Archive for the 'writing' Category

Reading and not writing

October 17, 2017

I’m not often brought to a halt by something I read, but this happened as I was reading Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s Reformation, and it was the question of a separation between being able to read and to write that brought me up short, and led to a length discussion with my other half, who, as a retired primary school teacher, was exactly the right person to have at hand…

I’d been familiar with the idea that, until the early Middle Ages, reading had not been a silent activity, that is that a person when reading would vocalise what s/he was reading, either silently or aloud (which of course slows the reading process down considerably), and that it had been a revelation when it was discovered that this vocalisation was not necessary – one could ‘just’ read, as it were, just as we do now… and children, of course, need to learn this, or realise this, or perhaps they just pick it up.

Anyway, to me the processes of reading and writing had always gone hand-in-hand; I’ve never separated the two, particularly as, in my experience, we learn to do them at the same time, in the early years of our schooling. I’d never thought any further about this until I came across the idea that a person might be able to read, but not be able to write, and it took me a long time to make sense of this.

It was carefully explained to me that there are various different ways of teaching children to read, some of which lend themselves to learning to write rather more easily than others. And then, there are a whole range of fine motor skills and also secretarial skills involved in the process of writing, which also have to be learnt, and might not be. And then there is the whole question of sentences.

We do not tend to speak in sentences: a transcript of any conversation will demonstrate this. So the units of meaning necessary to writing also have to be taught and learned. Not only does a child need to learn to write in sentences – something which, from my experience as a teacher, a good many never do with any great competence – they also need to work out how to articulate their ideas into sentences before they attempt to write them down. And this is pretty difficult, as primary teachers will testify.

Once I understood this, I realised how the two processes, which are clearly very different, could have been separate from each other in the past: it’s only current educational systems that have linked them together, for convenience’ sake. And then: what does a person actually need to write? If you are a person of any note or importance and cannot write, you can have someone who will do that for you. People in India still make their living as public scribes for those who cannot write, but may occasionally need something written out for them. Perhaps you only need to write lists, or figures. You may need to make a mark to authenticate a document. But do you have a need to write in sentences? And to learn all that complicated stuff?

Then I found myself thinking about the advent of technology, and the difference it may make or be making to these processes. Gone is the need for pencil control and other fine motor skills when there is a keyboard, either physical or on-screen, to produce perfect, identical letters for you. And I suppose a grammar checker – bane of my life – can help you identify when you haven’t formed a proper sentence. Spellcheckers can allegedly help with correct spelling, although I used to remind students that a spellchecker is only as intelligent as the person using one. But technology can’t frame proper sentences for you: you have to be able to structure and articulate what you want to say first…

I’ve often wondered why there hasn’t been that much progress in ‘speak-write’ technology (even Orwell had it working perfectly in the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-four), and I can see that apart from removing the need for any keyboard skills at all, it will not advance the work of a non-writer any further than we have currently progressed.

And yet, writing skills are disappearing: many students do so much of their work using keyboards that they cannot write an essay longhand any more, and universities are working out how to allow students to complete examination papers using computers. If your smartphone can contain everything that you might ever have needed pen and paper for in the past, where does that leave the future of writing? I don’t know where we will end up in the future, but I do find questions like these absolutely fascinating…


Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls

August 7, 2017

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve just read it for the fifth time, according to my records; I was somewhat astonished to see, however, than I hadn’t picked it up since the end of the last century…

Josef Skvorecky was a Czech writer who left after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. He had been published in Czechoslovakia before then, but after his departure was only printed in the West. Many of his novels are what I’d have to call semi-autobiographical, or fictionalised autobiography: he appears in the character of Danny Smiricky along with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the town of Kostelec, and later from Prague, and writes of his teenage years under the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the liberation and strange hiatus before the Communists established their grip. His themes are jazz – he and some friends played in a jazz band before, during and after the occupation – girls, in the ways that almost every teenage boy would identify with, politics as an inevitable part of life, and the desire for freedom.

This novel, which I rate as his best, is about feelings of exile, loss and rootlessness, and I suspect that these themes draw me back to him. Skvorecky values his freedom in Canada, and finds it impossible to explain the complexities of his past to his literature students in Toronto. Episodes relating his younger years playing jazz, chasing girls, doing compulsory labour in a Messerschmitt factory alternate with those relating his life as a college lecturer on English and American literature and his relationships with his students, and others portraying his life among the Czexh exile community in Canada, with their strange attitudes and beliefs. We also catch up with various people from his youthful past via letters. So it’s a complex read in some ways, and I did find myself realising that fairly soon it will be impossible for a Western reader to understand Skvorecky’s life without detailed annotation… the novel was only written in 1984!

The novel raises quite a few interesting reflections, perhaps firstly as to whether it’s a boy’s book, if that makes sense. Certainly the teenage, girl-chasing unrequited love and sex years may give that impression: I’ve never met anyone else who’s read any Skvorecky, let alone a female reader, so if there is one out there, I’d love to hear from you.

Then there’s the question of exile, and it was reflecting more generally on this theme in a previous post that drew me back to the novel in the first place. The entire novel is pervaded by a tone of sadness, wistfulness, regret, nostalgia, a powerful sense of loss; happy to be in Canada his heart wants a home, yet he shows us how those who go back are also lost, because it’s now another country, and he also shows us how those who visit from Czechoslovakia yearn for freedom and want to leave… there is no answer to the problem. As we approach the end of the novel, some friends die, some suffer from the compromises they have to make to stay at home, others lose their identities as they wander rootless around the world.

Skvorecky is a highly political writer, although by no means didactic; his ultimate philosophy seems to be to live for now because one can never be certain what horrors the future may hold, and that freedom is indivisible, it can’t be compromised on; he is Conradian in his attitude to revolutions and what they (don’t) achieve, and it’s interesting that one of the books he writes about studying with his students is Heart of Darkness. All politics is a game, a dirty one about power and nothing else.

There is a wonderful strand of humour running through the novel, and yet the horrors of the past break through in small, very powerful ways at times. It is a marvellous book, with so many layers to it which I still don’t think I’ve unravelled even after several readings; it’s not an easy read for someone unfamiliar with the region and its history. And, I found myself wondering if it’s actually the last time I’ll read it, because of the very powerful feelings it stirs in me…

On translation (again!)

March 12, 2017

The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in the original Arabic; if it’s in another language, it’s only a ‘version’, not the authentic Qur’an. At least, that’s my understanding of its status, and it led me once again to thinking about the business of translation. Obviously in my learning of languages, I’ve had to do plenty of it; I first became aware of the complexity when studying French at university. Turning the French words into English ones was straightforward enough, but making the whole read and flow like something in real English was much more of an art, and in the other direction was far harder, for coming from outside French, as it were, how well could I judge whether my effort felt like proper French? Nuance and idiom were everything, both ways…

Speaking the language was different: the revelation, epiphany even, which had come much earlier, before O level, when I was visiting my French pen-pal, was that I could speak the language more than passably and was understood by real French people, and that what I was saying did not involve any translating from English to French. The thoughts were there in my head, I articulated and they came out in French, because I was in France, talking with French people.

So what is a translation? Etymologically, from the Latin trans = across and latum, supine of the verb ferre to carry, so ‘carried across’. What do translators do? Somehow they enable us to read and understand a text written in a language we are unable to use. This involves putting the meanings of all the words into our language, and so much more: the sense, the feel, the meaning of the text as a whole also must be conveyed; idiom ideally is retained so we get a sense of the style of the original, the nature of the diction, the impression that the original author was trying to convey to her/his readers in the first language. Once you think of all these aspects of the task, it becomes formidable. And how can I be sure that, as a non-Russian and a non-Russian speaker (for these are surely different things) I’m actually getting what Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was saying?


I’ve enjoyed many of the novels of Ismail Kadare, some in English, more in French. And, to the best of my knowledge, most of the translations available in English until recently were done from the French, not the original Albanian. So how far am I from Kadare’s original meaning when I read Broken April, or The Pyramid, for example? Or, looking at an example in the other direction, consider Joseph Conrad, nowadays rather a neglected modernist writer. First language Polish, second language French, and yet he wrote brilliant novels in English, his third language, for heaven’s sake! Yes, you can detect French-isms in his English occasionally, but not that often…

I was struck many years ago when I read a comment by Umberto Eco about his translator into English, William Weaver. Eco actually said that he thought Weaver’s version of The Name of the Rose was better than his (Eco’s). Now (a) what does this mean, and (b) how could Eco actually know? My head spins. And for me, it is a brilliant novel – Weaver’s version, that is, for I don’t read or speak Italian. So what have I read?


I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from A Dead House, translated by the well-known pair of translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. From articles I’ve read, one either hates their translation style or loves it. I’ve read many of their translations, and I’m firmly in the latter camp: for me they bring the stories alive, and with a modern enough idiom to make them comfortable to read unlike some of the stilted and wooden older translations. I’m not qualified to comment on accuracy or anything like that as I don’t speak Russian, but what they do works for me. But the more I read and think about translation as an art, the more in awe of its practitioners I am.

How I write

March 9, 2017

This post was prompted by a fellow blogger on matters literary, who reflected on whether it was better to research and read around a book before coming to read it, and the impact that others’ judgements might have on how one then read and enjoyed that book. He got me thinking in more depth about what goes on as I write these posts.

I write my blog because I enjoy it; it has become a discipline of sorts, over the years. I don’t have a vast number of readers, but I hope that they do get something from what I have to say.

My reading is very undisciplined. By this, I mean that I don’t have an agenda or programme or a list of books that I intend to read in a particular order. True, I do intend to read that enormous pile that is only shrinking very slowly in my study, but whether I will ever finish it or not is determined by factors beyond my control: one book suggests another and what I intended to pick up next may never actually find its way into my hand…

Equally, I have periods where I read avidly, and others where, surprisingly, I don’t feel much like reading, or where I read magazines rather than books. And there will be times when I’m thinking about various aspects of literature more generally and produce a different kind of post for a while.

But, when I pick up a book, it’s almost always to begin reading straight away. I’ll ignore the introduction, if there is one – I may decide to read it after I’ve finished the book, or, if the book is very challenging or vexing I may interrupt my reading to take in the introduction, to see if it helps. As I read, I think, reflect, and occasionally jot down notes on a small pad which is usually at hand. I like to have my iPad close by too, to look up words or places or details that may occur to me as I’m reading. So by the time I’m at the end of a book, I usually have enough notes from which to construct my blog post. If I’m writing a more general post, like this one for instance, I will usually make some notes and devise a general plan first. As a student of literature for many years, I have acquired tools and skills which encourage me to trust my own judgement, at least initially, before turning to what others have said and thought. I don’t feel I approach things this way out of arrogance, and after I have read and reached what I think are my conclusions, I frequently then look at what other have thought and said…

I’ve left longhand drafts behind long ago: what’s the point of new technology if you don’t take advantage of what it has to offer? So I type directly into Libre Office. When I have a complete draft, I’ll re-read, edit and correct (I’m a dreadful typist), taking care over language and nuance: although I know some of my readers, most of them I don’t, and need to be really careful to get my meaning over clearly and accurately, hopefully leaving no room for misunderstanding. And there are many readers from other lands whose first language will not be English.

Often I will leave what I’ve written to mature for a couple of days before I come back to it and give it a final check before actually publishing; after some time has passed I will have a clearer sense of whether what I’ve written says what I want to say, the way I want to say it.

Note to my former students who read my blog: this may well not be the way I taught you to write essays, but hopefully you will remember that I also said you should find out what works for you and then stick with it. Which I have done.

Montaigne: Essays

February 17, 2017

515td2p46tl-_ac_us218_When I was teaching, I used to set essays all the time, and yet I never really thought about this literary form at all, in the ways that I used to reflect on poetry, prose and drama. Essays were of various kinds, asking students to write about something they were interested in, something that had happened to them, to present an argument or to explore an opinion offered about a piece of literature, and, other than the obvious idea that the requested piece of writing was non-fictional by definition, that was it.

Having taken a long time – several years, with gaps – to work my way through Montaigne’s Essays (and I must also confess that I read them in English not French, having baulked just slightly at renewing my long-lost acquaintance with sixteenth century French) I have found myself thinking. Montaigne seems to be regarded as the originator of the form, a (relatively) short prose piece on a single topic which the writer may explore how she or he chooses, and often from a personal angle.

It doesn’t seem to be that easy a form to master, for it must either be tightly structured so that the reader knows exactly where you’re leading him or her, or, if it’s a looser kind of reflective wandering through a topic, it must not unravel too much and the reader feel lost in someone else’s ramblings. Which is why a large part of my teaching work was about how to plan and write essays.

Montaigne comes across as a very likeable and very erudite man in his essays: he ranges very widely; some pieces are quite long and involved, others much briefer. The titles of his essays are often puzzling, enigmatic, and one often doesn’t meet the named topic for many pages. He seems very liberal, in the free-thinking sense, open-minded in a way one might not expect from his times, humane in his approach to us and our failings and shortcomings. He writes very openly about sex and sexuality, about his own body and its weaknesses as he ages, and faces the prospect of death. And I am quite envious of his very early retirement to his estate and his tower in which he would sit, think and write, away from the demands of the world. I also like the idea that Shakespeare would have read some of his works, in Florio’s translation: usually it’s the essay ‘On Cannibals’ that’s mentioned, in connection with The Tempest.

I’ve really enjoyed making my way through this huge and well-produced tome – Everyman’s Library do make beautiful books; some of the essays I’ve enjoyed far more than others, and I’ve taken care to mark these, so that I can come back to them: I can’t see myself re-reading them all, somehow…

And now that I come to think of it, I suppose that each of my blog posts is actually an essay. In case you wonder, I do plan them (former students please note!) usually jotting down notes, thoughts and reactions as I’m reading a book, and each piece is carefully read through and revised after I’ve committed it to my hard drive. And I thought I had left essays behind when I finished my master’s degree…

My A-Z of Reading: P is for Printing

December 7, 2016

Mediaeval handwritten manuscript books are often stunningly beautiful because of their gorgeous illustrations. And handwritten books were incredibly expensive: I remember reading somewhere that by the end of his life, Geoffrey Chaucer had acquired a library of some sixty books; I had that many by the time I went off to secondary school…

So printing was a wonderful invention, in a lot of ways. Books became more plentiful, and somewhat cheaper; for a while the wealthy paid to have hand illustration done to their printed copies, but it wasn’t quite the same. Woodcut illustrations became the norm, and while some are beautiful, many are quite crude and rather pedestrian. With print, the focus was very much on the dissemination of the word, the idea: historians often say that the Reformation could never have happened without the advent of printing in the West, and if you think that a major contribution was the mass production of bibles in vernacular translations, then this is surely true.

Printing meant the spreading of ideas, then, and it must also have contributed to the spread of eduction through different social classes, for if there is the technology to produce books more cheaply, printers and booksellers will have an eye to business, and they needed readers. And you couldn’t have the general access to universal education that spread in the nineteenth century without access to books.

However, printing and the dissemination of ideas is also subversive, a danger to the establishment: though you can give everyone access to the bible and preach about obedience to the authorities, you cannot easily stop other philosophies and ideologies spreading through the same medium. They thought of censorship, which was reasonably effective for a while in dealing with troublesome literature.

And so we get to our own times, where the internet is as powerful, if not a more powerful, disruptor of things. Previously, you needed a certain amount of money to get your book into print and distributed; you needed to be a wealthy man to start a newspaper and influence people that way. But with the internet, you could do it all for almost nothing: spread your ideas, lies, false news, ‘post-truth’ writings – call them what you like. And trying to censor the internet is like… well…

But those who would control ideas quite rapidly realised that there was a much better way to block dangerous or subversive ideas, no matter what the medium – print, television, internet – you simply swamp real content with crap. Think about it: serious newspapers exist and are read by the few, while The Sun, the Daily Mail, Bild Zeitung are read by the millions. Serious TV programmes exist, but who can find them among hundreds of channels of soaps, dramas, game shows, shopping channels and the rest? And on the internet it’s easier still: so much garbage out there, particularly when social media and search engines take control: who actually knows what is out there and where to find it, what is going on, how we are being manipulated?

Truly, both printing and the web are double-edged swords, allowing both the dissemination of new ideas and control of large numbers of people through obfuscation and fog. And no-one has found a way to cut through those, yet.

My A-Z of Reading: N is for Newspapers

December 4, 2016

serveimageI’ve always been fascinated by newspapers; I collect them: historical events and countries of the world. So if any of my readers are in a position to get me a newspaper from Mongolia or Greenland – in a local language – I’ll be very grateful, as these are gaps in my collection. Similarly, I’m open to offers for my copy of The New York Times (genuine) reporting the first manned moon landing…

Newspapers have been around for well over three centuries, and one of the things that interested me as a child was that my home town claimed the oldest local paper in the land, the Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury as it was then. I cringe at having been brought up reading the Daily Mail, a rag the country should genuinely be ashamed of. But at boarding school we were provided with The Guardian and The Times and it has been the former that I’ve stuck with all my life.

Newspapers were serious publications; I say were advisedly, for they have changed beyond all recognition in my lifetime. They used to be straightforward, black and white publications with perhaps sixteen to twenty broadsheet pages, containing news, sport, a couple of pages of comment and analysis, and different pages on different days reviewing concerts, books and the like. Today we have largely tabloid newspapers, in colour – often lurid – and several sections: far more paper, and far more froth and knitted words filling them. It often seems that any nonentity who can’t write a sentence can be a columnist. And all the lifestyle nonsense and celebrity stuff, even in the most serious of papers. The Daily Telegraph – known as the Morning Fascist to me (know your enemy) – used to be a serious newspaper of record in which one could ignore the rabid columnists and laugh oneself silly at the Peter Simple column. Now it is a shadow of its former self.


Television and the internet have happened, and newspapers in Britain don’t know what to do with themselves. The Germans have the answer, I feel: serious and sober, few concessions to the latest trends, it seems, and focusing on quality, in-depth reporting and analysis. Le Monde used to do this in France – a newspaper famous for not using any photographs at all back in the old days. But it has changed, and caught the British disease. And Liberation, which mocked everyone and everything, a newspaper for anarchists – look at it now! And the culture of local and regional dailies helps both France and Germany avoid most of the worst excesses of our gutter press.

Let’s be serious for a moment. I’m not buying a newspaper for news any more. News I get online. Even newspapers recognise this and go to print earlier and earlier in the evening. So what can a newspaper offer that the web and television can’t? In-depth reporting, and serious political and social analysis still reads better – to me, but am I just old? – in print. Articles about culture, books, education and music are plentiful online, but I like reading good writing in print. Do I need colour for this? Not very much, to be honest. And do I need a dose of this every day? Again, probably not. A decent newspaper could probably come out twice a week, just as some did a couple of centuries ago, or even weekly, which is what Sunday newspapers do, or in countries like France and Germany where the culture of the weekly news magazine is still strong, what magazines like L’Obs or Der Spiegel do.

Newspapers are wrestling with how to survive and make money in the internet age, but do not seem to be trying much that’s new. Where is micro-payment for articles, where are sensible and clear subscription options in Britain? I feel awkward – I won’t admit to more than that – reading so much stuff for nothing, and I block ads because newspapers farm out advertising to all sorts of weasels who spray malware in all directions. I’d pay for stuff if there was a sensible way and I knew what I was getting if I signed up to a subscription deal. I’ve tried several times to get The Guardian to tell me what exactly I would get for being a subscriber and they haven’t responded… so no money from me.

I can’t see newspapers actually disappearing – though I’d like the Sun and the Daily Mail to, and The Independent has vanished from print, but what will I be reading in ten years time?

My A-Z of reading: G is for Grammar

November 2, 2016

I have a confession to make. As a secondary school student in the late 1960s/ early 1970s, I received very little formal teaching of English grammar; it was patchy and sketchy, and what grammar I really learnt came via my study of Latin and French. Yet I went on to have a successful career as an English teacher. My knowledge and understanding of English grammar was largely self-taught, and there are gaps, grey areas in my knowledge about which I was glad rarely to be asked.

There are all sorts of issues here. Should grammar be taught in a traditional way? Will it help with MFL (which is going down the pan very fast in the UK, it seems). Certainly it will be dull, boring and repetitive, and one might argue that most students will not need it anyway… and, of course, that’s an elitist argument in itself.

One might, instead, teach grammar as and when it’s needed, which was how I approached it during my teaching career. Formal teaching of some grammar and punctuation were needed if students were to progress beyond a certain minimum level in their own writing – and here’s the rub: how many people go on to need to write essays or other chunks of formal prose in later life? Surely, being able to speak correctly – to be able to function in Standard English as well as one’s home variety – is of more importance nowadays. And here we hit the thorny question of correct usage…

What is correct? Various newer usages grate on my eyes and ears, but as a student of our language as well as a teacher, I’m aware that language is a dynamic, developing and evolving construct; change is inevitable. Otherwise we would still all be speaking Latin…

When it came to trying to teach grammar effectively, I was hampered by the lack of decent resources for classroom use, and ended up constructing my own, cutting and pasting from a wide range of material. Textbook writers dumbed things down in an effort not to bore students to death, and didn’t provide the necessary practice drills that embed what is learnt. And then there is the matter of disagreement about the terminology to be used – the Year 6 SATs have produced some really wacky labelling, although I did find an intelligent 11-year-old to explain some of it to me…

And what about the great prescriptive vs descriptive debate: are we merely noting a range of usages, or are we in the business of telling people which to use? My criteria for students were always effective communication and intelligibility. There may well be a range of ways of being correct; it’s more useful to know what is actually wrong, in terms of impeding good communication.

I think – have thought for a long time – that the situation is a mess. Perhaps it has always been. Studying Latin to sixth form level embedded what I know and understand, but Latin isn’t English. I’ve always been interested (with a small ‘i’) in grammar, and have found my understanding very useful, but I’m well aware I’m not your general reader. What do you think?

On alphabets and scripts

August 11, 2016

Stuck in our little bubble, we rarely look beyond our own Roman script. I’ve been fascinated by other ways of writing ever since I was quite small, when, very occasionally, letters would arrive from my father’s family in what was then the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. They were addressed in Cyrillic script, and somewhere along the postal chain the address was crudely and inaccurately transcribed into ours in crayon, in the gaps between the lines on the envelope. And when he replied, my father wrote his brother’s address in Cyrillic script. I was curious. And why did the Russians need 35 letters in their alphabet, when we only had 26?

I made an ill-fated attempt to learn classical Greek at secondary school. It was horrendously difficult, not because of the script, but for its grammar, which rivalled Polish in its tortured complexity. Again, another script, and of course, related to Cyrillic.

Even among Western European languages, a variety of accents are required to produce all the different sounds each language requires. But European scripts do all resemble each other; there are overlaps, although sometimes there is confusion, as with the Cyrillic ‘CCCP’ which are actually the letters ‘SSSR’ in Russian, standing for Union of Soviet Socialist Republics… And then there are some letters that just don’t exist in English. There’s enough similarity, though, for anyone interested to begin to explore the differing scripts and to make some sense of what’s there – until you get to handwriting. I was speechless when my father explained to me that handwritten Russian used quite different letters! So, for example, our capital letter ‘T’ is also ‘T’ in Russian. But our small ‘t’ actually looks very like ‘m’ in Russian. Got a headache yet?

I came across the Arabic alphabet quite early on, too. There, we Westerners are utterly clueless: there’s nothing vaguely resembling our script to give us any clues. And, although we call our numeral system Arabic, the actual numbers in Arabic script don’t look much like ours at all. Plus everything goes from right to left, rather than left-right. Books and newspapers open from the ‘back’ and work in reverse direction to ours. I found that a copy of an Egyptian newspaper made an excellent prop whilst teaching GCSE poetry, when we had to study a token few poems that came from other cultures and traditions. I could pass it around the class; we could all agree we could make no sense of anything at all unless there were recognisable visual clues in photographs or advertisements. And yet: there were millions of people who could access that newspaper, and read it as effortlessly as we read ours. Cultural relativism in a nutshell.

There are some visually quite gorgeous scripts in the languages of South East Asia, flowing like water on the printed page. I found it very sobering being put in my place, as it were, by languages that I couldn’t even begin to approach.

And then there are the ideographs of Chinese – picture writing, perhaps not quite in the same vein as the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, but on similar lines: a whole word as a concept picture, rather than being structured of a series of sounds built up into a word as we do. How can this work? And the use of the same ‘word’ but said in a different ‘tone’ having a totally different meaning! It was later along the line that I learned that in the different varieties of Chinese, although the pictograms representing an object or concept remained unchanged, the word – as said – was different. And in former years, they wrote in lines from top to bottom of the page rather than across it like we do.

I revel in all this diversity; I find it fascinating. I collect newspapers from all over the world, and enjoy staring at the scripts. If anyone out there is off to Mongolia, there’s one language I don’t have…

David Crystal: Spell It Out

June 21, 2016

51p7rzC0mSL._AC_US160_Teaching (or attempting to teach) spelling was part of my job throughout my career, and it was quite important to me to encourage students to be as accurate as possible. I tried to adopt a structured approach to teaching spelling – in fact worked my way through a number of what I thought were structured approaches; I felt that I met with a certain amount of success, and yet, according to David Crystal, I was not going about it the right way. After reading his book, I have to agree with him (mostly)…

I have always been a good speller, never having any real problems with any aspect of it: once I’ve met a word in print, it sticks along with its spelling. I’ve put this down to the way my memory works – maybe photographically for spelling – and the fact that I read a lot (!) This hasn’t always made it easy for me to be sympathetic to those who clearly found it all much more of a struggle, but I did try.

Crystal presents the history of the development of spelling in English, through the varied influences of Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, the Great Vowel Shift and a whole host of other factors, including a number of well-intentioned but wrong-headed attempts to reform, to structure and to standardise spelling. We can thus see how the rules and the anomalies and the myriad exceptions came about, and how they cause problems for the unwary and the non-native English speaker. I thought I knew quite a lot about our language and its history, and yet it all came across as much more complicated than I had known. The book – like many others of his – is clear, well-written and explained, and copiously illustrated with examples.

He also makes some suggestions as to how spelling might be better taught and learned, as well as recognising that it’s not a fixed thing, but changing and evolving over time, pointing out that electronic communication and the internet are forces that tend both to standardise and also to allow more rapid evolution of spelling. Context is important for teaching spelling – so all those lists of words in isolation so beloved of English teachers are not that helpful; an understanding of some basic principles of etymology is useful, so clearly a knowledge of Latin would be a help. I’m not holding my breath on this one, but it’s another of those factors that must have helped me, coming, as I did from a generation of students who needed O Level Latin to embark on an arts degree…

If I’d read this book whilst still working, I would have made some major changes to how I went about teaching spelling. It’s a useful book for the interested general reader as well as for teachers, I think.

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