Monday, February 20, 2012

Literacy in the 21st Century

In book and product reviews,  comment threads,  forums, both online and  in print, I regularly see spellings like "kneed (something)," "nock on wood,"  "way a certain fact," ''in financial straights," ,, "eat mete," "see nice cite," and "shutter at a thought." Apparently, many people today don't know when an n sound at the start of a word is spelled as kn or n.  They are confused about which spelling to use in homophone sets like weigh and waybeat and beet, shutter and shudder, not to mention sight, site, and cite.. 

In the last five years of my teaching, I noticed such spelling errors escalating, although the confusion between kn and n hadn't yet appeared by 2008, the year I retired.  Both the examples above, kneed for need, and nock for knock, first appeared to me in the past two weeks.  I'd never before seen (spelled by someof my  students as scene) those particular errors.  Oh, in the same time period, I also came across knew for new. Literacy as we know it, has been eroding concomitantly with disregard for reading. When I saw the knew-new error types, it struck me that loss of spelling conventions has been occurring in stages, and this is the latest stage, but probably not the final one.

Knowing how to spell was a badge of literacy and, by implication, of intelligence since the 16th century at least.  Yes, English spelling was already inconsistent and sometimes downright wacky even in the 1500's when the first spelling reformers, called orthoepists began lobbying for sanity in spelling.  English orthography, the relation between visual spelling and auditory pronunciations, is a mess.  It has been virtually since its inception. Centuries of customs have aggravated the situation.  In the days when literacy skills had to be mastered by the relatively  small ruling class, this was not so important. 

However, today, the mandate is that everyone should master accepted spelling as proof that they are educated.   It takes an unduly lengthy time for someone to learn the vagaries of English spelling. The only orthographic system which consumes a longer time is the 100,00 or more characters that Mandarin insists upon.  However, there is a Romanization of Mandarin which is akin to a true alphabet: one symbol for one sound.

The first true alphabet, concocted by the Greeks,  heralded a revolution in writers' being able to present new ideas in writing.  It allowed the infinity of possible sentences in any language to reach wider audiences than do conversations or even public lectures,  The alphabet made it possible to record original--as well as banal--thoughts so that both contemporaries and posterity could grasp them. This doesn't mean that oral language is inferior in any way to written language.  There is an infinite number of spoken utterances possible in any language.  New and unusual things can be spoken as well as written.

Before radios, writing allowed information and ideas to be  promulgated more broadly without the author's being present. It also could be used to save the exact wording in which an idea was framed.  In speech, if you repeat your ideas, you may do so in a variety of different sentence forms.  There are always different ways to say the same thing.  We've all had the experience of reporting that X said Y.  When the listener asks, "What did he really say?" meaning  'what words did he actually use', you might get a bit flustered and say, "I don't know exactly what he said, but he said..."  We don't recall the exact words used.  We recall the meaning and then re-encode that meaning in our own words.  Writing allows us to freeze both the thought and verbatim expression of it.

In cultures with writing, often spelling correctly, according to custom , is the equivalent to speaking with the right dialect to be regarded as intelligent.  Why then is English burdened with such an inconsistent, illogical alphabet? Nowadays people have to master orthography for virtually every job, but our spelling chaos hinders widespread mastery of it.  This impinges on reading as well as writing skills. My next post will explain the history of our misspelling system.  Here, I will simply lay out inconsistencies not explicable by rules.  Again, a later post will show what rules do apply to subsets of written words, but, first, as a poem states, "dearest creatures in Creation" let us look at ea.

The ea is technically a digraph, two letters to indicate one sound.  However, this digraph may indicate the vowel sounds in earth, hearth, heat, great, teat (as also spelled "tit,"), head, hear and heard, eight separate sounds in my lexicon, not counting the pronunciation of  create along with its noun form, creation.  Including these, the combination ea represents nine different sounds in English orthography.  Since every pronunciation of ea can be conveyed by other single letters or digraphs, the stage is set for chaos.  It is a wonder that educated people, at least, have for so long endured and passed on what is considered standard spelling.
 You may list every word you can think of with the ea digraph to try to discover what determines these different pronunciations.. I have tried, as have others better than I.  The conclusion? There is no reason except for historical accident. Are we,  then, supposed to teach a 7 year older about 18th century dialect variation to justify the mish mash of spelling?  Those kids aren't fooled a bit by claims that these spellings are enshrined for some ineffable reasons.  It's bosh. We'd be better off to say honestly that written English needs an overhaul.

Then, what about the initial n sound, as in need, knee, know, no, knew, new and the final n sound spelled as gn as in sign, reign (as opposed to rein, or rain), deign as opposed to Dane, feign as opposed to  fame.  

Most of us recall written words that we thought were pronounced  a certain way, only to discover how laughably wrong we were.  For instance, I knew there was a word, laughter, that rhymed for me with daughter.   The fact that I never heard anyone say "lawter" when talking about laughing didn't bother me.  There were loads of words that appeared only in print, but never in speech. Certainly,  I knew of laugh,with the gh pronounced as f.   I just figured that daughter rhymed with laughter.   My father, an immigrant arriving in the U.S, in 1924 was punctilious in his pronunciation.  However, he  would say that things went "aw + ree."  He learned much of his English vocabulary from books and, given English spelling,  awry  admits of that pronunciation.   When in the hospital having my first baby, I heard an obstetrician speaking of another infant born with a "wry" neck. Wry, pronounced "rye" immediately jolted me. I knew the word wry meaning 'twisted,' as in a "wry smile." I realize that the baby's neck was twisted in some way, not having anything to do with rye, as in bread. As soon as I realized that, something popped into my head, namely that my father's awry should be pronounced  "aWRY".

Speaking of how we both knew certain words only in print, and others in speech,  my friend Michael and I discovered that as children, we both knew two words that meant 'the highest, the best.'  In speech it was "epitome" with the final e pronounced "ee,"  However, in books, it was "epiTOHM" without enunciating  the final e. We both recall our"Eureka" moment when  we realized they were the same word.

I'll close with one parting observation. One of the few inviolable rules of English pronunciation of spelling is that a vowel followed by one consonant and a final unpronounced  e, makes the vowel long, as in mate, mete, tine, note, and cute, as opposed to mat, met, tin, not, and cut. Why, then, have we tolerated epitome, with a short o and a very non-silent e? 

Hanging Out

Google has a new feature: "Hanging Out," which is a Skype or Face Time for Google.  It allows me to set up a group of 9 or 10 people who can discuss issues face to face.  Most interesting is that it allows speech to be heard.  I don't want to add people to this group unless they want to be part of it. If you do, send me your email address or other identifier for Google and I'll add it to the group.  This will no doubt be most interesting when discussing how we pronounce certain things.

On this same note, I am recording various Texan accents.  Does anybody out there know how I can insert audio clips in my blog posts?  The variation here in central Texas is very interesting and nobody has done any detailed studies of it.  As I travel to New Mexico, I' m sure I'll come across other interesting differences. I already know I have to go back to Arkansas to record the accents there.  The relation to Texas is obvious.  Both are Southwestern, but Texarkanas, for instance, is its own variety.

I want to publish a 5th edition of Language the Social Mirror as a Vook with audio clips of dialects from all over the United States, and video clips of body motion, eye gaze, facial expression, gestures, and personal space.  However, I need to find people who know how to write the code to insert audio and video clips into the text for an eBook version.  Obviously, they would be considered as joint authors in this endeavor, sharing in all royalties.  If you know any programmers who would want to help make a Vook on the topic of speaking and body motion, please either tell me who they are, or tell them to contact me at

Since it's possible to publish such books directly to Pubit and to Kindle, we don't have to worry about persuading publishers.  We need to upload the book to eBook publishers. Then we can advertise it on Goodle Ads and Goodreads and other such venues.  I do have to find out how one gets a Vook text added to Barnes and Noble Textbooks, as well as to Kindles,when Amazon gets around to selling them.

 We could publish it as an eBook at a reasonable price.  Heinele, the publisher of the 4th edition has priced it far too high for most buyers, but I own the electronic rights to the material, so long as I don't recreate the 4th edition verbatim, which I wouldn't do. There's plenty of new research to write about. Also, I'd have to rewrite to accommodate the text to the audio and video clips.  I'm fine with audio clps, but I do terribly with a video camera. I have a tremor in my hands that screws up videos.  

These are exciting times for new ways of propogating ideas and information.

Mea Culpa

Oh dear. Evelyn has roundly criticized me for criticizing someone who commented on a blog post on the grounds that it wasn't pertinent to my point in the original post.  Her view is that a blog is like a conversation in which, of course, inevitably, extraneous matters are brought up.  My view, which may be erroneous, is that a comment should be relevant to the point of the blog post.  However, I'm open to suggestions.  Should comments be limited only to the issue discussed in the  blog? Or, should I consider as valid, comments which are not directly relevant to the blog? 

What Evelyn was commenting on were the comments on "The Power of Mentioning" that offered reasons for why people bought a Kindle instead of a Nook.  I have no quarrel with anybody's choice of brand of anything.  My point was that the Kindle Fire became entrenched in people's minds because it was mentioned so often in the media.  I also pointed out that, objectively, the Kindle Fire is inferior to the Nook Tablet.  I didn't come to that conclusion hastily.  I bought a Kindle Fire and would have kept it, if it was as good as or better than the Nook Tablet.  For me, there are reasons for my having both kinds of tablets, Fire and Nook, if they were comparable.  On my review of the Fire on Amazon, you can see my point by point comparison of the two.  However, 5,000,000 Kindle Fires have been sold.  I haven't a clue about how many Nook Tablets have been sold, but I'm sure it's far fewer than Kindle Fires.

I have no vested interest in either product.  I don't care who buys which.  My point is, however, that you buy what you've heard the most about, and most people have no idea that Barnes and Noble has two 7 inch color Tablets.  Regardless of their worth relative to the Kindle Fire, Barnes and Noble's sales are way lower than Amazon's because the media consider Amazon to be news.  They don't consider Barnes and Noble Bookstores newsworthy.  Consumers consume what they see and hear mentioned.  The media are powerful swayers of opinion.  This has been scientifically verified.

Anyways, please tell me, should I be more lenient with commenters? Should I not have told those who commented on why they bought Kindles that their comments were beside the point?  I'm feeling quite guilty about my reactions.  Am I so mentally a Professor that I demand a needless rigor in discussion?  What do you think?