The curious, enthralling and extraordinary story of English spelling

That’s the subtitle of a wonderful book that was written for you, if you are a reader of English.

Also if you’re a writer in English. And most especially if you have to spell English words, as the main title of the book is Spell it Out. Author David Crystal is a public linguist who is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the English language, at least for a general audience.

OK, I freely admit that you are free to disagree. When I was reading it at the doctor’s office the other day, for example, the tech thought it was a weird choice when he looked at the cover (although at least he didn’t have the typical reaction earlier on when I had said I was a math teacher; most people tell me either that they hate math or that they were terrible at it, but he at least said that he always loved math.) Anyway, although the book is for a general audience, Crystal is admittedly scholarly. But not at all in an oppressive way! It’s just that he collects at least few examples for every point he makes, so you never have to feel that you’re getting theory without specifics.

The common question that people have about English spelling is “Why is it so inconsistent?” Crystal actually answers this question! The answer extends over more than 200 pages, but it all boils down to a twofold observation:

  • A lot is due to the Norman invasion of England in 1066, when French and Latin provided an admixture to the Anglo-Saxon base of English.
  • Nevertheless, it’s not nearly as inconsistent as it seems! It’s just that you don’t know the rules. And I don’t mean the wrong ones like “i before e except after c,” which has more exceptions than instances.

If you are of a prescriptivist frame of mind—in contrast to Crystal—you may object to his scientific, data-driven, evidence-based, descriptivist point of view. But you can learn! Because this book is a “story”—as the subtitle indicates—it contains a lot of history, so be prepared for a lot of old spellings. These are informative and provide plenty of context, so don’t skip them. Sometimes it does get to be a bit much, as in Crystal’s list of 60 acceptable spellings of night during the 13th century, according to the OED:

It’s OK if your eyes glaze over. At least Crystal didn’t list all 120 variations of privilege over the past 800 years!

You have to keep in mind that Crystal is British, which of course colors his point of view. Usually he confronts the American-British discrepancies head on, especially with useful analyses of how the Brits have been changing their spellings in recent years so that they are now spelling more words correctly (i.e., in the American way), partly because of the internet and partly because of American domination in world commerce. Occasionally we read something jarring, like “Why is nephew pronounced with a /v/ [sound]?” I read that and said to myself “But it isn’t!” Even then, however, he backtracks, so that the paragraph ends with this observation:

It’s an anomaly, though, which may be on its way out, for during the 19th century the ph became increasingly sounded as /f/. It’s the majority pronunciation today.

Anyhow, this book is much more fun than it has any right to be. You’ll learn a huge amount from it, and you’ll enjoy the process. I just wish Crystal hadn’t omitted the Oxford comma in the subtitle!

Categories: Books, Linguistics