April 17th, 2008


Maiac -- This one's for you

A comment

which really belongs in the "words" conversation going on in your blog.  But it's too long for a comment, so I'm making it an entry.  You don't mind sharing the topic, do you?

Previously, in Maiac's "What do you call it" conversation:  I brought up word variances between British and US English, -- torch vs flashlight, for example -- which reminded Maia of the spelling variances --  -re vs -er, for instance -- which reminded me of one of my "Madrid stories."

In our school, there were a total of 600 students, K-12.  These 600 students represented up to as many as 47 different nationalities.  The colloquial, inter-student language was a patois -- not any specific patois, mind you, because its nature morphed with the nationality mix of the student body.  Language courses were taught in the language in question, beginning from day 1.  (Immersion theory.  Worked.)  All other classes were taught in English.  The only English language media available were 1) British papers and BBC wen folks visited England, and 2) Penguin books, out of England.  (Yes, "Stars and Stripes" circulated among the AF kids, but that was a different school altogether.  The "International Tribune" was available, but expensive, and not read by the families for whom English was not the home language.

In other words, our grounding in language, grammar and spelling was ... fraught.  The grammar problem was solved the year before high school with a mandatory, year-long course in English grammar.  (Who remembers diagramming sentences?)  The spelling was ... something else.  To this day I tend to write "honour," although I write "color."  I simply cannot remember if it's "grey" or "gray" unless I'm using a package that automatically checks spelling for me, so I use either whenever.

One year (my 10th grade) into this polyglot nightmare came Mrs. Nickel.  Young, energetic, dedicated, and eager to bring noble service educating her students.  Writing was a fierce focus, so we did a lot of it.

One morning she strode into the classroom just after the bell, and we could almost see the clouds, lighting and raves trailing in her wake.  Without a word she slammed our notebooks (with the latest writing assignment) on her desk, turned on her heel, picked up a piece of chalk and wrote in HUGE letters: J U D G M E N T.  She then turned around, fixed us with her eyes -- later we would all swear they were red -- as she promised "The next person who puts an extra "e" in judgment will fail this course!"


In fact, it was a rather quiet class.  Everyone kept heads down, and Mrs. Nickel was not too companionable.

After class (I had a study hall next, where my presence was not required) I approached Mrs. Nickel and reminded her that we mostly read Penguin books. 

"Your point?"
"Well, that's where we pick up most of our new vocabulary.l"
"I repeat:  Your point?"

See, the Penguin books we read all clearly stated "For sale in Britain or Canada."  The spelling was always British.  I explained this.  Mrs. Nickel was appalled.

"They change the original?!!"

Not only did they change spelling, they changed every variance.  When I started reading Perry Mason mysteries, Drake bought "petrol" and hid things in the "boot" of his "automobile."  It didn't go so far as to substitute "Bollux!" for "Damn!" but it would not have appeared exceptional if they had.

The question of the spelling of judgement never came up again.  And yes, I know I just "misspelled" it -- my browser tells me so.  But I can think for myself -- and I think of this as one of the gray (grey?) areas, and besides, I can never remember which is which, anyway, so how do I know my browser has it right?