Spell It Out:
The Singular Story of English Spelling

David Crystal

Profile Books 2012
A book review by Danny Yee © 2017 https://dannyreviews.com/
It is impossible to make much sense of English spelling without an understanding of its historical development, and in Spell It Out David Crystal covers that in characteristic style, magisterial but at the same time clear and accessible.

Things are kept simple and straightforward. Crystal introduces the concept of a phoneme right at the beginning, using // notation but not formally deploying the International Phonetic Alphabet and avoiding other technical terminology. The material is broken down into nearly forty short chapters, each tackling one theme. And most of the chapters begin with an engaging quote or story about spelling, featuring quirky characters and anecdotes: a quote from a Wilkie Collins novel in "Avoiding the vulgar", "Mark Twain on spelling", "Ogden Nash on names", and so forth. The approach is chronological but not strictly so, with connections made to later events and thematic threads followed through to their ends.

Crystal begins with Anglo-Saxon monks and the writing of Old English, the original alphabet and its problems, and the marking of long and short vowels. He then looks at the challenges faced by French scribes and their introduction of new letters and reuse of old ones, bringing fresh complications and new spelling patterns.

"The Old English alphabet had several weaknesses: some letters had more than one sound, and some sounds were shown by more than one letter. These problem cases are the source of several later spelling difficulties."
"The French scribes introduced several exceptions to the doubling principle for showing short vowels. Several problems arose as a result."

"The French scribes eliminated alien-looking Anglo-Saxon letters and replaced them with spellings they found more familiar. ... Several Old English words had their spellings changed even though they contained letters that were used in French."

Other topics covered include words with the same sound but different meanings, the force of analogy in converging the spelling of similar sounding words, the arrival of printing and the changes that brought, reform movements, Latin and folk etymologies, the problem with simple rules, the role of personalities such as Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, some famous spellings, printers and publishers, the Internet, names of people and places, exotic vowels and consonants, and interjections and abbreviations.

"There used to be far more gh spellings in English. In Shakespeare's First Folio we find such examples as spight ('spite') and despight ('despite'), willough ('willow'), yaughan ('yawn'), and the fascinating bowgh wawgh ('bow-wow'). It's also easy to see that printers were finding gh as problematical then as we do today. Should a word be spelled with a w or a gh? If in doubt, it seems, use both. And so we find plowgh'd ('ploughed'/'plowed'), showghes ('shows'), hewgh ('hew'), slawghter ('slaughter') and nawghty ('naughty'). Any of these spellings might have caught on. People who complain about gh spellings today don't know how lucky they are! There could have been far more."

Much of Spell it Out will be useful for those teaching reading and writing. A penultimate chapter "Learning the System" offers some direct advice on spelling, touching on the rule that two letter words are almost all grammatical, the role of stress, and some examples of how even basic etymological knowledge can help make sense of consonant doublings. And an appendix addresses teaching concerns, offering some practical advice — avoiding treating words (or indeed spelling) in isolation and explaining as well as identifying errors — but also making a broader call for a genuinely linguistic perspective on spelling.

So one obvious audience of Spell it Out will be anyone teaching English — and, given its accessibility, older students as well — but it should appeal to anyone curious about the language and its history.

May 2017

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%T Spell It Out
%S The Singular Story of English Spelling
%A Crystal, David
%I Profile Books
%D 2012
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN-13 9781846685682
%P 328pp