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DEAR ENGLISH

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Dear English,

I’ve been thinking about you quite a bit lately. It’s been a big year for you and me as I teach my older children the inner workings of you. And I’m pleased to report that I think the three of us are getting the better of you at last you stubborn old bugger, so there.

I don’t mean to be all naa-na-ne-naa-na. I love you dearly, you know that. We’ve grown up together and frankly I couldn’t comfortably live without you. I’ve played with you from a very early age – haven’t we had lovely games? Funny moments, poignant ones, heated debates, nonsense, milestones, leanings, jokes, I’m sorry’s, I love you’s, I do’s, stories, stories, stories.

I love that the world can play with your sounds and existing words to create new ones that, used enough, can be added to your dictionaries each year. This year we saw the evolution of such lovelies as ‘clunker’, ‘defriend’, ‘gangling’ and ‘whip-smart’.

And there are other brilliant, lesser known combinations you afford us, like ‘wamblecropped’ (overcome with indigestion) or ‘gongoozle’ (to stare idly at water). In my writing I relish a bit of made-uppery and feel a certain satisfaction in knowingly disregarding those wiggly red lines beneath my word inventions, knowing that you don’t mind.

You gave us ‘discombobulated’ and ‘gargoyle’, ‘hullabaloo’ and ‘stub’ and for that I forgive you for ‘slacks’ and ‘moist’ and ‘fag’.

So it is with the greatest of respect that I say – as I teach my children to read and write and spell  – that you, English, can be a ridiculous, annoying sod.

Last week my boy had ‘climb’ in his spelling words. What’s with the b? My daughter had ‘castle’, in which she inserts an ‘r’ and leaves out the ‘t’. And though she’s phonetically correct, I have to tell her she’s wrong. And then try not to get snarky when she threatens to give up. Why ‘w’ in wrong and why can’t ‘right’ be ‘rite’? Why is why spelled why?

English, you have turned homework hour into tense hour. Every time someone pauses over ‘knee’ or ‘through’ I feel my hackles rise. Is the business of raising children not hard enough without ‘enough’ and ‘business’?

And yet people’s bad spelling and pronunciation irritate me about as much as your weird anomalies. At least ten times a day I haughtily correct my children’s ‘moine’ to ‘mine’ or another’s ‘torlet’ to ‘toilet’. And I drill them on their spelling words like a dictator all week prior to their Friday test and feel all pleased when they get them right. So I guess that makes me an English quirk advocate. Could I shake off my supercilious (another great word), stickler tendencies and say, “Bugger it, let’s just go with bizness and nite? Or just go with how you feel in the moment – ennything will doo as long as wee can make sense of it. Willy-nilly Shakespeare chucked his language idiosyncrasies all over you all the time and look how embedded he is in your history. If it’s good enuff for him…?

But I guess that approach doesn’t earn anyone many leaving certificates or job interviews, unless you were actually the Bard resurrected. So on I go, assisting my children through what is really just a great big memory challenge. Memorising your letter combinations, contexts, bendy rules and their array of exceptions and then, when rules and exceptions don’t apply, just remembering the bastard word as its unique self.

And if I look at the spelling/reading thing that way, I feel more empathy and less frustration for my children and the huge task ahead of them. I can’t get shirty with you or the process can I? Can’t turf you into the chore category with scraping plates and unpacking stinky lunch boxes. If I did that, the children would avoid you, the necessary repetition would never be achieved and the memory challenge never accomplished.

You are what you are. A big ol’, wonderful mash-up. Difficult to live with but mostly full of joy. I’m sorry I called you a bugger. It’s a good word though, unless taken literally, but that’s another topic.

Affectionately and determinedly, forever yours,

Meg

About Meg Bignell

I am a farmer's wife, mother, writer and actor who thinks too much, dreams too much and swears too much.

3 responses »

  1. I can’t surrender to the “me” generation. Indeed it’s been a big year for you and “I”…
    While a passionate advocate of spelling reform, this curmudgeonly pedantic irascible old fool can’t allow what is possibly this modern usage of the first person singular to pass unremarked, less his sister (who always corrected his early expression) not feed him turkey this Xmas!

    Reply
    • Yes it’s a tricky one to come around to. I think we should ask Mum. Any spelling reforms in particular?

      Reply
      • Many so called Americanisms – such as spelling color (which I had to stop auto-correcting to “colour”), labor etc – are actually old English usage, and appeared in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary without the “-our” endings. The latter came about when the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary adopted what they considered the elevated cultured French form of the day. So down with those pouffy-powdered wigwords: let’s revert to the earthy old English versions and, while we’re at it, forever banish the extended Frenchified “-mme” endings to program. Good thing the “seppos” didn’t invent Instagramme!

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