An inquiry into the intriguing spelling problemWhy ‘tow’ for ‘two’? [Archives:2004/756/Education]

July 19 2004

Dr. Panchanan Mohanty
Professor, Dept. of English
Faculty of Arts & Linguistics
Thamar University, Thamar
[email protected]

The cardinal English numeral 'two' is spelt 'tow' by a sizeable number of Yemeni students irrespective of their age and educational levels. In fact, I have found 'tow' in the writing of school-going children, freshmen, sophomores, and senior college students. Therefore, it has to be considered a spelling 'error', not a spelling 'mistake'.
Now the question is: why do the Yemeni learners of English commit this error? When I discussed this problem with some colleagues, their opinion was that it was caused by mother tongue interference. Their contention was that the Arabs, unlike the English, read and write from right to left; so after writing the first letter of the word 'two', i.e. 't', the Yemeni learners of English naturally go to the right-most letter 'o' and then, come to the middle one, i.e. 'w'. That is why the end-result we get is 'tow'.
This argument is far from convincing, because if it were true then the same students should have spelt 'oen' for one, 'sxi' for six, or 'tne' for ten, etc. This clearly implies that the above argument is untenable, and therefore, we must look for another explanation.
In the context of error analysis, scholars have mentioned two important sources of errors, i.e. interlingual transfer and intralingual transfer. Interlingual transfer is nothing but first language interference while learning a second language. We can cite both spelling and pronunciation of 'park' as 'bark' or writing 'The cafeteria school' instead of 'The school cafeteria' by many Yemeni students as examples of interlingual transfer. Arabic does not have /p/; so the Arabs substitute /b/ for /p/ while speaking English. This habit of speech is also extended to writing, and as a result, we get 'bark' for 'park'. The same force works in the case of 'The cafeteria school'. Though the word are English in this phrase, the underlying word-order is Arabic. In fact, the Arabic rendering of 'The school cafeteria' is /cafeteria al madrasah/, which is a word-for-word translation into English is 'Cafeteria the school.' Both these examples are caused by the first language interference, and these are clearly the cases of interlingual transfer. Such errors are very common in the initial stages of second language learning; but in the later stage, learners show frequent generalization within the second language, and these are attributed to intralingual transfer. For instance, the plural form 'womans' and the past tense form 'goed', used by many English learners, are created by following the general rules of the English language, i.e. '-s' should be added to pluralize a singular noun, and 'ed' should be added to a verb root in order to get its past tense form. Likewise, the focus of this discussion, i.e. spelling of 'two' are 'tow' is a clear case of intralingual transfer.
A close examination of the English words the Yemeni students are exposed to during their courses of study shows that consonant '-w-o' is an extremely rare sequence vis-a-vis consonant '-o-w', which is very common especially at the end of words. The following words are illustrative: arrow, bow, cow, how, low, now, row, sow, vow, wow, blow, brow (eye-brow), crow, flow, glow, grow, know, show, slow, throw, window, etc.
The other important point to be mentioned is that Yemeni students in general show a lot of uncertainty in the use of the English vowels /u/ and /o/ (and also /i/ and /e/ with which we are not concerned here). That is why, they confuse between 'through' and 'throw', 'rule' and 'role', 'tool' and toll', etc., and write one for the other. This might have also contributed to the spelling problem of 'tow' because the standard English pronunciation of 'two' is /tu:/.
To sum up, the wrong spelling of 'two' as 'tow' by many Yemeni students of English across different age-groups and educational levels is a spelling 'error' induced by intralingual transfer. This problem has to be explained in detail to the learners so that they can correct the error and spell 'two' correctly.