the destructive power of silent letters




‘Taperty-tap’, I open one eye and wait for it to focus. For a minute I move it slowly round the room in a bid to coax it into life. I admit defeat, I am not alarmed, age has accustomed me to its pitfalls gracefully. ‘Taperty-tap’, I pick up my watch, its numbers are but a green blur. I move it backwards and forwards for a while and consider the focusing advantages of  longer arms. Ten past twelve, “yipeeeeee!” At last, a brilliantly successful sleep. I bounce out of bed, slip on a pair of shorts, grapple with the latch and eventually open the door. “Clean room kah?” I graciously decline the young ladies offer, close the door, and celebrate my wonderful night’s slumber with a short nap.

An hour later I ride out of town in search of breakfast and a bus ticket to Bangkok. As much as I dislike taking busses I would rather spend my few free days here and then suffer the slings and arrows of public transport in one brief and vicious blow than amble constantly onwards.

As I ride through town I pass a ‘tyre depot, and then a ‘tire depot. There is a shop offering a ‘color ‘printing service and another selling paint in an astonishing array of apparently breathtaking ‘colours’. This is not the first time that the rather silly differences between British and US spelling have attracted my attention, far from it. In Beijing there are two huge buildings occupying opposite sides of the same street. In mammoth letters one declares itself a ‘center’ the other a ‘centre’. How in god’s name did the world ever settle on this language as the international medium?

I once read in that most august of publications, The Daily Mail, how appalling the spelling of British youth has become. “Twenty five percent of them”, explained the learned journalist, “cannot spell Shakespeare”. The point the author of the damning report seemed to miss was that Shakespear could no spell Shackespeare, or should I say Shaxspere. In fact the Bard of Avon used no less than twenty spellings for his own name, and yet when he crops up in conversation the first comment is not generally “oh, Shakespeare, he couldn’t spell for toffee’.

One of my literary heros, the wonderful Jerome K Jerome, observed that “the chief function of English spelling is to act as a disguise to pronunciation” or words to that effect. Never, in my opinion, have truer words been uttered. And on this point, even as an English man, I cannot help but sympathise with the American “bastardisation” of English spelling. After all, isn’t it interesting that we British vehemently try to protect our spelling insisting on ‘colour’ and becoming most agitated at the sight of ‘plow’. Surely there is an irony in the British passionately defending these spellings, as only if pronounced phonetically with a Gallic accent do ‘colour’ and ‘centre’ begin to make sense. Who would ever have imagined the British so passionately defending the French language? I will not even begin to talk about the madness of ‘ough’; In the name of sanity, this combination forms a different sound in every word in which it raises it’s preposterous head. Can anyone call that sensible?

Silent letters are a topic unto themselves and you may not by now be surprised to learn that they have a tendency to raise my hackles. All the talk there is of protecting the environment and yet what destruction is caused by silent letters? Every time phone photo and Philip are spelt in such a silly way rather than with the F that any four year old can see it should be spelt with it is one step further towards the senseless destruction of the rain forests. Silent letters murder trees, as does ‘ough’. Knee is Dutch, they say “K-nee”. Our word is said nee, (just like the knights who say such a thing, who could, incidentally, be nites). Not only is paper wasted but ink also. Even when typing every key stroke uses power. Silent and pointless letters will, given time, be the death of our planet. An interesting piece of research I have long considered immersing myself into is the amount of trees cut down to satisfy the need for silent and unnecessary letters in a major book such as Harry Potter and one of his big adventures. Not that I have anything against Harry Potter Miss Rowling or any of Harry’s wizard chums, I just suspect that in order to print unnecessary letters a swath of rain forest the size of Belgium was destroyed.

So, am I championing American spelling? Nah, don’t be silly, who’s language is it anyway?


a stroll through an evening market



mango and sweet sticky rice



as i wandered i glanced down a small alley where in the light of the setting sun i saw this…


a split screen vw camper



4 thoughts on “the destructive power of silent letters

  1. … if the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers… and then where would you be 🙂
    That’s a lovely old split screen bus, nicely ‘weathered’ as is the ‘fashion’ here these days, folk seem to be deliberately taking the paint off…
    Congratulations on achieving some quality kippage 🙂

    • Ahh, there speaks a wordsmith and horticulturalist.
      The texture of the weathered pain is rather pleasing, but what would the value be in the UK if it had a good lick o’ paint? The evening light on it when first I spotted it down a side street was quite wonderful, I fear it would not have been as photogenic with a deep glossy lustre though.
      I didn’t show the sticker on the back as, although I guess that no harm was meant by it here in Thailand where European history is not so important as Asian history it was a rather tasteless thank you to the founder of VW.

  2. Brought this up to some of my students today and and the same argument. I mentioned how silent letters in particular were wasting resources. I charged them to take this on as their life work and to devote research to the cause. I then “Googled” it and found your post, and with your permission, I’d like to hang it up in my classroom.

    • Hello Scott. Great to hear I am not alone in my opinion. As a child I was always criticised (criticized) for my poor spelling and quickly came to accept my dunce status; only years later did it dawn upon me that it is not I who cannot spell but the fool who came up with English spelling.
      I would be honoured (honored) if you were to display my ramblings for all to see. I would be interested to know if there is any development on the subject with students.

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