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Fall 2002

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Periscope
Homophonophobia

It’s time for another edition of “What’s the matter with kids today?” (I always thought I was a kid today until this fall, when I noticed that Skidmore freshmen were suddenly but undeniably young enough to be my kids. Yikes.) In this installment: “Kids today can’t spell.”
     In my day (to use the traditional preamble for all “kids today” diatribes), plenty of us wrote college papers plagued with grammatical confusions and word-choice blunders and crosswired logic, but basic orthography was not a widespread problem. Nowadays, as Scope editor—writing, and revising others’ writing, for optimum readability and interest while cleaving like a limpet to the strictest rules of verbal rectitude—I find that most young to youngish writers, even those with fluid style and good grammar, pepper their prose with misspellings. And it’s usually one particular kind of misspelling: a failure to discriminate between homophones. Here are some real-life examples from Skidmore and elsewhere:

  • The freshmen gathered around a bond
    fire. (Well, the aim of the bonfire was to
    encourage bonding.)

  • I past my exams last week. (What could
    be simpler? “In the past, I past my exams.”)

  • Unfortunately that jazz group is now defunked. (True,
    nothing’s more unfortunate for a jazz group than to lose its funk.)

  • Be Where of Dog! (This borders on inspired genius:
    If the dog is dangerous, “Where?!” is exactly what to be wary of.)

  • Are his credentials bonafiable? (Can’t fault the logic:
    If it sounds like “bonafied,” it must be the past tense of “to bonafy.”)

  • The lotion is made from the bark of which hazel.
    (Isn’t she the wicked which?)

     It seems to me that homophone errors are the ones most often made by young people, while they’re rarely made by older misspellers (who instead may swap “ie” and “ei,” or use “s” in place of “c,” or opt for the wrong vowel). And the generational cutoff point is strikingly clear: I’m right on the cusp of it. That is, people born after about 1957 often suffer from dyshomophonia, while those born earlier are unaffected.
     What happened in that watershed era to derange the verbal centers of children’s brains in just this way? Let’s see, could it be nuclear-test fallout? red dye no. 2? Perry Como? or…television?
     Bingo! Television—and its evil stepchildren: computer games, videos, and the Internet—is what afflicted the after-boomer generations. I watched my share of Flipper and Leave It to Beaver and Batman and That Girl, but not until I was seven or eight; by then my gray matter was mostly hardwired to suit my early environment of actual vision (not the virtual reality of televideo), and letter-writing (long-distance phone calls were pricey), and books (not books on tape). It’s the infants of that time—and ever after—whose minds were developed and shaped by an electronically enriched, audio-saturated environment. They “picked up” English the way adult foreigners glean a functional spoken vocabulary from conversation and context without ever quite mastering grammar and spelling. In fact, the spelling errors of “kids today” are a lot like those made by self-taught speakers of English as a second language, who learn it “by ear” and, interestingly, often by studying hours of radio and TV.
     Many of my audio-brained juniors likely took a double whammy, because their elementary schools jumped on the “whole-language learning” bandwagon of the 1970s and ’80s. I’m no expert, but the whole-language method of early reading, with its emphasis on the images and gestalt of words, rather than on their constituent symbols and codes, strikes me as an ideal way to learn language aurally and approximately, but not systematically or logically. Lately some educational reformers have debunked whole language and called for a return to phonetics and other old-fashioned approaches to reading and “language arts.”
     Whether it’s television, or wrong-headed pedagogies in school, or just too much sugar on the brain, the result is that a couple of orthographically handicapped generations are coming of age, or coming into power, right about now. Perhaps, as these generations claim, satellites and streaming video and cell phones—plus the inexorable spread of pop-English pidgin as the global tongue—will soon make proper spelling archaic and irrelevant. Well, I may be a dinosaur, but I’m still scrappy, and I’ll defend both “which” and “witch,” “led” and “lead,” and “past” and “passed” to my dying breath—so their! —SR

 


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