Troublesome letters

The second wave of French-speaking language teachers, those who came to England after the Restoration, included Guy Mièges, a talented practical linguist from Switzerland. His Nouvelle Mèthode (1685) is a landmark in the development of English language teaching. Miége could benefit from the advances which had been made in the description of English grammar and pronunciation since the sixteenth century. In spite of all this, Miège made a very elementary mistake: he failed to distinguish between writing and pronunciation. He speaks of troublesome ‘letters’ when referring to <th> in think or <ch> in church. (Howatt, A.P.R.: A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984: 54-5). Obviously, the letters (or letter combinations) are no problem for a speaker of French at all. They actually occur in French as well (e.g. théatre, chère). It is the sounds they represent which cause difficulties. To this day, mixing up the written form and the spoken form or, worse still, taking the written form for ‘language’ as such, is one of the major problems in all popular discussions of language. It leads to all kinds of wrong conclusions and awkward views of language. In Miège’s case, one could at least argue that it is clear what he means even if he does not use the right words, but that is seldom the case in the popular discussions.

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