If you did not study Latin at an English Grammar School in the 1960s then you probably never got the real joke in the "Life of Brian", when John Cleese's Centurion held the knife to Graham Chapman's throat and uttered the immortal phrase "How many Romans". It was the stock phrase of the Latin schoolmaster aimed at the boy or girl who had failed to correctly decline the noun or conjugate the verb,  and had used the singular rather than the plural. Was Caesar really only referring to a single soldier or a whole army?

When you had been daily humiliated by this one phrase, to see it used with a real sword rather than a metaphorical one, was too much, and laughter was only a partial relief.

Latin, with its strict syntax and word agreement was in a different league to French, with its fewer syntax traps - but French still had its traps for the English Schoolboy. Like English, Latin only uses a simple alphabet (and doesn't even have a J or a W), but French has these horrible things called accents on its letters. Sometimes they go one way, sometimes the other. They appear to add no extra information, but you lose marks if you get them the wrong way around.

The teacher would sarcastically tell you that getting the accent the wrong way round made it sound different - and would then give an exaggerated example. But, for the English, this makes little sense. You know how a word is pronounced, and you wouldn't pronounce it any differently, just because of a slip of the pen ( or as they used to tell us la plume de ma tante est dans le jardin.

Perhaps we would have understood better if they had told us more of the social history of France. France is a much more centralised state that Britain. They tell their population not just how to spell a word but also how to pronounce it. There is no (official) recognition of regional variations in how a word is pronounced. There is the official way, and that is what they accents are telling you - the official way to pronounce the word.

But, there is no Academie Anglaise". English is spoken around the world, but there is no single standard for how words are pronounced - and sometimes for what they mean. If an American drives their car into a Car Repairers in England and says please look under the hood because I think there is a problem with my muffler, the response is to be redirected to a clothing shop, while in the reverse situation, please look under the bonnet because I think there is a problem with my silencer, is likely to have people diving for cover.

But even when the words have the same meaning, they often do not sound the same. Is the English northern city on the river Tyne called Newcarsel or Newcassel. For a native of the city, it is the latter, while for a southerner like me, its the former. So we compromise and write it Newcastle.

One of the truly great features of the English Language is that words are not written in a fully phonetic manner. We use partial phonetics. We leave, in our words, many clues as to how they are pronounced but the spelling of the word does not define categorically how it is pronounced. We can thus agree on a common spelling even when we have different regional or world accents and have a common literature without a centralised view on pronunciation.

It's not as if phonetics are that useful. I don't know about you, but I haven't read by sounding out words since the age of six. I remember words by their shape, and that's how I read. Phonetics are only really useful when agreeing on how to write down a new word and to give us a clue when we come across the written version of a word that we may have heard but haven't seen written down before.

Of course, there are still some who don't get it. There was a good debate on this subject that raged on the BBC's website last year. There do seem to be some people that just can't reconcile the fact that we have 26 symbols for (at least) forty sounds, and want to resolve this by imposing a new system of phonetic spelling on us all in order to resolve a discrepancy that is not a problem for anyone else.

We should just remember that one of the great features of English is that spelling and pronunciation are only loosely linked - and without this it would be less of a candidate for a world language. If it ain't broke, don't fix it - please.