Oxford Professor Simon Horobin shocked his audience at the Telegraph Hay Festival when questioning the need of correct spelling and asking: “Is the apostrophe so crucial to the preservation of our society?”
Horobin, English Professor at Magdalen College, urged the “grammar police” to be more relaxed about changing the standards of written English. He suggested that there would be no harm in spelling “they’re”, “their” and “there” in the same way.
Prof Horobin explained that it was a “comparatively recent phenomenon” that we restricted ourselves to standardized spelling and pointed out that in Middle English there are 500 different ways of spelling “through”, such as: drowgh, trowffe, trghug, yhurght.
“People like to artificially constrain language change. For some reason we think spelling should be entirely fixed and never changed”, said Prof Horobin.
He added: “I am not saying we should just spell freely, but sometimes we have to accept spellings change.”
A St Peter’s English student agreed that “you can’t stop people from changing language and it is necessary to acknowledge change of the common usage of grammar.”
However, she considered “the development of a grammatical system with its spelling rules a sign of the sophistication of language and it would be a shame to lose this.”
She added: “especially since English is the lingua franca at the moment you do need a standardized version of the language to teach English to foreigners.”
She also found it “a shame, that they don’t teach language and grammar properly at primary school. This is why English people are such poor linguists in comparison to Germans or the French. For us it’s like starting from scratch when learning a new language, because we don’t know the basics of our own language and grammatical framework”
A second year Oxford English student commented: “For English there is no strict language authority like the Académie Francaise. We are already pretty open and not as prescriptive in the use of grammar, so I think it should remain like it is now.”
Prof Horobin’s lecture coincided with the announcement of the coalition government to introduce changes to the national school curriculum including a list of 162 words all 11-year-olds are expected to spell correctly. Prof Horobin pointed out that “bureaucracy” was misspelled on the list.
“The idea behind it is that spelling is fixed”, said Prof Horobin. “It’s nice and clear cut and you go back to rote learning – learn it, recite it, get it right.” But he sees no value in it: “it doesn’t mean you understand what the words mean.”
A second year Oxford English student countered: “Having a ‘correct’ way to spell things is so essential for basic written communication it would be utter lunacy to get rid of it.”
She added: “The rules might seem illogical and arbitrary, especially in English, bt hay, so iz lyf.”