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David Crystal

Spell it Out

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Unlike Spanish (and Welsh, as Crystal tells me), English is notorious for its difficult orthography, which poses abundant problems for native speakers and foreigners learning English alike. This applies to both reading and writing; if you come across an unfamiliar word when reading you may not know how to pronounce it, and if you hear a new word spoken you will quite likely be uncertain about how to spell it. And all this matters, because mistakes in spelling or pronunciation may affect how others see you, including when you are applying for a job. What this amounts to is that literacy is not just a matter of being able to read and write; it contains a third element, which is spelling.

Yet the notion of 'correct' spelling is comparatively recent. It didn't exist in Old English, when Anglo-Saxon monastic scribes first began to write the language down; nor did it exist in Middle English (from the twelfth to the fifteenth century); when William Caxton introduced printing in England in 1476 he, or rather his Flemish compositors, were responsible for inserting the irrational 'h' in 'ghost'. Spelling was still fluid in Shakespeare's time. However, things had changed by the late eighteenth century; in 1771 Tobias Smollett published his epistolary novel The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, in which part of the comedy depends on the fact that some of the correspondents are unable to spell correctly.

Why is English spelling so problematic? In part it's because there are more sounds in English than can be expressed in the Latin alphabet that the early scribes adopted, so they had to resort to combinations of letters or else invent new ones; in practice they did both. There was no general agreement about how all this should be done. That was bad enough, but matters became more complicated after the Norman Conquest in 1066. This resulted in the introduction of many French words with different spelling conventions. The French scribes disliked the new letters that the English scribes had introduced, so they invented their own ways of representing English sounds.

English orthography has continued to evolve over the centuries. People have tried to codify it, but none of the so-called rules, not even the famous 'i before e, except after c', really works, and Crystal thinks they are all best avoided. For him, the right way to present spelling to learners is historically. Etymology is the key that can make English spelling comprehensible and even…more ambitiously…'fun'. This is what he seeks to do in this book; it caters for the general reader but its main audience seems to be teachers; it concludes with an appendix on how to teach children the basics of orthography.

Many words in Modern English come from Latin, either directly or indirectly via French. This often explains their spelling, and knowing Latin can make learning spelling easier. In former times, when all schools taught Latin, this was helpful, but now that very few students learn any Latin it may seem a little intimidating to introduce it here. But Crystal thinks it is worth the effort, particularly for words that have apparently unpredictable duplication of letters, such as 'commemorate'; it helps if one recognises that these words are built by combining two or more Latin words.

Over the centuries there have been many attempts to reform English spelling. Crystal frequently receives letters from people who have devised schemes for doing this, but he thinks the task is hopeless.

The problem is, of course, that every scheme is idiosyncratic and has strengths and weaknesses. It simply isn't possible to find an agreed set of principles to simplify a thousand years of orthographic history, and even if it were, it wouldn't be possible to implement them all at once. It took time for the present system to grow, and it will take time for it to diminish.
But change does happen all the time, and now more quickly than ever. Writing in 2012, Crystal was already convinced that the Internet was beginning to produce major changes in orthography He checked this by searching Google for the frequency of misspellings of common words, and found that these were increasing exponentially over time. To me, this represents a Darwinian process at work: the 'incorrect' forms are starting to out-compete the 'correct' ones and will eventually replace them.

Technology is affecting spelling in other ways as well. The use of spell checkers is ubiquitous but they have well-known limitations at present. Future improvements will reduce but not eliminate the need to know how to spell. The ultimate end point, Crystal suggests, will be the development of really sophisticated speech-to-text software which will make it unnecessary for writers to type at all. This may be true for some purposes, such as business letters, but not for all. Many good writers today don't even like to compose on the keyboard and still prefer to write in long-hand. I'm not one of these myself but I understand why they feel this way, and I certainly wouldn't want to replace my typing with dictation.

We often hear complaints today that spelling standards are deteriorating. But Crystal makes the interesting point that this may be an illusion. What is different now is that people can easily present their writing to the public in blogs, social media and elsewhere, without it being filtered by editors or anyone else. Spelling was always full of errors but most of us didn't see them.

The book is light in tone and not over-technical (only a little use of phonetics), although I found some of the early chapters on the struggles of Anglo-Saxon scribes to denote the lengths of vowels a little tedious. But I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of English.


%T Spell it Out
%A Crystal, David
%I Profile Books
%C London
%D 2012
%G eISBN 978 1 84765 822 7
%P 328pp
%K language
%O kindle edition, downloaded from Amazon 2012

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