Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The singular story of English spelling

Spell it out: the singular story of English spelling, by David Crystal (Profile Books). Reviewed by Gordon McLauchlan.

David Crystal is a linguist who can -- and with extraordinary frequency does -- write about the English language with a populist touch, translating complex issues into easily readable texts. Nothing is beyond his scholarly reach. He has written books and articles on the history of English, on Shakespeare’s language and on the King James Bible; and also on the effects of modern technology: Txting: the gr8 db8, and Internet Linguistics.
          Spell it out is a response to a growing rebellion against the eccentric inconsistencies of English spelling as it expands rapidly into an international language, and to an enthusiasm (which comes and goes) for phonetic spelling. George Bernard Shaw, who wrote his plays in shorthand for a typist (usually his wife) to transcribe, left a lot of money in his will to promote phonetic spelling. Enthusiasm ebbed then but seems to be flowing again.
          Describing ‘the nature of the problem’, Crystal writes: “What can we do to make the task of learning to spell easier? My answer is in a word: EXPLAIN it. I believe the first step in solving the problem is to see why the problem exists. If we understand why English spelling is apparently in such a mess, we remove part of the barrier.”
He continues with the development of the alphabet and the history of each letter, including when and how it arrived in English. Then he explains how Anglo-Saxon evolved into Old English and then into Middle English, and how thousands of words came into English from French and Latin after the 1066 Norman invasion. Norse and Dutch had also made their present felt.
How alien words were spelt as they were inserted into written English depended on a number of factors, including the whims of scribes, and the eccentricities of printers. William Caxton, as Crystal puts it, “printed what he saw in the various manuscripts. As long as a word was recognisable, it would do.”  He and other printers sometimes added extra letters to words to fill out a line of type.
Unsuccessful attempts were made to standardise spelling in the 17th century and a penchant for “rules” arose at times over the centuries. The trouble has always been, as Crystal freely acknowledges, not the rules but the aberrations.
But all this leads to his insistence that understanding his “system” will help understand spelling.
This book is instructive and entertaining and the writing, ahem, Crystal-clear, but will it help even educated writers with their spelling? The answer, I fear, is not without steady application and serious study, which the author sets up in at the end of this book with “A Teaching Appendix”, a useful introduction to the “system”.  
Using linguistics to learn spelling is a constructive approach but requires hard work and application. It may still be easier, if not as interesting, to memorise long spelling lists; or to just read … and read; because with notable exceptions (F Scott Fitzgerald was one) constant readers should absorb enough language to become good spellers reflexively.
          Crystal starts every chapter engagingly with a quote and illustration of some sort. For example, this from Shaw’s preface to Pygmalion: “The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
          Some of these chapter launchers reflect Crystal’s sense of fun. One  of them quotes a passage from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1914 book, Tarzan of the Apes, explaining how the lonely man of the jungle (who used the overhead for travel rather than the underground), whose only lingual experience was exchanging grunts with a friendly chimp, taught himself to read English with just a text to look at and no one to help him. It is amusingly plausible. 

Gordon McLauchlan is an Auckland-based writer & commentator and a regular reviewer on this blog.

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