LITERATURE - LITERACY AND LOONIES
15 May 1993.
If “rong” doesn’t
spell wrong, asked Ben Bowyang, what does it spell? That bush teaser
poses a problem for the upholders of fixed standards in the teaching of
English. Another puzzle for those defenders is why they have
appropriated Shakespeare as their hero even though he was uncertain
about how to spell his own name. Should 1990s teenagers be penalised
because they follow his example, and that of informed opinion throughout
the nineteenth century, and omit one of the three “e’s” in
Despite the obvious
intention behind rong and Shakspeare, regularity in expression should be
encouraged because language is a shared practice. Hence, misspellings
matter most if they impede communication, for instance, if ingenuous
appears as ingenious.
Uniform spelling is
hardly 100 years old. In the 1890s, the north American philosopher
William James complained about everyone’s being “expected to spell
in the same way … let us get a dozen influential persons to agree each
to spell after his own fashion and so break up this tyranny of the
If dictionaries tell us
how words are most often spelt, they do not attempt to tell us what
those words mean. As the editor of the complete Oxford pointed out long
ago, that monument records the inventiveness of English speakers in how
words can be used. The OED’s etymologies demonstrate that meanings are
not fixed in time any more than each word is confined to a single
meaning. Light is the opposite of dark and of heavy. Similarly, gay can
now be joyous and homosexual.
One complaint from the
guardians of fixed usage has been that more children are leaving school
without basic skills in literacy. A difficulty with that claim is that
their objection recurs across the 20th century. In the late
1880s, first-year medical students at Harvard were set oral examinations
because they could not write well enough to express what they knew. When
the University of Queensland opened in 1911, its staff were distressed
by the howlers in examination prose.
In England, the picture
has been much the same. In D H Lawrence’s 1913 autobiographical novel,
Sons and Lovers, the
protagonists’ first employer grumbles that the boy could not read and
write properly. In 1921, executives from Lever Bros told an inquiry into
English teaching: “Out young employees are so hopelessly deficient in
their command of the English language.” Then, 54 years later, another
British investigation into English teaching noted how company officials
complained “that young people joining them from school cannot write
grammatically, are poor spellers and generally express themselves
Two conclusions are
possible from such evidence. On the one hand, we might perceive how the
impressionable middle-aged match the failing of their faculties with a
cultural decline. On the other, we can accept that the standards of
literacy – as well as those of orthography and numeracy – have been
on a steady decline since the Phoenicians. Though, if the latter is
true, how is it that you can still read this column?
Each of us has some
point of English which we take as the personal standard by which to
condemn other people’s poor expression. I am addicted to the placing
of adverbs as close as possible to the words they modify. For instance,
the statement on T-shirts that “I only sleep with the best” is a
confession of non-performance. The would-be boaster meant “I sleep
only with the best”. I can even affect to be offended when I find such
muddling in my own writing.
Greater amusement comes
when an upholder of standards makes one of the more common errors. One
example came recently on the ABC from an adviser on science to the
Hewson Liberals. That professor at the Australian National University
used “disinterested” when the context of his scripted talk indicated
that he meant “uninterested”. The alarming aspect of that error was
not that he made it, but that the ABC had no way of preventing its going
The misuse of only or
disinterested is unfortunate, but does not signal the collapse of
civilisation. Texts on correct usage are filled with mistakes drawn from
the greatest writers and thinkers in our language. Milton’s grasp of
the relative pronoun weakened the longer Paradise Lost became – another punishment for the Fall?
Just as particular
breaches of particular conventions are misused to mount a case for a
general decline in literacies, so that the wider claim often conceals
dislike of social changes that are finding expression in language.
Prejudice against Asians remains polite when voiced as a point of
grammar. This bias is sharper in the dis-United Kingdom where regional
and racial accents are far more distinct than they are in Australian
A decade ago, the
Thatcherites went into the literacy wars with a book called the Black
Papers on Education. That publication documented the whackier
elements of supposed radicalisation of the classroom.
Evidence and arguments
from those Black Papers circulated in Australia and influenced the Metherell
agenda for NSW schools. In Victoria, the Kennett administration aims to
introduce more standardised tests, which there is no guarantee that the
Premier could pass.
In 1989, the Thatcher
government installed a new national curriculum which attempted to
balance the traditionalists’ emphasis on grammar, spelling and
punctuation with the progressive concern for creativity and the dynamism
of language use.
Since then, a
reactionary British think thank, the Centre for Policy Studies, has bent
the ear of the education ministers, and had themselves put in charge of
Britain’s National Curriculum and School Examination Councils. They
are now proposing to overcome their nation’s literacy problems through
one-word answers on Romeo and
Juliet, and the imposition of a standardised accent. Given that
Australia’s reactionaries are parasitical for their fresh ideas on
British failures, we can expect to hear similar lunacies here.
In preparation for that
season of silliness, it is worth turning to one of the authors of the Black
Papers, Professor Brian Cox. Cox is today among the leading critics
of the present round of ratty Right interference with the curriculum.
Cox is no far-Left liberal. In 1988-89, he chaired the National
Curriculum English World group as a Thatcher appointee.
Writing in Britain’s Observer
newspaper last month, Cox laughed at the “absurd tests”, but had to
weep because “children are being used as guinea pigs for failed
experiments”. For the ultra-Right, the golden age of literacy is
linked to nostalgia for the tranquility of English villages. This rural
fantasy dominates the new set tests. “It often accompanies a longing
for traditional Latinate grammar and the connectives of rhyme and rhythm
in poetry”. Emphasis on “mechanical exercises in basic language
skills” will reproduce “barren learning”.