Some years back I watched a young child who happened to have dyslexia. When correcting her reading or quizzing her for the next days spelling test I could never explain why the rules she had desperately learned failed her. I’d never learned them. Stumbling, she found a cane in phonetic spelling. It’s surprisingly readable to anyone who is willing to ignore the rules.
Why those rules exist is a different lesson. Learning about the Great Vowel Change, the letters that got lost, or the centuries long debates probably wouldn’t have helped her any more than “i before e except after c.” Though an education that ignores the fascinating history of English must be lacking a few lessons.
Other than a semester of college linguistics and an english department class I haven’t learned much about the subject either. Most grammar books talk about what is correct and not what has been or why it is or even why some rules are correct even though they are silly. I assume this is because we’d all like to forget these bits. We in the broad, collective, societal use of the word because I don’t mean me specifically. There’s a few others out there too, so not them either. Perhaps very few others based on the unbroken binding and crisp sheets in the library’s copy of Henry Hitchings’ The Language Wars. His book happily tells the secrets behind English’s very messy history.
I wouldn’t have our language any other way. Language’s charisma is, in part and to me, because of its messiness.
When I’m day dreaming about different types of restaurants to own (not that I have any genuine interest in this career path) I always include a food truck that doesn’t provide any utensils. Hands down, we make our food messy. Considering friends make fun of me for eating fish and chips with a fork it’s kind of a surprising choice, but there is something alluring about butter dripping down my arm, bbq sauce smearing my cheeks, or licking cake crumbs off my fingers. It’s not in the dirty way you are thinking either.
It’s an equalizer — this intended messiness. No one can get it right all the time. Even queens make typos. Hitchings’ points out Queen Victoria occasionally wrote too fast for correct spelling. Though a natural speller, I happen to have
abit a habit of combining words with connecting letters. Who can really argue the correct way to hold a knife, scoop soup, or stab a pea when no one has utensils? No one, that’s who. Of course we can’t just take away a grammarian’s inverted commas (really no idea what these are). But, with a little knowledge we could argue why their rule about split infinitives is archaic. By we I do mean me.
The other reason I think about this food truck when I’m eating a wedge of pie held in my hands is that this kind of eating seems to be excessive. Lavish and luxurious. Even when it isn’t. You can’t do anything else, such as hold open a book or type a blog, when eating something messy. Messiness doesn’t have to equal gluttony, but when chocolate sauce is dripping down your chin or while holding your mouth open under a dangling spaghetti noodle, gosh it sure does seem like that q-u combo. Apparently this is a completely redundant letter combination. I do love looping that q into its u though.
My first introduction to English’s idiosyncrasies was either through A Bear Called Paddington in which color was spelled colour or Encyclopedia Brown who solved a mystery of hurt feelings caused by a poorly punctuated telephone message. I know that the former was mine and the later was repeatedly borrowed from my brother, but I don’t recall which came first.
Paddington had slightly more impact. It still stings that several elementary papers got points off for spelling because of him, but I suspect it had more to do with the marmalade. Such a lovely detail. Paddington’s furry paws were almost always sticky from orange marmalade. I like marmalade. I really like ginger marmalade. And thick cut orange marmalade...classic. (That isn’t even all the posts mentioning marmalade.) Like Paddington, I know that no matter how careful you are marmalade has a way of making sticky messes.
Despite Encyclopedia’s best efforts, I never really learned the rules for grammar. Like the young girl spelling everything phonetically, I add in commas and em dashes colloquially. Diagramming sentences was a thankfully short lesson during middle school. Passive sentences were my specialty and defiantly I could not understand what was wrong with them.
I am something of a stickler for spelling which can greatly hurt meaning — there is a sign near my apartment saying that a nonprofit helps the “undeserved.” I have found that most people, except for grammarians, can still understand the meaning of a less-than grammatically perfect sentence. Unlike this group of people I know that sometimes setting aside proper word order contributes to the reading. For instance, four sentences earlier I wrote “defiantly I” rather than “I defiantly.”
It’s surprisingly readable to anyone who is willing to ignore the rules.
Words I read and write play in my head and often out loud. I get hung up in stories with accents I don’t know how to pronounce such as Sam’s in The Pickwick Papers. At some point instead of attempting to read the misspelled words in the correct accent I’d switch to reading the words correctly. It wasn’t until I was stumbling over history’s odd spellings cluttering the floors as told in the Language War‘s that it occurred to me the original (mis)spellings of words resulted from the speller’s accent. How is that for a stubbed brain thought?
Being an Austinite born of Floridian Northerners living in Texas is not what exposed me to accents. My parents told me I pronounced milk (melk) like an Ohioan, they didn’t know why my skeletons wore skools on top of their vertebrae instead of skulls, and a former roommate accused me of being affected for adding chopped up British boys with herby names to pizza.
Nope, in between all these criticisms I had taken a college class that once had us watch several videos documenting obscure American accents. A high school French teacher stood at the chalkboard changing letters in a word until she reached Cajun. An elementary teacher once stumped a class on a pre-spelling test when she pronounced pearl with such a thick accent no one knew what the word was (oooh, oooh, oooh, not me).
Properly chastised I’ve worked hard to correct my vowels. In the process I’ve decided that accents, which are really nothing more than a mispronunciation assigned by one or another majority, should be preserved rather than insulted or corrected. Without them I would not have a seemingly fictional story to tell during which I found myself in a bar — that might have been a barn — set in the middle of nowhere Texas. Behind the bar a teenager poured drinks using the one for you, one for me method. Seated in front of the bar was an older man speaking in such a thick accent I could only guess he spoke English. I didn’t understand a word he said — fortunately my friends did as he was giving us directions…I think.
When I had to stop reading Language Wars on the first day I searched about my desk for a scrap of paper to serve as a bookmark. About to tear off the corner of a notepad I paused, moved my hands back to the book and dog-eared a corner. Just one — just once. Just something to show that this book had been read. That hands had held its pages. It’s binding had been cracked as it was pressed open against a desk.
Before I write “the end” I’ll also say that supportive teachers and authors (and many other wonderful people with different talents) encouraged the young girl to become an avid reader and eager writer. I didn’t know how many Dr. Seuss stories there were until she held each one in her hands. I pondered blue foods because she loved Rick Riordan’s books about Percy Jackson & the Olympian’s. She’s now a teenager and we recently gushed over Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus not knowing the other had also read it. As a natural reader and an ever aspiring writer I’m endlessly impressed with the people who love language so well they can write these stories.