Sir B’s comment about yesterday’s post reminded me of a conversation I had with my son Ro when he was a small child. I was talking of something that had happened the day before, and he said “but that wasn’t today.” “No, it was yesterday.” “No, it wasn’t today.” “I didn’t say it was today, it was yesterday.”
It was some time before I caught on, and took him a few minutes more to take in the difference between ‘yes-today’ and “yester-day.” And at least they did sound the same, very nearly (cf the extremely funny link that Rog put up the other day, on a newspaper article correction that hinged on mishearing “20 sows and pigs as 20,000 pigs).
I can remember many occasions, as a child, when something completely mystified me and it wasn’t until years later that I worked out that I’d misheard or misunderstood an expression. And children try to turn something that they don’t understand into something that they do – lots of well-known examples of that, such as Pontius the Pilot: mind you, one only had to think of Mondegreens to realise that we all do that. Even in everyday speech, that so many people say “could of” instead of “could have” is simply a mishearing of “could’ve” – and so, it’s becoming an acceptable alternative, even if people who know it’s wrong don’t like that. I’ve become a great deal more tolerant of this sort of thing in the past couple of years. Language does and should evolve, and it’s part of the complexity and fun of English.
What I don’t like is simplifying things on the assumption that people won’t understand the original and so it’s best avoided. It’s by having to learn more complex things that one becomes able to – for example, back when I was a child, we all learned the 12 times table pretty quickly. We had to. There were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, and everyone knew what tables were for, and so had an incentive to learn the 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12 times tables, at any rate. 7 was entirely useless so children had to be forced into learning that. It’s 40 years ago next week that decimalised currency hit this country, and the purposefulness of everyday multiplication was lost instantly as well as the value and cost of everyday items, something that has never been caught up with since. I’m not for a moment suggesting a return, it would be too damn difficult for everyone, including me, and even the extraordinary Secretary of State for Education, who probably regrets the passing of the slide rule and the introduction of the pocket calculator, hasn’t come up with that. But Dilly, who is doing one-to-one tutoring in schools at present, was telling me the other week that the biggest problem is that reasonably able teenagers have missed out on learning some basics, and so can’t keep up. The biggest difference is in knowing times tables. It so happens (and I didn’t raise the subject) that a Learning Support teacher at the high school told me exactly the same thing about tables the next week.
Same with writing and spelling. Back in the day when, as a parent, I used to go in to help at the village school, I was listening to a child read her book. Neither her first nor surname was spelled phonetically, but she was a bright child, probably 5 or 6 at the time. We talked about the spelling of the word “laugh” and I said, you can’t sound it out, it’s one of those words that you just have to learn. And, I pointed out, her own name of Laughton contains laugh. She could spell her name, and was quite tickled by the idea. And I bet she had no difficulty with the different ‘augh’ and ‘ough’ pronunciations that language-simplifiers complain about, because the peculiarity of such a thing was an everyday matter for her.