Ms Bell’s argument that English itself is to blame for children’s failure to properly master it is infuriating mostly because it wilfully dispenses with common sense. However, my sense of outrage at her spurious conclusions runs deeper. It’s personal.
My passion for written English is probably even less fashionable than my puritanical irritation at the notion things should always be easy, but I don’t care. I love words.
Apparently, among the 100 most difficult words are treasures like “vast,” “fabulous,” “exquisite,” and “magic.” Any of which, incidentally, I’d call upon to describe the voluptuous, complicated, delicious, mind-filling splendour of English.
Yes, English is difficult. So are neurosurgery, ballet, sculpture and long division. Most stuff worth doing, actually. To succumb to functionality would be to turn a rainbow beige.
I remember the hard words of my childhood – scissors, mayonnaise, Mississippi – and the joy of navigating their difficult curves. To this day I sing-song to myself as I spell “es-cee-eye-es-es-o-r-es,” revelling in the unnecessary “c” which is as purely indulgent as a chunk of fudge in double chocolate ice cream.
I can’t imagine a world without the intrinsic rhythms of English, without the visual poetry of its eccentric spelling. What would happen to my favourite Leonard Cohen song, Closing Time, and its slew of slant rhymes (“The whole damn place goes crazy twice/and it’s once for the devil and once for Christ/but the boss don’t like these dizzy heights/we’re busted in the blinding lights…”)?
What about the challenging beauty of Yeats’ The Second Coming with its evocation of “A shape with lion body and the head of a man,/A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun… moving its slow thighs, while all about it/Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds”?
Would we ever see again the likes of Fitzgerald’s breathtaking conclusion to The Great Gatsby which crescendos with: “for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder”?
Perhaps one could still perform feats of linguistic daring with a truncated spellings and ruthless phonetics, but it seems about as likely as someone winning the Tour de France using stabilisers.