[A letter to my 11 year-old nephew]
I understand from my sister that you need some answers:
why is spelling so hard?
who cares anyway?
and can you make it easier to learn spelling?
First, why spelling is hard. Actually, it isn’t in some other languages. Spanish-speaking people would have really boring spelling bees, because almost every word is spelled exactly how it sounds. English, however, suffers from its roots. English comes, of course, from England, and England was overrun by so many conquerors that they can hardly answer “who’s your daddy?” The Romans, Vikings and the French all had turns ruling England, and each one left something behind, including the Viking gene for red hair, which descended to me.
The conquerors also left words that were absorbed into the language that the regular folk spoke. I won’t say write, because regular folk didn’t read and write until very recently. Anyway, we have words from all over the world, and it only gets more complicated as we add vocabulary from new immigrants, like Indians, Africans and Polynesians. And don’t forget words from American native peoples. French doesn’t sound like Danish and it is spelled by different rules too. Learn where the words come from and you have a better chance of remembering the spelling.
Now as for who cares, this is harder, but it comes down to this: most people don’t spend much time distinguishing whether you are ignorant (lacking in information or education) or just plain stupid. There’s nothing wrong with ignorance; it can be corrected. But if you display ignorance, you just might be taken for stupid. Fair or not, stupid people’s ideas and opinions aren’t taken very seriously. It’s like your wrestling moves: if your opponent doesn’t know the names of the moves, you might not take him seriously in the ring (until he clobbers you with brute force, but that’s unlikely to happen in a court of law or other places where people fight with their minds and not their fists). Poor spelling can distract from your written message, just like trying to listen to somebody after you notice his fly is unzipped. You can get the point, but it’s kind of annoying. Don’t give up your power unnecessarily. It’s like learning a wrestling move that sets you up so you can have the advantage over your opponent. Sadly, spelling counts.
So how to learn this stuff? There’s a trick, and you don’t usually get to learn it until high school, if at all: etymology (say: et-ee-mol-oh-gee) which means the study of the sources and meanings of words. Know how your mom is always telling you not to interrupt? Ever notice she can be abrupt when she tells you you are being disruptive? All three of those words share the same root: rupt, which comes from Latin and means “to break”. Inter- and dis- are prefixes that change the meaning of roots, and get used in thousands of words. Same thing with the suffixes, like -ive or -ure. Add -ure to rupt, and you get rupture, which is what you risk doing to your kidneys on that trampoline. If you learn the pieces and how to put them together, it’s like legos for words.
Here’s another one: the difference between words that end in -able vs. -ible. If you can break the root away and still have a word, use -able (like the word breakable). If you can’t, it’s spelled like impossible (because there is no word imposs). That kind of makes sense, right?
I’m guessing that your weekly spelling assignments have a hidden theme, like words that begin with thw- (not Latin words for sure, that’s a sound those Romans would never make) or have a common root. See if you can figure it out and you won’t have as much to memorize.
How will you know the roots, suffixes and prefixes? It’s all written down in real dictionaries. I’m sending you the best dictionary I can find. I picked it because it’s like the one I had when I was your age, one that includes the etymologies of a lot of words, so you can find out where they come from. It was good enough that I took it to college, had it until it was lost on a moving truck. If none of this vocabulary/spelling stuff is remotely interesting, at least you and your friends can have fun looking up words your parents don’t want you to know.
Your loving aunt, AT