Correcting The Correctors

On 29/1/12 there was a discussion on BBC TV’s Breakfast News programme of a proposal to reintroduce elocution lessons in schools near London, in the hope that the incidence of spelling errors such as wew for well (allegedly generated by ‘Estuary English’ accents in which this word is pronounced [wew]) would thereby be reduced. Now some (by no means all) non-standard spellings do relate to accent differences, and the particular error cited here is a candidate; but all attempts to modify young people’s accents through elocution (with whatever goals in mind) have proved conspicuously unsuccessful over many decades. And, more alarmingly, the interchanges of opinion on this programme were utterly vitiated by gross conceptual confusion. One speaker alone confounded the very different issues of a) accent and spelling differences (exemplified here by [wew]/wew and by what are often inaccurately described as ‘dropped Ts’ in expressions such as Shut up! – although this latter effect appears to have no consequences for spelling), b) the shifting meanings of idioms such as Shut up! (which is nowadays often used to express amazement rather than to demand silence) and c) standard versus non-standard sentence grammar.

On 10/2/12 there was further discussion of this issue on The One Show, importing further confusion - notably the idea that non-standard spellings such as sbort derive from an unreported and probably spurious pronunciation difference (the pronunciation cited in the programme is in fact wholly ‘normal’, and the spelling with -b- is readily explained in other terms).

Even a very basic knowledge of linguistics would have helped considerably here. As long as such discussions are carried on in this confused manner, little progress can be expected.