Friday, 31 July 2015

Shakespeare and spelling

Story from today's Age

Shakespeare was undoubtedly the greatest writer in the English language, perhaps in any language. His mastery of all aspects of literary expression is unmistakable and he profoundly shaped the evolution of both drama and world literature. But would he have passed year 9 NAPLAN?

Probably not. When Shakespeare was penning his timeless works, spelling was anything but standardised. He spelt his own name many different ways. In the six documents he signed, including a deposition, a bill of sale and a will, his name was different each time. There are two documents recording his marriage. One is signed "Wm Shaxpere" and the other, entertainingly has the signature "William Shagspeare" (perhaps a wry admission that he had, after all, got Anne Hathaway​ pregnant).

English spelling in the Elizabethan period was especially unstable because of the influx of foreign influences, driven by advances in scholarship and science, plus higher levels of trade. More than 10,000 words were added from Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish. Indeed the first dictionaries were listings of foreign terms. Shakespeare had a vocabulary of about 15,000 words, including lewdster, moldwarp, giglet and porpentine. Many of the first usages of words are traced to Shakespearean plays.

It was not until the appearance of English dictionaries, beginning with Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, that spelling "rules" began to be formalised. Ever since, those "rules" have been anything but. They have mostly demonstrated just what a complex mix of influences, even mess, the English language is. It has been a sponge that absorbed influences and words from everywhere.

Unlike phonetic languages, where the spelling matches the sound, English words routinely have the same spelling for different sounds, such as "height" and "weight". Or they have different spellings for the same sound, such as "fair" and "pear". Such details did not trouble the Elizabethans, however. They had little interest in being consistent anyway.

Cycle forward 400 years to year 9 NAPLAN. In online sample tests, 25 of the 50 questions relate to spelling. It is a fair bet that Shakespeare would have done very poorly on these. He would probably not even have understood why the questions were being asked.

He would have performed better in the section in which students are required to complete sentences, but his approach to punctuation would almost certainly have been considered substandard. He would have excelled in the grammar section, and easily identified metaphors, alliteration, similes and rhymes. But overall he would either have failed or scored a very poor mark.

How can this be? Surely the Bard was passably literate. For example, he was capable of soaring metaphors: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." That has to be worth at least a B minus. He was reasonably well informed about rhetorical tropes, such as synecdoche, metonymy, hendiadys or anaphora. That must tick a few capability boxes.

He could do a fine line in achingly beautiful phrases, such as Ophelia's lament in Hamlet: "I hope all will be well. We must be patient; but I cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him i' the cold ground." Has a nice ring to it, although I am not sure about the punctuation.

This heavy emphasis on spelling is, at one level, not unreasonable. English spelling is a bizarrely inconsistent code that children have to learn if they are to function effectively. It does not happen in phonetic languages. There would be no point having a Great Spelling Bee television show in Spain, for example.

But the suspicion is that focusing on spelling is also attractive because there is a right and wrong answer, which makes scoring easy. If this is so, then it is a misunderstanding of what literacy is. It rests on qualitative, usually comparative, approaches, not quantification and numerical measurement. Imagine, for example, claiming that Shakespeare is a 40 per cent better playwright than his contemporary Christopher Marlowe. What would this tell us? Nothing.

Yet if we showed that Shakespeare used metaphors in a number of different ways, while Marlowe's range was more limited, we would be learning something about the particulars of their art. That would be far harder to put into a NAPLAN test. But it would more meaningful.

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