A noted linguistics scholar and prolific author asks and answers the question, “Why do we spell words the way we do?”
Crystal (The Story of English in 100 Words, 2011, etc.) argues that many of the traditional ways we teach spelling (using lists of unrelated words, teaching homophones together) have just not worked; he suggests a more productive approach: explaining words linguistically to students—not a surprising suggestion from a linguist. He also notes how, when and why spelling became so important to us and why that’s not likely to change. Crystal contends that social media and texting are not harming spelling; you cannot text effectively, he writes, if you cannot spell well. But the meat in his sandwich is the history of the English language, which he relates in swift, focused chapters that frequently conclude with an amusing quotation about spelling from a noted writer (Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Twain) or a cartoon from Punch magazine. He reminds us of our fundamental problem: We have too few letters in our alphabet (26) and too many sounds in our mouths (about 44). But it’s even more complicated. Our gumbo of words from Latin, Anglo Saxon, Norman French and all the other languages from which we have borrowed—and from which we continue to borrow—makes learning how to spell so daunting. (The author does not discuss why spelling is easy for some and hard for others.) Crystal goes after the “rules” that many people learned as children (“i before e, except after c” and so on), noting that they are rarely useful and often patently false. He also notes the changes introduced by medieval scribes and early printers and the considerable and lingering effects of lexicographers Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster.
An entertaining mixture of erudition, attitude and wit that crackles, spits and sparkles.