Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: Spell It Out

Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling
By David Crystal
St. Martin's Press June 2013
292 pages
From the library 

Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling

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. 

12 comments:

  1. Wonderful review, Lindsey! I have read parts of Crystal's other books on words and on the history of language. This looks like a fascinating addition to his already wonderful collection. From my own perspective, one of the best ways of learning correct spelling is by reading. I think when children encounter the same complex word again and again (especially when there is a big variation between the way the word is spelt and the way it is pronounced), they tend to remember it. I will keep an eye for this book. Thanks for this review.

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    1. I agree and Crystal does too! Spelling makes so much more sense when we use it in reading and writing instead of just presenting lists of words and exceptions to be memorized.

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  2. Oh! I think I would really like this one! I love learning about words, spelling...anything in that arena. Great review Lindsey :)

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    1. I suspected you might be a fellow linguistic nerd... :)

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  3. Love it! I'll have to add this to my reading list.

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    1. Yay! I hope you find it as fascinating as I did.

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  4. Sounds quite interesting, actually! :)

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  5. Great review, you made me really excited to pick this book up :)
    I studied the history and evolution of language at uni and English really is one of the most bizarre in terms of spellings.

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    1. We really had trouble with sticking with concepts! "Surely we can just keep changing our minds. No one will be confused!"
      Sigh....

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  6. I think I'd find this one fascinating too, anything to do with language, spelling, grammar, especially if it's written about in an interesting way, and this writer is one of the expert names in this field I think.

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    1. Yes, I've heard great things about Crystal but this is his first books that I've read. It probably won't be the last, though!

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