February 19, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)


English orthography satisfies all the requirements of the canons of reputability under the law of conspicuous waste. It is archaic, cumbrous, and ineffective; its acquisition consumes much time and effort; failure to acquire it is easy of detection.

Thorstein Veblen(1857-1929)

The fonix finnatix are at it ahghen. Thay arr even triying to purrsuede the guvernor to inclood it in his edyoukayshun prowgram. It wood be grate if Inglish wuz a fonetik langwedge, but it iznt.

If you studied phonics in school, or picked it up on your own, you you might be able to read the above paragraph; but sounding-it-out really wouldn't be very much help to you in reading real English. The fact is that the spelling of words in the English language is often not phonetic. Anyone who reads and writes well recognizes words, not letters or syllables.

Phonics didn't exist when I went to school. It was called phonetics, but I guess that someone thought that a two syllable word was easier to learn than one of three syllables. Besides, phonetics is a subject and phonics has become a religion.

One of the funniest bits that I have ever heard was in a series in which a French woman was married to an American man. She was going to school to learn English and was discussing the pronunciation of "ough" with her husband. First she asked about "enough." When told that it was pronounced eenuf, she said "Then t-h-r-o-u-g-h is pronounced thruf?" "No," her husband said, "it's throo;" and so on through half a dozen words containing "ough." I was almost rolling on the floor with laughter.

It's a good idea for a child to learn to sound out unfamiliar words when first learning the language, but to make an article of faith out of phonics is simply ridiculous. There are so many words in American English that are not pronounced the way that they are spelled, that emphasizing phonics is idiotic. Everyone who is fluent in the language recognizes words on sight and spells and pronounces words that have been learned by rote. When I find a word that I am unfamiliar with, I look up the pronunciation as well as the spelling, if I can find it.

The American language is silly, but the British(original) version is ludicrous. Pronunciation is the basis for class distinction and for detecting ignorant Americans. For example, magdalen is pronounced maudlin, cholmondelly is pronounced chumly, tagliaferro is tolliver. For many words, especially place names, there is no correspondence at all between the spelling and the pronunciation.

George Bernard Shaw in his play Pygmalion, later made into the wonderful musical My Fair Lady, points out that the way that a person pronounces things immediately places a person in a social class: upper or lower, aristocrat or commoner. This is true in this country as well. The combination of a person's appearance and way of speaking immediately determines whether someone is looked up to or down upon. While the social classes are not quite as clearly defined in the U.S. as they are in Britain, they are there nevertheless.

The people who are pushing phonics claim that the reason that "Johnny can't read" is because phonics has been abandoned in favor of the whole language approach to teaching reading. It's all the fault of the teachers and educators. If they used phonics, kids would learn to read more proficiently. Nonsense! If many kids can't read well, it is not because of the way that reading is taught, but because television has replaced books for many children. The only way to learn to read and write proficiently is to read and write a lot. Kids who are proficient readers always have their nose in a book; horrors! "Johnny, if you have your nose in a book all the time you'll get pale, so go out and play." The emphasis has changed in schools from mental to physical fitness. No wonder that a lot of kids consider books unimportant. Their parents do too. If parents really want their kids to become proficient readers, they would get rid of the television set, or severely curtail its use.

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