Does Spelling Count?

Every teacher has heard that question.

(Frankly, for me, it’s more like “Does counting spell … trouble?” I’ve always thought of numbers as mathological beasts.)

We’ve got to talk about spelling. And why it really does count. So pull up a chair and sit down a spell.

Carlos “Omar” Almonte, a Dominican-born convert to Islam, achieved notoriety for a hand-lettered sign he held up at a protest in 2008 outside the Israeli consulate in New York.

The sign said:


Executives at Tropicana Products, Inc. did not comment. Lots of other people did. It was all over the net.

Attempting to find some logic in the lunacy, someone theorized that Almonte purposely misspelled Jews — so as not to get arrested for a hate crime. That is possible. But such prudence doesn’t seem to fit his M.O. Almonte had a history of scrapes with the law; and he was under FBI surveillance since 2006.

I don’t know much about his education. But it appears that Mr. Almonte (as The New York Times calls him) didn’t know much about his education either. He did have a spectacular senior year, though. As the Times reported:

“In May 2004, with a month left in his senior year at Elmwood Park Memorial High School, Mr. Almonte, a naturalized citizen, was arrested for taking a knife to campus.”

Naturalize means to “admit (a foreigner) to the citizenship of a country” (Oxford Dictionaries — ODO). If I made the rules, I would call naturalized an oxymoron. If it’s man-made, it’s not natural. Then again, today you can buy plenty of artificially made “natural” products.

Naturalized also makes me think of “denatured alcohol.” That’s where they take ethyl alcohol — the power behind the throne of whisky (or, if you prefer bourbon to Scotch, whiskey — with an e) and they add methyl alcohol to make it undrinkable (except in the old Soviet Union, where any alcohol was deemed drinkable by znatoki — connoisseurs — of rotgut).

Naturalize also means to “alter (an adopted foreign word) so that it conforms more closely to the phonology or orthography of the adopting language” (ODO). Orthography is the system of spelling in a language.

However you spell it, Almonte’s citizenship turned out to be unnatural. In 2010, Almonte and a friend were arrested at JFK Airport as they were preparing to fly to Egypt, then on to Somalia, to continue their education with al-Shabab, an offshoot of al-Qaida, which is also hard to spell.

But you don’t have to be a jihadi terrorist to spell poorly. J. Richard Gentry, author of The Science of Spelling, railed in Psychology Today, “America has moved to a toxic system for delivering spelling instruction in spite of an extensive and evolving body of research showing that direct and explicit spelling instruction is required for students to master the mechanics of reading and writing.”

And who are the biggest victims of schools abandoning the old ­spelling book? “Poor students in urban districts … with poor spelling instruction, they can’t read and they can’t write words automatically.”

Spelling has always been a problem for English. That’s not surprising when you stop and think that English is a cholent of a dozen or more languages, each contributing its own flavor.

In Between You & Me, Mary Norris tells of Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster’s attempt to impose law and order on English spelling. Franklin tried to get Webster to follow his plan for simplified spelling. He also wanted Webster to market Dilworth’s New Guide to the English Tongue, to which Franklin owned the rights. But Webster eventually told Franklin to go fly a kite and made his own dictionary.

Webster also changed some old British spellings to new American ones. If not for Webster, Almonte would have gone to gaol.

George Bernard Shaw was an advocate of simplified and phonetic spelling. But the famous ghoti-fish story attributed to Shaw is apocryphal. Ben Zimmer, writing in Language Log, reported an announcement from the American Dialect Society of a citation for ghoti going back to 1855 (a year before Shaw was born).

Don’t know what ghoti means? That’s fishy.

Here’s a quote from the 1855 letter (with original spelling, punctuation and italicization):

“Here’s an experiment in orthography, which it may amuse some of our readers to carry further … My son William has hit upon a new method of spelling Fish. As thus:—G.h.o.t.i. Ghoti, fish. Nonsense! say you. By no means say I. it is perfectly vindicable orthography. You give up? Well, then, here is the proof. Gh is f, as in tough, rough, enough; o is I as in women; and ti is sh, as in mention, attention, &c. So that ghoti is fish.


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