Heroes of Language: DR. BERNARD LAMB

Bernard Lamb is London Imperial College’s Emeritus Reader in English Genetics.  Having conquered the world of biology, he turned his attention to the Queen’s English Society and conquered them as well, becoming President in 2007, with at least 7 votes.

Part of the campaign that his organisation have launched is a War on Spelling, a name they reconsidered five minutes later.   It was a war on mis-spellings.  Luckily, Dr Lamb came prepared with a devastating Scientific Report showing how poor the spelling of 99 stressed genetics students (and therefore all English-speakers) really was.  Ninety-nine of them.   Twelve years ago.  Using his old report as evidence, the Queen’s English Society have successfully had every school in Britain shut down until further notice.

How did they manage it?  It was mostly through good science: Dr Lamb showed, without any manipulation of his results, that foreign-speaking students were better spellers than English mother-tonguers!  Disgraceful!  The disparity was even greater if you counted the Foreigns’ “consistent” mistakes as correct, as he chose to do.  And he certainly wasn’t just trying to get into the paper, though that did also happen.  He even had the honour of having his findings discredited by Ben Locker.

Spelling reform NOW! In the future.
The QES re-printed the long version of Lamb’s word-thing, with a disclaimer that it is not necessary to read the whole article, good advice for their other pages.
The longer version was published by The Spelling Society, even though that body’s main aim – an eventual simplification of spelling – is dismissed by Dr Lamb as impractical (whereas the subjunctive rule be urgently needed).

English spelling is very irregular compared with most languages. The Spelling Society report that 3,500 English words are spelled/spelt irregularly, with there being only 400 in Italian and 800 in German. (For their examples, see this PDF file)

This is the main cause of spelling problems in English. Schools may hide library books from children, perhaps, but nothing has as ruinous an effect as our odious orthography,* an odd mish-mash of styles from different eras. A small group of simpler spellings had become standard usage in the US by the 19th century; Mark Twain was in favour/favor of a larger reform, perhaps using áxents, but he had no illusions about the difficulty of implementing this. Reforms in other languages suggest that small-scale spelling reforms in English could win general support, if they were unequivocally easier to remember and write than the current forms and, most importantly, still ‘felt’ like English.
(Spelling would be easier, for example, if we removed some of the silent ghs and bs and gs.   Not in our lifetimes, I know.)

The type of brutal Word Murder that Dr Lamb has seen would be enough to drive anyone to support reform, at least in theory, but he does not.  (Nor does he show any sympathy for bad spellers, even though he himself only mastered spelling late in life.)

He could have justified this by saying “My QES colleagues deny the existence of linguistic evolution, so reform is unthinkable”.  He could have argued that reformed words couldn’t represent all English pronunciations, or that our spellings retain historic links to foreign tongues (we still write phlegm because of the Middle French phlegme and the Ancient Greek φλέγμα... and there I was, believing that languages belonged to people, not historians).

However, the argument he actually chose was this:
“A change to a simplified spelling system (sss) would induce its own chaos during the change [...] Even the Simplified Spelling Society has not agreed on an ideal sss, as any proposal has faults as well as merits. For example, reducing doubled consonants to single ones produces undesirable homographs, e.g., changing polled to poled or pold causes confusion with the existing word poled.” [1]
As unashamedly uninformed as ever, he makes up a bad argument for reform and then rejects it!  Though I do agree that “poled” is a very important word, and I would join Dr Lamb’s War To Keep Undesirable Homographs Out of English.  (I think Martin Estinel suggested something similar-sounding.)

Lamb is the worst best kind of grammatical authoritarian: he knows that our spelling system is flawed, but now he is overpowered by his ego, his hyper-correct superiority to other people, and his chances to complain: on BBC London, in the Telegraph, and every day when correcting his students (who love him, by the way).

Appealing to tradition is just an excuse for him to keep doing this. He takes pleasure in it, writing:
“Bad spelling gives the impression that the writer is ignorant, careless and unintelligent.” [1]
And!  Not or!  If you misapply the Queen’s English, you are all three of these things, even if you make a single error (well, that's what I inferred from it).
So why the u*** does Dr Lamb write
1970s??? [1]
instead of the correct spelling, 1970s?  Even ’1970s would have been better, though it is best not to omit the “AD”.  Anyway, I shall now spend hours gloating due to Dr President Lamb’s consistent unintelligent ignorant carelessness.   Quoth the Queen’s English Society:

Eamonn Canniffe [Bernard Lamb] is undoubtedly highly knowledgeable in his speciality but he might like to refer to THIS WEBSITE and in particular our extensive feature about punctuation, for he obviously has some trouble with the use of apostrophes in English”

This moral victory feels a bit hollow, to be honest.  Dr Lamb will continue to undermine others’ enjoyment of writing and ultimately make English a poorer language.  If nothing else, the rest of us must agree to have a sympathetic attitude when correcting errors in spelling and grammar, with neither the “inverted snobbery” that Dr Lamb complains about, nor the snobbery that he practises.
Do I hear a consensus forming?  No?

Blurb is a verb
Dr Lamb also wrote a book, How to Say Words and Patronise People.    I couldn’t be less interested in reading it, but I do like this piece of blurb:

“‘The Queen’s English’ shows how the English language, used properly, has great power to instruct, move and entertain people, but used incorrectly, can lead to a lack of clarity and confusion.”

A lack of confusion is usually a good thing, so I don’t know why Dr Lamb is so intent on people’s being confused.    Without confusion, presumably, no poor sod would pay actual money for books that claim to ‘improve your English’.  Dr Lamb and the QES have taught me nothing about language, but plenty about themselves and their motives.  ONLY £12.99! BARGAIN!

Next Hero: George Orwell >
Back to Menu of Heroism

See also
– Teachers must be sacked
A Man on a Train
East Lothian Railway Company
– Poets must be sacked
– the Queen’s English Society

Farther reading
Suzanne Kemmer, Spelling and Standardisation in English



(* I’m using value judgments to get the QES on my side)


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