Dog Eared

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David Crystal's Brilliant Demystification of English Spelling

Much like the government, the English spelling system is a popular punching bag. People love to kvetch about its inconsistencies and exceptions, lamenting the near-impossible task of learning to spell.

But what if the spelling system weren't as bad as it seems, and there were purposes and precedents for all those famous exceptions? Word maven David Crystal — whose many other books include The Story of English in 100 Words and Txtng: the Gr8 Db8has produced another winner in Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling. This educational, demystifying look at the history of English spelling will increase your interest and knowledge in the subject exponentially. It's a wonderful book.

Crystal states that this book would not have been possible without the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which allows easy searching of English word history, including spelling. Just to give you a sense of how many spelling variations are recorded in the OED, here are some of the spellings of moon that have been recorded over time: mona, mone, monæ, mon, moyn, moyne, mowne, moone, moune, muin mooin, meean, meun, meunn, meyun, miun, mune, myun, mone, monne, moune, movne, mowne, moyn, moyne, mvne, mwne, moone, mune, muin, meun, meen, min, müne, and mön. That's a lotta moons. With the vast historical data available, Crystal says, "Bridges now need to be built between this solid academic linguistic foundation and the curiosity of the general English-using public, whose common cry in this connection is 'Why on earth is ___ spelled like that?'" This book is an impressive start on that bridge.

Crystal takes a chronological approach, detailing the endless (and ongoing) attempts to capture English's 40+ sounds in a mere 26 letters.  As Crystal tells the story of English spelling from Old English manuscripts to Twitter, he explains the logic and rules that govern English spelling — then describes the complications that caused deviations. Sometimes the complications are grand, such as the influence of famous lexicographers, great writers, or political independence. Other times, the complications are small and petty: for example, English spelling has changed due to the habit of printers adding vowels to make margins line up and the handwriting of medieval scribes. Speaking as someone with horrendous, indecipherable language, I'm grateful that my penmanship never had the chance to influence lexical history, which it might have rendered mute.

One of the most fascinating chapters is on silent letters, which have often vexed spellers. The anguished have long cried: "Why is there an h in ghost? Why is there a b in debt? Why is there a c in scissors?" In each case, Crystal fills in the blanks. For ghost, printer William Caxton's Flemish heritage is responsible for the h, which is characteristic of Flemish words. For debt, the b was inserted to cleave the word closer to its Latin roots. For scissors, a misunderstanding about Latin is responsible for the c: it turns out the word is not related to the Latin word scindere (to cut) after all. For every quirk of spelling, there's a tale to be told, and Crystal masterfully makes those tales come alive.

Appropriately, there's a whole chapter on the "i before e except after c" rule, in which Crystal displays his understated sense of humor, noting "We don't know who first cooked up the 'i before e' rule, but the enticing simplicity of the rhyme persuaded everyone that it was really useful." In other words, "i before e" is the "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit" of the spelling world. In this chapter, Crystal exhaustively traces the history of the rule and its exceptions, concluding "...it's not that the various ie and ei spellings don't have an explanation. They do. But the factors are too great to reduce to a simple rule." In other words, unless you've absorbed a chapter's worth of exceptions and qualifications, the rule is a bunch of bunk. Now can we please bury this rule forever? Thank you.

There are many delights to be found here. Even in this seemingly narrow and frivolous category of interjections, Crystal gave me new things to think about. For example, I've never considered the oddness of the lack of vowels in interjections such as tsk, hm, brr, and sh.  This book is also sprinkled with spelling-related anecdotes and quotations that are extremely charming. I'm wracking my brain to find something to criticize in this book, and I'm coming up empty. It's terrific from start to finish.

Even if you'd rather be boiled alive than watch a spelling bee, as long as you have any interest in spelling or English at all, you should enjoy Spell It Out. For me, this book was a godsend. I came across it just as I was struggling to write about spelling, and Crystal immeasurably helped clarify my thinking and recharge my motivation.

Do I have to spell it out for you? Buy this book.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 24th 2013, 4:30 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
tks mark. i bought one just now.
Wednesday July 24th 2013, 6:30 AM
Comment by: John G. (Platte City, MO)
Thank you, I will purchase a copy soon.
Thursday July 25th 2013, 10:15 PM
Comment by: Craig J. (Mundelein, IL)
I think I'll cling to "i before e, except after c, or when it says eigh, as in neighbor and weigh, and a short list of exceptions" thanks to Ms. Spaulding and her "Writing Road to Reading". Perhaps if I get around to reading the book you recommend above I'll be convinced, but in the meantime the ditty is working just fine for me. It does seem telling that students taught with rules and phonetic drill do better than "see and say" and "intrinsic phonics" students, despite the impossibility of fitting English comfortably within the straitjacket provided. Score one for prescriptivism.
Friday July 26th 2013, 4:39 PM
Comment by: Barbara S.
Mr. Peter's I love your writing. You make a statement and then back it up with an example. The folks I have been reading lately seem to have forgotten how to do that. I will buy the book based on your article. I recently found My Vocabulary. com. It is like a breath of fresh air; I am getting addicted to the web site. Studying grammar can be so stilted it is nice to find humor in it. Thank you for your time.

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