Words in Edgeways – 18 & 19

Letters to other journals

Dear Mr Howse,

Thank you for your piece about spelling, in The Telegraph of 14/8/04. Would you permit me to take up some of your points for your consideration?

First, I think you share with the common man—and woman—the

feeling that the spelling of English is mysterious, wayward, not to be comprehended and, therefore, to be accepted and learnt as it is and without further questioning. You make the usual remarks about Chaucer’s spelling and the Great Vowel Shift of the 15th /16th centuries. There is already confusion, here, in your remarks. What has “shifted round completely”? Do you mean the vowel system? But it hasn’t shifted round completely—to where it started? What do you mean? Do you know what you mean or are you, like so many, grasping wildly about for some sort of rationale? The spelling in the Chaucer manuscripts is itself far from consistent, even allowing for scribal errors. It is quite uncertain to what degree the final ‘e’ in Chaucer’s time was sounded; it may have been largely a poetic resource, called upon where needed. (Vide Ian Robinson Chaucer’s Prosody.) But, whether or no, all this is an irrelevance to the question of the spelling of modern English.

You say you like the gh of ghost. This is mere whimsy on your part and says nothing about English spelling. Shaw’s spelling of fish as ghoti merely illustrates his own inability to understand the system he set about reforming. No moderately literate person has the least difficulty in pronouncing ghoti—and it is not ‘fish’ and never could be. Shaw’s mistake—and that of 99% of the public—is to suppose that English spelling is a hopelessly muddle-headed attempt to represent the sounds of the spoken language in a one-to-one manner. (Incidentally, French is every bit as ‘unphonetic’ in its representation as English—and perhaps more so inasmuch as many of the inflexions, as they are represented in writing, are quite unapparent in speech.)

Perhaps it is time to show something of the machinery of English spelling.

  1. Spoken English is stress-timed (unlike French) and therefore has many weak-stress syllables. There is no vowel letter (or combination of vowel letters) to represent this phenomenon. The weak vowel is represented in spelling in about 20 different forms. The lack of awareness of this leads to much confusion and misunderstanding, not least in the spelling (and reading) of unfamiliar words.
  1. There are seven vowel letters, not five: a, e, i, o, u, w, y (and in Standard British English pronunciation, an eighth: r). Hence: aw, ew, ow, ay, ey, oy, ar, er, ir, or, ur, yr, our, are, ere, ire, ore, ure.

Note the difference in ‘value’ of letter w in ew and we; ow and wo.

Note the difference in ‘value’ of letter y in ey and ye; oy and yo.

Note the difference in ‘value’ of letter r in ar and ra; ur and ru. (Whether the letter stands for a vowel or a consonant depends on its position.)

Note that u is a consonant after letter q and letter g: quick, require, liquid, grotesque , unique, language, languid, anguish, plague, vague.

Letter h is also used as a vowel letter, but in a somewhat unofficial capacity: ah! eh? oh, uh! Nah then! Blah, blah, blah. In fact, it is peculiar and has no individual identity. It is not a sound at all—which is why it is so easily ‘dropped’.

  1. The alphabet has 27 characters (not 26). The character no-one thinks of is the blank space between words. The lack of awareness of this leads to much confusion and misunderstanding, not least in the reading and spelling of unfamiliar words. For instance, a vineyard is indeed a yard (i.e. garden) of vines; the spelling shows this clearly—but the spoken form does not. Similarly, cupboard shows the reader—but not the listener—that the object has, or had, something to do with cups and boards. In speech, vineyard is not ‘vine yard’; cupboard is not ‘cup board’; Oxford is not ‘ox ford’; Cambridge is not ‘cam bridge’; Warwick is not ‘war wick’; Yorkshire is not ‘york shire’; Cornwall is not ‘corn wall’ etc..

No-one finds it perplexing to have 0 as one of the numerical characters; in the alphabet, we have a blank space instead.

  1. The spelling of English is directional; we can distinguish the fronts and backs and middles of words by the letters—and combination of letters—used. Try writing judge or kick or faff (which begin and end with the same sound) backwards and you will see at once (dgeuj; ckik; ffaf). Some letters occur in typical positions only—e.g. j at the front; dge and ck and tch at the back. Doubled consonant letters occur, typically, at the back or in the middle. (Incidentally, in my youth, the spellings were rivetted, benefitted, focussed, biassed.)

A doubled consonant at the end of a word often marks it as a proper noun: ANN(E), LOTT, HENN, SCOTT, CUTTS, STOBBS, CLEGG, MANN, POTTS, CARR, MARVELL, MANTELL, CHAPELL. (Note that egg, ebb, odd, inn, add have a doubled final letter to distinguish them from structural words, which may be only one or two letters long: Ann ate an odd egg in an inn. She is at a low ebb.

  1. A doubled consonant letter does not necessarily indicate a stressed syllable: necessarily, desiccate, harass, parallel, paraffin, marvellous, excellent, satellite, jewellery, corral, annul, succumb, suggest, effect, dessert, dissolve, immense, attain, appal, appoint, command, collapse, collect, connect, erroneous, erratic, oppose, etc.

Where has the idea come from that a doubled consonant letter does indicate a stressed syllable? And why do people persist in believing it does even when it is demonstrated to them that it does not? The answer is: faulty teaching; not modern teaching but traditional teaching. (Try telling The Telegraph or The Mail that one!)

  1. There are 4 different spelling systems operating in the spelling of English:
  1. structural words (a closed set—no more can ever be added to it)
  2. lexical words (an open set—can be added to ad infinitum)
  3. proper nouns
  4. commercial concoctions

Systems 1,3 and 4 have to be learnt more or less by rote. For example, we cannot tell how to spell the, a, I, he, she, be, were, have, do, one, two except by drilling. We usually have to ask people how they spell their name—e.g. Howse? House? Shepheard? Sheppard? Shepard? Chapple? Chaple? Chappell? Chapell? Gardiner? Gardner? Gardenere? This applies to place names, too, though people in general seem unaware of this: Gloster, Lester, Wooster, Norridge, Durrum, Chizzick, Darbisher, Lundun, Temz, Ingglund.

Commercial spellings are sometimes the closest we get to ‘phonetic’ representation—e.g. Frijj, Sunkist, Kwiksave, etc. Commercial spellings also break the rules of system 2: Exxon (double x), Frijj (double j and ending word with j), Sqezy (looks like an Arabic word—no u after q), Derv (ending word with v instead of ve).

  1. In no. 2, there is a perfectly simple system at work which enables one to spell—and read - with confidence even words one has never encountered before. To start with, one needs to consider what the letters of the alphabet are actually used for; for instance,i and y are mutual substitutes; so are c and k. The doubled form of c and k is ck; the doubled form of ch is tch; the doubled form of j and ge is dge. Doubled forms mark the end of a syllable.

The spelling of stems and affixes (including inflexions) is fixed regardless of their pronunciation. Lexical words are spelt by simply adding together their constituent stems and affixes, with deletion of final e before a vowel letter and substitution of i for y in non-terminal position, e.g.:


re de al ly

re sign ate ion

con ify ure


unmercy less ly

ful ness

Note how the SPELLING remains constant regardless of the alterations in pronunciation:

design (dezine)

consign (consine)

signature (signercher)

resignation (rezignayshern)

The spelling shows the structure and meaning of the word—not its pronunciation. Hence, it is very easy, in English, to make up words never seen before—and yet which are immediately comprehensible:


(anti + dis + (e)stable + ish + ment + ary + an + ism)


(retro + act + ive + ise + ate + ion + al + ly)

This can help one to understand complex lexical (and some structural) words more fully. Here is a little test for you (the answers are given in the PS, below). What is the foundation word in the following?












Yours sincerely,

D. M. Wallerstein

P.S. Answers:

centre, remedy, know (ac + know + ledge + ment), nature, pose,

pose (op + pose + ite + ion), vary, mode (ac + com + mode + ate + ion), heal (un + heal + th + y + ly), memory, base (base + ic + al + ly)

Dear Minette Marrin,

You described yourself in your Sunday Times’ column (December 31, 2006) as a strong opponent of capital punishment but, for that to be true of anything but your own disposition, doesn’t the idea of capital punishment which you attack need to be one that puts up some resistance? (How strong do you have to be to scatter straw?) But, it seemed to me, you pretty evidently take the case against it for granted; and rely on having readers who will take it for granted too. One betraying sign, I thought, was the work you expected to be done for you by words like “ghastly”, “nasty”, “unspeakable”, “obscene” or by such descriptive details as “overweight warders in their straining uniforms.” You need to do a bit more work than that—work of a different kind—if you are to make the phrase “judicial murder” something other than the oxymoron it seems at first sight to be.

The trouble with the column was that you have, apparently, put no effort into thinking what the case for capital punishment might be. You showed no inclination to represent that case in any form that might make opposing it difficult.

You did allow that killing can be right (or, as you put it—in a weasily sort of way?—morally defensible). And you allowed that it is right, for example, in self-defence or just wars. But if it can be right in those cases, it is possible that it can be right in others. If it can be right to kill in self-defence or in a just war, then, perhaps, it can be right to kill for the sake of justice too.

You, yourself, raise the possibility that capital punishment might be connected with justice when you say, "the [executed] might well deserve some [such] punishment". If it is a question of deserts and punishment, then it is a question of justice. But once you admit that, it becomes impossible to see capital punishment as simply, obviously “crime … corrupting … brutalising … wrong … murder … vengeance”. Just punishments—in whose justness all parties, including the punished—can concur is what, in civilized societies, replaces vengeance and the endless tit-for-tat of murder belonging to it.

Killing as just punishment may very well be seen to ‘belong with’ killing in self-defence and killing in a just war. It isn’t at all such an easy matter as you seem to suppose to disentangle the one from the other two.

You suggest (mistakenly, I think) that to allow that killing is right in the two latter cases is the same thing as "lifting the taboo" on it in those cases. But that doesn't seem to me to be so at all. I agree, of course, that the taboo is necessary and must be protected.

But, think, for example, of how much of ceremony and symbolism is necessary for something to count as war at all, just or unjust. Think, firstly, of all that goes into establishing the distinction between lawful combatants and 'the innocent' in the way of oaths of allegiance, swearings in, appointing and promoting, uniform, rank, military discipline and all the other paraphernalia necessary for constituting thousands upon thousands of men an army and not a mere bunch of murdering brigands. And add to that the 'rules of war' that must be followed before the activities of these men can be counted as war, rather than mass murder: the scruples and limitations armies place upon themselves just in order to constitute what they do as war and not Rwandan genocidal massacring. Add to that the special conditions that must be met before a war can be considered just. And, then, ask whether all this amounts to "lifting the taboo upon killing" or whether, rather, to emphasising and re-enforcing it. What the regimes of Mao and Stalin and Hitler and Pol Pot did to their own, and other, populations might well be justly described as "lifting the taboo". No ceremony or symbolism, let alone rules and scruples, necessary for that. What armies do in making war upon one another is very different; the symbols and ceremonies that accompany it are necessary for the difference; and what the difference amounts to is precisely not "lifting the taboo".

The case is similar with self-defence: 'self-defence', like a 'just war', is something that takes place—even more plainly or more securely than a 'just war' does—within the law. It isn't a particular act or event, and what it is self-evidently, like killing. It is the seeing of an act (a killing say) in a particular light, judging it in a particular way. And because the judgement is not self-evident, and very often contested, there are strict, highly formalised procedures, accompanied by all sorts of symbolic paraphernalia, for making it. There are wigs and robes and courts and trials and Queen's Counsels and rules of evidence and all the rest of it, which together, like their counterparts in warfare, add up not to a lifting of the taboo upon killing but the emphasising of it: "The taboo is so strong that it makes all this necessary" or even "All this goes to make the strength of the taboo". It is in the light of this that capital punishment needs to be seen, by its opponents even more than (can we say?) its friends.

It belongs to what is weak (and I think lazy) in your article that, in its opening, you describe a particular set of procedures (or manners perhaps) that any onlooker might recoil from, as failing to do justice to what is taking place, failing so badly that it is like watching not an act of justice but, as you say, a snuff movie. The trouble with this description of an execution, from your point of view, is that it might be countered by one in which the participants did behave in a way which fitted the occasion, playing their parts as if they believed in them and as if they believed they were serving justice.

So that, when you say "Killing a man [judicially] in cold blood ... with all kinds of procedures to give it an air of normality and respectability, is obscene", it might be objected, "Yes, those procedures did aim at lending a spurious air of normality and respectability to what was taking place and what they achieved was to make it look like a snuff movie and obscene. But, take these procedures, here, the manners displayed in this other scene: mightn't we say of what we see here that not just he but all ‘nothing common did or mean/Upon that memorable scene’?"

And if we look at the procedures of this execution alongside all the other procedures that preceded them—of conscientious, lawful investigation, interrogation, arrest, charge, trial etc.—isn’t what we see the same as we saw in the case of the just war and of the man who successfully pleaded self-defence: behaviour that is as far away from murder and taboo-breaking as it well could be? Behaviour that earnestly emphasizes and insists on the taboo? … “All this must be gone through before the state may kill a man—including the conscientiously arrived at verdict of the man’s peers.”

Without conceiving of the case for it as—like that for killing in self-defence or in a just war—as connected with justice, your opposition to capital punishment can’t be thought anything but weak. The combination of abolishing the death penalty and routinely paroling murderers has created injustices. We go on recognizing (or pretending to recognize) killing as wrong and murder as the worst crime while, now, punishing more harshly people who steal a lot of money (and might do so again) than we do those who commit murder and aren’t likely to do so again.. Unless, of course, the release of the murderer would create public disorder—as in the case of Hindley and Brady—then we happily keep them in prison to, as the phrase goes, rot. Are you sure there’s nothing nasty, ghastly, unspeakable, obscene here, brought about by what you support, abolition?

Yours sincerely

Harry Daly