Education bureaucrats want to dump the only spelling rule that I can remember

The stuff filling the newspapers in NZ has seemed a bit predictable over the last few days. The right-of-centre MP who compared homosexuality to paedophilia in a reportedly drunk television interview has now gotten himself into trouble for making sleazy comments to an employee. (I'm waiting for the bloggers who defended Richard Worth to do the same thing here - ‘nothing wrong with an oral sex reference at the water cooler; the employee should get over it!') Budget airline Jetstar is treating customers as though they are the customers of a budget airline. Garth George is still grumpy.

Thankfully, genuinely shocking news has come out of England. New official guidance material for teachers across England instructs them to stop teaching children the ‘I before E except after C' spelling rule.

If your education was anything like mine, this will be one of the very few - if not the only - spelling rule imparted to you during childhood.

The rule "is not worth teaching," the officials declare. "It applies only to words in which the ‘ie' or ‘ei' stand for a clear ‘ee' sound... There are so few words where the ‘ei' spelling for the ‘ee' sounds follows the letter ‘c' that it is easier to learn the specific words."

In other words, even if we learn the full rule (it starts off with the proviso, "when the sound is 'ee'..."), it turns out that it exists only to teach us how to spell ‘receive', ‘ceiling', ‘perceive', ‘deceit' and a few other words. So, dump it, say the education bureaucrats.

By the end of this week, I bet a New Zealand reporter scouting for a ‘local angle' will put in a call to the Ministry of Education. Regardless of their answer, the British move is something we should keep an eye on. After all, we did get the language from them in the first place.

And nothing, it seems, riles the British like a bureaucratic suggestion that it's time to abandon a rule learned by generations of schoolchildren. Every man and his neighbour is weighing in on the controversy. (Or is it... every man and his nieghbour is wieghing in...)

At The Times, Angry Ian of Norfolk asks, ‘what's next, compulsory text-speak? A rule to define the correct use of "innit"?' Furious Fred of Coventry writes: "How about teaching kids grammer... Then we may find it easier to learn other languages too !!???" (Given the disturbing level of punctuation, I'm not convinced his spelling mistake was a sly joke.)

Furious Fred does have a point, though. In my Danish night-classes, the Germans talk knowingly about grammar while the British and New Zealand students stare back dumbly.

A quirky organisation called the Spelling Society (which is also represented back in New Zealand) is trying hard to use the debate to push for a simplification of the English language. This could mean making the entire spelling system phonemic, or just regularising a lot more words.

Phonemic spelling systems are certainly easier than what we have. Mind you, it would be hard to make the English language any more difficult: we not only cope with letter patterns that represent more than one sound, but also sounds that can be represented by more than one letter pattern. It's a wonder any of us learn to spell.

The Spelling Society has been trying hard to achieve its goal for 101 years now, and seems unlikely to make much progress over the next 101 years.

So, we're stuck with a horrendously complicated language.

Rather than eliminating rules, then, I reckon we should seize hold of the few that we have.

Comments (2)

by on May 08, 2012
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by danniel on July 06, 2012
danniel

Well, if you ask me one needs a masters in teaching to apply this spelling rule. I also think the rule is unnecessary though, I never have the chance to use it because the incidence is so rare in the English language...

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