George Orwell
As I Please
Tribune, 14 March 1947

I have not yet read more than a newspaper paragraph about Nu Speling, in connexion with which somebody is introducing a Bill in Parliament, but if it is like most other schemes for rationalizing our spelling, I am against it in advance, as I imagine most people will be.
     Probably the strongest reason for resisting rationalized spelling is laziness. We have all learned to read and write already, and we don’t want to have to do it over again. But there are other more respectable objections. To begin with, unless the scheme were rigidly enforced, the resulting chaos, with some newspapers and publishing houses accepting it, others refusing it, and others adopting it in patches, would be fearful. Then again, anyone who had learned only the new system would find it very difficult to read books printed in the old one, so that the huge labour of respelling the entire literature of the past would have to be undertaken. And again, you can only fully rationalize spelling if you give a fixed value to each letter. But this means standardizing pronunciation, which could not be done in this country without an unholy row. What do you do, for instance, about words like ‘butter’ or ‘glass’, which are pronounced in different ways in London and Newcastle? Other words, such as ‘were’, are pronounced in two different ways according to individual inclination, or according to context.
     However, I do not want to prejudge the inventors of Nu Speling. Perhaps they have already thought of a way round these difficulties. And certainly our existing spelling system is preposterous and must be a torment to foreign students. This is a pity, because English is well fitted to be the universal second language, if there ever is such a thing. It has a large start over any natural language and an enormous start over any manufactured one, and apart from the spelling it is very easy to learn. Would it not be possible to rationalize it by little and little, a few words every year? Already some of the more ridiculous spellings do tend to get killed off unofficially. For instance, how many people now spell ’hiccup’ as ‘hiccough’?
     Another thing I am against in advance – for it is bound to be suggested sooner or later – is the complete scrapping of our present system of weights and measures.
     Obviously you have got to have the metric system for certain purposes. For scientific work it has long been in use, and it is also needed for tools and machinery, especially if you want to export them. But there is a strong case for keeping on the old measurements for use in everyday life. One reason is that the metric system does not possess, or has not succeeded in establishing, a large number of units that can be visualized. There is, for instance, effectively no unit between the metre, which is more than a yard, and the centimetre, which is less than half an inch. In English you can describe someone as being five feet three inches high, or five feet nine inches, or six feet one inch, and your bearer will know fairly accurately what you mean. But I have never heard a Frenchman say, ‘He is a hundred and forty-two centimetres high’; it would not convey any visual image. So also with the various other measurements. Rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights, are all of them units with which we are intimately familiar, and we should be slightly poorer without them. Actually, in countries where the metric system is in force a few of the old measurements tend to linger on for everyday purposes, although officially discouraged.
     There is also the literary consideration, which cannot be left quite out of account. The names of the units in the old system are short homely words which lend themselves to vigorous speech. Putting a quart into a pint pot is a good image, which could hardly be expressed in the metric system. Also, the literature of the past deals only in the old measurements, and many passages would become an irritation if one had to do a sum in arithmetic when one read them, as one does with those tiresome verses in a Russian novel.

The emmet’s inch and eagle’s mile
Make lame philosophy to smile:

fancy having to turn that into millimetres!

I have just been reading about a party of German teachers, journalists, trade-union delegates and others who have been on a visit to this country. It appears that while here they were given food parcels by trade unions and other organizations, only to have them taken away again by the Customs officials at Harwich. They were not even allowed to take out of the country the 15 lb. of food which is permitted to a returning prisoner of war. The newspaper reporting this adds without apparent irony that the Germans in question had been here ‘on a six weeks’ course in democracy’.

The other day I had occasion to write something about the teaching of history in private schools, and the following scene, which was only rather loosely connected with what I was writing, floated into my memory. It was less than fifteen years ago that I witnessed it.
     ‘Causes of the French Revolution.’
     ‘Please, sir, the French Revolution was due to three causes, the teachings of Voltaire and Rousseau, the oppression of the nobles by the people and –’
     At this moment a faint chill, like the first premonitory symptom of an illness, falls upon Jones. Is it possible that he has gone wrong somewhere? The master’s face is inscrutable. Swiftly Jones casts his mind back to the unappetizing little book, with the gritty brown cover, a page of which is memorized daily. He could have sworn he had the whole thing right. But at this moment Jones discovers for the first time the deceptiveness of visual memory. The whole page is clear in his mind, the shape of every paragraph accurately recorded, but the trouble is that there is no saying which way round the words go. He had made sure it was the oppression of the nobles by the people; but then it might have been the oppression of the people by the nobles. It is a toss-up. Desperately he takes his decision – better to stick to his first version. He gabbles on:
     ‘The oppression of the nobles by the people and –’
     Is that kind of thing still going on, I wonder?

Copyright The Estate of Eric Blair
Reproduced here under educational Fair Use law