My 5-year-old daughter has been teaching herself to write. She knows all the sounds of the letters, and some of the two-letter sounds, and she just writes phonetically. It’s pretty great, and I am totally encouraging, even when what she writes bears no resemblance to an English word. But every once in a while she asks me how to spell a word, and I have to tell her the seemingly arbitrary spelling. Then, of course, she earnestly asks why it is spelled that way, and I tell her, “oh it’s just another stupid English rule.” She has that explanation memorized.
Of course, I know better than that, but she’s a bit young to be explaining the etymological history of English spelling as David Crystal does in Spell It Out. But for teens who are interested in language, teens who are frustrated by spelling, or teens who are interested in how to learn or teach spelling better, I highly recommend Crystal’s excellent, easy to read book.
Crystal, a professor of linguistics with countless books to his name, patiently explains such oddities as the “silent e”–it seems that it began as a fully pronounced letter, but as the pronunciation died out, the scribes who were writing in English pounced on it as a quick and easy way to distinguish between long and short vowels. And since there were very few people who knew how to read English, it was relatively easy to communicate this kind of shorthand rule among those who needed to know.
Of course it is more complicated than that–we all know there are exceptions to exceptions in English–but Crystal lays out all of these complications in engaging detail. And he never condescends to the reader, readily acknowledging that the system we have is frustrating in the extreme–indeed, some of my favorite sections are those where he shows how would be spelling reformers not only made things more complicated, but were completely wrong in their reasons for doing so. For example, in the 16th Century a group of spelling reformers tried to “improve” English by making spellings match their Latin etymology, thus the English word “dette” became spelled “debt” because it comes from the Latin “debitum”. But in many cases these reformers didn’t know their etymology well, and added silent letters to words that didn’t come from Latin at all, such as “island”, which was always and should always have been spelled “iland”.
The book is filled with these sorts of nuggets of trivia, but it all adds up to a single program: first, explain why English spelling is the way it is; second, use that knowledge to teach spelling better. His notes on the ridiculousness of rules like “i before e except after c (or when rhyming with “a” as in neighbor and weigh) are both hilarious and well-taken. And his much better suggestions, if actually implemented, could make my daughter’s education a heck of a lot easier.
CRYSTAL, David. Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling. 336p. appendix. bibliog. index. St. Martin’s. 2013. pap. $15.95. ISBN 9781250003478; ebook ISBN 9781250028860.
Adult/High School-In 37 brief, exceedingly accessible chapters, Crystal explains why “English spelling is so difficult.” The trouble, it seems, began at the very beginning, when Latin-trained monks were equipped with only 23 letters to try to capture the 40-plus phonetic sounds of Anglo-Saxon. It only got worse with the influx of French following the Norman invasion, with the Great Vowel Shift beginning in the 1400s, with the increasing borrowing of Latin words in the Renaissance, and (paradoxically) with numerous attempts at reform designed to make spelling easier. It is some of these last we have to thank for such vagaries as the “silent ‘b’” in “debt.” Crystal’s belief is that by better understanding this history-rather than by using pointless rules with exceptions nestled within exception-English spellers will be better equipped to make sense of their language and become better at spelling. And indeed, in two appendixes, he offers some genuinely useful suggestions for more efficient teaching of the language. Crystal’s witty prose and defense of so-called “bad-spellers” should endear him to many teens still (quite properly) angry with their inane spelling lessons, particularly those who learned English as a second language. And even for readers who have relatively little trouble with spelling, Crystal’s text offers an entertaining quick look at the history of a fascinating, maddening, sometimes glorious language.-Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA