Spell It Out by David Crystal

English is notorious for its difficult spelling, but according to David Crystal it is easier if we understand why words are spelled the way they are. To understand spelling, it helps to know the history of our language, which Crystal provides in absorbing detail in his book Spell It Out.

Originally a Germanic language, English began to change after the French successfully conquered England in 1066. The coexistence of the two language systems—English (Germanic) and French (Latinate)—altered the pronunciations and spellings of many words, as well as adding new ones. Medieval scribes, charged with the task of writing down spoken words, had to decide how to spell them. Sometimes the decisions were based on sound, sometimes on how words looked in relation to other words, sometimes on how previous scribes had spelled the words. Every scribe had his own preferred spellings.

Over the centuries, there has been a great deal of disagreement between scribes, printers, and self-appointed language reformers about how to spell. In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson in England and Noah Webster in America published their famous dictionaries, and most people have accepted their spellings as standard ever since. However, as Crystal points out, language never stands still. With the advent of the Internet, standards are in flux more than ever before, as texting and branding change the way we spell many words.

Variations may be natural, but in formal situations we are all expected to use standard spelling. Crystal offers some suggestions on how to teach and learn spelling, such as learning words in linguistically related groups where the same principles of spelling apply (for example, doubled consonants before suffixes). Exceptions abound, but understanding how the exception came to be can help us remember it. For example, the word “ghost” has an unusual silent “h” after an initial “g.” The word was originally spelled “gost” or “gast” until William Caxton introduced the printing press in England during the 15th century. He had learned his trade in Belgium and his helpers all spoke Flemish, so they spelled the word their way. They added “h” after “g” in other words as well, but for some reason “ghost” is one of the only words where it stuck. Perhaps the strange spelling adds to the mysterious feel of the word!

At any rate, the process of learning our language, even for native speakers, never ends. The cleverest of us know only about 100,000 words, but there are over a million in the English language. Crystal’s book helps us see what a complex, supple, and fascinating language our mother tongue really is.

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