Ho, OK Ed, on P-hoe knicks!

My sisters and I used to play word games on long car journeys. The one I remember best involved taking turns to make up a story: you’d pick up from where the last person left off, and (most importantly) you’d have to incorporate three words that they gave you. I remember our last ever round of the game: my sister, feeling that I was getting a bit too good at it, gave me the words “brouhaha”, “nugatory” and “persimmon”. I proved her right (after asking her to define ‘nugatory’) by telling a story that didn’t use any of those words once, until the closing line of dialogue (spoken by a bystander after the story was over):
“What a brouhaha over a nugatory persimmon!”

If you think this game sounds like fun, why not try it yourself? Here are some words to get you started:

best, bim, blan, chill, chom, gang, geck, grit, hild, hooks, quemp, shin, start, steck, thazz, tord, tox, ulf, vap, week

If you’re feeling a bit more ambitious, how about these?

blank, blurst, day, dentist, fape, finger, jound, newt, phone, rusty, scribe, slide, snemp, spron, starling, strap, stroft, terg, trains, voo

Go on, what are you waiting for? Just pile them all in if you’re not sure – I’ve got my best blim blan, I’m going to chill with the chom gang… Sorry, I mean bim blan – not blim blan, that would just be silly. It would also be wrong.

If you’re wondering what on earth I’m going on about – and who could blame you if you were – let Michael explain. Or rather, Michael’s contact in the Department for Education…

“I have been receiving some complaints concerning the excellent Phonics test which, thanks to me, all Year 1 children will be taking June.

“The test works like this: first of all the children read some real words. They’re not in sentences because that would be cheating. They’re just words on a page. Phonics words. What I mean by that is words that are regular. By regular I don’t mean small – like coffee cups. I mean that they are spelled like they are said. Unlike, er…’said’ which looks as if it should be said ‘sayed’. Which actually is the way some people say ‘said’. Look, this is really quite easy and obvious.

One of my younger sister’s alphabet books – Charlotte Hough’s My Aunt’s Alphabet, of which I was rather fond – had a vocabulary list at the back, with some words printed in red to warn you that they weren’t pronounced the way they looked. There was a problem with these red words, which I only spotted some years later, after moving to the North of England. “Grass”, for instance, was a red word, because to look at it you’d think it rhymed with “lass”, say, or “gas”. Which of course it doesn’t – that would be wrong. “Bush” was also a red word, because of that sneaky ‘u’ – you’d think that “bush” rhymed with “hush” or “lush”, whereas in fact… There’s no explanation of what makes the ‘u’ in “bush” (and “bull”) the wrong sort of ‘u’ – except in “bush” and “bull” (and “push” and “pull”, and so on); it just is. You don’t pronounce the B in “comb”, you don’t stress the first syllable of “abyss” and you don’t rhyme “hush” with “bush”. That would be wrong.

Er…where was I? Yes, the test. So, there’ll be words. Not sentences. Sentences complicate things because children start guessing words by where they are in the sentences. And by what the sentence means. And ‘meaning’ as we call it, really has very little to do with reading. Or words. Meaning gets in the way of reading. We need the children to read. Not mean.

Someone once tried to start a conversation with me while I was reading a book over lunch – I know, the nerve of it! – the book in question being Raymond Williams’s Politics and Letters (a book-length interview with some people from the New Left Review, and actually rather interesting, in fact a lot more interesting than the job I was doing at the time, wasted I was there, wasted). “What are you reading?” I angled the cover towards her in an only partly deliberately annoying way. She faltered but pressed on. “Oh… I like politics…” I didn’t think quickly enough to reply “Really? I prefer letters”; it’s probably just as well. Actually I don’t much like letters; I do like words, but the idea of words divorced from meaning is an odd one, to say the least.

Now the test also has some other kinds of words. These aren’t words. They’re just words that look like words. Words like ‘blurg’. or ‘Skonk’. If you’re a reader, you’ll read those. If you’re not a reader you won’t. Now some people have said that some little children taking the test will think that if there’s a word they can read but doesn’t make sense, they’ll try to make it make sense. … So, a child who can read, might see ‘blurg’ and because it doesn’t make sense, they’ll try to turn it into a word that does….’blurt’ or ‘blurb’ or something. Then they’ll be wrong and score badly.

But the good news is that we’ve been listening to what teachers have been telling us about this. So do you know what we’re doing? We’ve hired an artist who imagines what a ‘blurg’ might look like and he draws a ‘blurg’. There it is on the page next to the word ‘blurg’. A bit like a Flannimal. Now isn’t that fun? Now the child looks at ‘blurg’ and says to him or herself…’Ho ho ho, that must be a blurg’. Problem solved.

This is the sort of thing we do at the Department for Education. We hire people to do pictures of blurgs.

Readers, he is not making this up. At the end of this school year, primary schools in England really are going to administer a reading test to Year 1 children consisting of 20 words and 20 made-up words, and the children will be marked on whether they say them correctly. And the made-up words – but not the real words – really are going to have little pictures next to them – pictures of smiley monsters. You can read all about it here. (SFW. Some smiley monsters.)

Apart from the bizarre detail of associating non-existent ‘words’ with smiley monsters, this scheme (and I use the word advisedly) has one rather major flaw. How do you pronounce ‘chom’? Is that ‘ch’ as in ‘Christian’ or as in ‘champagne’? What about ‘geck’ – GE without a U or an H in the way is a ‘soft’ G (as in “gem”), so presumably it’s ‘jeck’. Except that sometimes GE is ‘hard’ (as in “get”), so maybe it should be pronounced… er… ‘geck’… like it’s spelled… sort of. Then, what if some poor kid thinks the ‘geck’ smiley monster is in fact a gecko and misreads the ‘word’ accordingly?

And don’t get me started on ‘jound’.

Oh, go on then. How do you pronounce ‘jound’ – what’s the right pronunciation? Is it two separate vowel sounds run together (“Joe, under his rough exterior, was a kindly soul”) or separated by a glottal stop (“jo’und day stands tiptoe on the misty moun’ains, pet”)? OK, we don’t usually do those things in English – well, we don’t usually do those things in Standard English – well, I say we don’t usually… Well, anyway. Those pronunciations aren’t very likely to come up in English… er, standard English… er, the kind of English we… those pronunciations are wrong.

Some people might get different ideas about that tricky ‘ou’ digraph (a technical term for two letters together, from the Greek ‘di’ meaning two and ‘graph’ meaning letters together). So is ‘jound’ pronounced ‘jonned’ (using the ‘ou’ sound in ‘cough’), or ‘joaned’ (using the ‘ou’ in ‘though’) or ‘junned’ (like the ‘ou’ in ‘enough’), or for that matter ‘junned’ (using the ‘ou’ in ‘could’)? There’s a simple answer to this, which is No. No, it isn’t. Those pronunciations are wrong. You can easily see that they’re wrong, just by sounding out the letters, which is what you do when you learn to pronounce words. If you sound out ‘ou’ and then follow it with an ‘n’ you never get any of those sounds. Not in real words, anyway. Imaginary words could be different, but they aren’t. This one isn’t, anyway.

What you get when you sound out the ‘oun’ in ‘jound’ is… but look, I’ve given it away! You get the ‘ou’ sound in ‘sound’. So it’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘sound’, and ‘pound’, and ’round’ and ‘around’ and ‘around’. (Those last two are the same word. Yes, I know you know. Just making sure you know I know. Poetic or something. Anyway.) It’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘found’ and ‘bound’ and ‘wound’. That’s the ‘wound’ that rhymes with ‘bound’, of course, not the ‘wound’ that doesn’t. In short, it’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘wound’, but not – this is important – to rhyme with ‘wound’. Glad we’ve cleared that up.

I like ‘quemp’, though; it’s a nice word. I’d like to try to get that into a story. Not if I was a kid, obviously, because I’d probably lose marks, because it’s not a proper word.

As Flying Rodent said earlier,

If I wanted to draw up a plan to sabotage what remains of public faith in one generation, mandated prayer and psalms in school assemblies would be right at the top of my list.

And if I wanted to stamp out spontaneous, playful joy in language, a good way to do it would be to make six-year-olds learn words like ‘snemp’ and ‘thazz’ – complete with smiley monsters to encourage them – and then tell them never to use those words, only ever to use real words… words like “week” and “phone” and “dentist”.

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