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Language is not in decline and enthusing people about spelling

In our keynote speech at the ITI conference on 20 May, Susie Dent said that it was a challenge to enthuse people about language and particularly spelling.

One of the difficult things about English spelling was that rules could only take you so far – explaining just 30-40 per cent of spellings.

However, knowing the origins and history of words was a great way to help people understand and remember spellings.

Just a few examples:

Atone  (at …one  – at one with whoever you have hurt)

Onion (one…ion  – one bulb)

The root of the words ‘true’, ‘betroth’ and ‘trust’ is ‘treow’ which centuries ago was the word for ‘tree’. The link here is the associations with the way in which trees where linked with steadfastness, consistency, staying power etc.

Medieval scribe sometimes wanted to ‘show off’ or just got things wrong. This led for example, for ‘b’ being put into the word ‘doubt’ which was originally spelled – dowt. They drew this from the Latin word ‘dubitem’. They also added the ‘l’ into ‘salmon’.

William Caxton had to rely on Flemish printers, and they were responsible for putting ‘h’ into the word ‘ghost’.

The word ‘mouse’ and ‘muscle’ are related. But how can this be? It’s because the Romans thought that muscles looked like mice under the skin.

People sometimes respond negatively to the creation of new and rather strange words that seem to be dictated by today’s fashions and trends. However, she pointed that only 1 per cent of words really are new – they typically have just been resurrected and repurposed.

She said that making up words, in the style of Roald Dahl, was a great way of getting children excited about language.

She said she knew it was sometimes an unpopular view, but social media and texting were not evidence of a decline in language. She recited a short love poem from the 19th century in which the shorthand used was very reminiscent of texting – so nothing is really new!

Playing around with language in terms of compressing and adapting it as you do when texting and tweeting, is actually a sign of good language skills. She said that research had shown that young people who texted and had mobiles early on, actually had better language skills than peers who did not.

She concluded by suggesting ‘Let’s just introduce one new word into our lives every day’ to enrich our lives and those of others.

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