On Children’s Names

“I had to ask how to spell it three times,” Mrs. Bowman said, “and I might still have it wrong. I was going to order a personalized blanket, but now I’m afraid to.”

“I can’t help thinking,” Mr. Magundi remarked, “that parents who give their children’s names unorthodox spellings are doing their children a great disservice. An unusual name may be a boon; at least it’s a distinction. But a name spelled creatively—which is to say incorrectly—is a kind of orthographic poison that taints the child’s whole perception of the language. English spelling is far from perfect, but it does largely follow certain predictable laws. A child’s name must be one of the primary filters through which she sees English spelling. If her name violates the rules of our orthography, that filter is broken, or at least badly smudged, and it will take her some considerable effort to overcome the handicap. In fact, she may never overcome it, since the effort would demand an admission that her own name is misspelled, an idea that may well be psychologically impossible for her to form. Yet if the child with the misspelled name cannot see that her own name is misspelled, then the orthographic rule it violates must remain invisible to her. And one rule can hardly be lost without taking the others with it. The lack of an essential piece will obscure the whole pattern, and learning to spell will cost her enormous labor, because she will have to learn the apparently arbitrary spelling of each word separately.

“I should like to see every place of birth employing a competent proofreader to help mothers and fathers with the spelling on the birth certificate. But I know that the parents who most stand in need of that assistance are the ones who would most resent the interference.”


One thought on “On Children’s Names

  1. I must disagree with Mr. Magundi on this one. While I admit that the “wrong” spelling of a child’s name is a rather silly practice, I do not believe it affects the child’s conception of English spelling rules. Many, many English words have spellings which do not apparently match their pronunciation—why is the vowel sound in “bead” different from that in “head”?—and while there are etymological reasons for practically all of these, every child learning to read has to “learn the apparently arbitrary spelling of each word separately.” I teach reading to young children, and I can tell you that kindergarteners learn from the outset that there are certain rules of English orthography, but that many words are “rule-breakers.” This is especially true of the most common vocabulary of short, everyday Anglo-Saxon and French derived words. A child’s name may very well be a “rule-breaker,” and even many so-called “correctly” spelled names are, too: what’s with the last syllable of “Michael”? Or the double T of “Matthew”? And so on.

    Furthermore, practically every name has various spellings, varying in popularity with time period, country, etc. Hell, this goes for all words, not just names. Just look at any common word’s entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, glance at the often giant list of historical/variant forms, and it is obvious that a word’s currently accepted spelling is simply an accident of history. How come we settled on “house” instead of “howse,” “housse,” “hows,” or “hous”? (All of those are well-recorded historical forms—and there are more!)

    English orthography is one of the most befuddling in the world, due largely to its origins in so many other languages, and its lack of any language reform as many world governments have employed throughout history (and still do today). That’s one of the things that makes it so much fun.

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