we all know, is pronounced “fish” with the “gh” sound from “tough”, the “o” sound from “women” and the “ti” sound from words like “caution.”

In fact, only two words end in “shion” — “cushion” and “fashion.”

“Rhythms” is the longest word in English devoid of a single vowel sound — no “a, e, i, o, u.” On the other hand, “queueing” has five vowels in a row, which explains where all the vowels went.

Then there are words called homonyms, which sound the same, but which have different meanings; pen, book, bark, fair — it’s a long list. Wikipedia lists 252 such words and the list ends with “yard.”

But it gets worse. There are homographs, which share the same spelling (bat, bow, fine), and homophones, words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of their spelling; blue, blew; cell, sell; meet, meat; and hear, here.

The list goes on.

Part of the problem is that our language is a mutt. English is a crossbreed that has developed over the course of more than 1,400 years.

The earliest forms of English, called Old English, were West Germanic dialects brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 brought the French language, which became the language of the court.

Later came Middle English, the language of Chaucer, which came in the late 14th century.

To add to the confusion for linguists, examples of writing from this period show extensive regional variation. I have heard it spoken by academics and philologists, and it comes out like a kind of broken-down Scots brogue, or Dutch, or German or something.

English (including, so I am told, my own bastardized Australian version) is the most commonly spoken language in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand.

Listening to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speak on the news recently reminded me of the significant difference in vowel sounds between Australian and New Zealand spoken English.

Even so, and given the complexities of our hybrid language, there is a still a stigma attached to poor spelling, which is interpreted as a sign of ignorance or stupidity. For some reason, it is sometimes assumed that if the author can’t spell, he or she probably isn’t all that bright.

There are those who would disagree. Authors William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Irving and Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes) were all notoriously poor spellers and an editor’s nightmare.

Being bilingual, one could hardly blame Albert Einstein for being a bad speller in English. Yet, it wasn’t just in English that Einstein struggled. He was, we are told, also a pretty bad speller in his native German.

Winston Churchill, author and orator, always struggled with spelling and writing. He was a notoriously bad speller throughout his life, but he never let that hold him back. He battled through his difficulties, which also included a slight speech impediment.

More recently, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama probably did not do well on the Grade 12 Friday spelling quiz.

I include these notable examples should whoever misspelled “responsibilty” on the Australian $50 bank note need them for his/her exit interview.

Wikipedia lists about 350 commonly misspelled words beginning with “absence,” which often appears as “abcense or absance,” and ending with “withhold,” which becomes, incorrectly, “withold.”

The banes of my own existence have always been “committed,” “immediately,” “occasionally” and “successful.”

Today, people are writing more than ever, updating our Facebook status, texting each other, writing reviews of things we bought on Amazon and tweeting (looking at you, Trump).

Our misspellings are very public. The bad news, and we will end here, is that the only way to learn to spell is — yes — by reading a lot, writing a lot and never trusting your spell-chucker.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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