Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling
By David Crystal
St. Martin's Press June 2013
From the library
Sit tight, beloved readers. I am about to show the full extent of my nerdiness because I found this book fascinating.
Everyone remembers the importance of spelling in elementary school. We lined up in front of the wall, ready to face the gauntlet known as the spelling bee. One by one, we mixed up some letters or forgot one entirely. Finally, one student was left standing and won the designation of spelling bee champion...at least for that week.
Spelling is important to us. Writing words correctly indicates some level of education as well as competence at your job. But spelling in the English language is notoriously difficult. Because the origin of English words are from so many different countries, rules in our language are almost always (frequently) broken. If words came from Latin, they maintained some of their rules while words from the French language tended to stay close to their original spellings as well.
In his newest book, Spell It Out, linguistics professor David Crystal argues that spelling is difficult for us because we are studying it the wrong way. "Why don't rules work? Partly because history has produced so many exceptions, but also because spelling has been viewed in isolation from the rest of language. Spelling, however, is an integral part of language, and its forms can be understood only if we see the way they interact with the forces that come from pronunciation, grammar and word-building. We cannot solve the problem of spelling without knowing something about how the rest of language works."
Crystal takes his readers way back into time to meet the early monks who puzzled over the best way to write down this emerging new language. Writing words phonetically proved to be very difficult, especially when words from all over the world became part of the vernacular. In short chapters, Crystal explains the history of our language and the basics of linguistics. He also utilizes examples from poetry and literature about the difficulties of spelling.
This author is not content to look at the history of spelling. He speculates about the future as well. One of the most interesting developments is the way computers and the internet are changing the way we spell. Obviously the frequent use of spell check has negated our need to really learn spelling. Perhaps more interesting is the way internet searches are normalizing alternative spellings. If a large number of people "vote with their fingers," as Crystal puts it, and type something incorrectly into a search engine, does it become an accepted spelling?
Crystal argues that we do a disservice to children and those attempting to learn English spelling for the first time when we present them with long lists of words or columns of words that follow the rules contrasted with those that are exceptions. Instead, if we teach new spellers the way that our spelling evolved, spelling will become more intuitive and less of a confusing chore. This is a great resource for anyone who teaches spelling, either to children or to people learning English as another language.
This delightful author manages to be both light and in-depth as he explores what is obviously one of his favorite topics. This book is often chuckle-out-loud funny. (I know - you don't want to explain that you are laughing about spelling...but you will.) If you have any interest in the way English spelling came to be and how it has evolved, this is a book you won't want to miss.