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From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling

by David Wolman

Pub Date: Oct. 7th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-06-136925-4
Publisher: Smithsonian/Collins

A romp through Anglo-Saxon orthography, from ninth-century monks matching letters with sounds to 21st-century spelling bees.

Journalist Wolman (A Left-Hand Turn Around the World, 2005) begins with the obvious: English spelling? A mess! He had trouble with spelling in school, he confesses, and “as a weak speller, I have some questions that need answering.” So he persuaded linguist David Crystal (By Hook or By Crook, 2008, etc.) to join him on “an orthography-themed road trip” across the English countryside. They started at Winchester’s Hyde Abbey, where King Alfred held sway and nearly introduced a more standardized English. Instead, “the French came,” so Wolman went on to the site of the Battle of Hastings, source of many subsequent spelling troubles as the conquerors brought their Gallic words along with them. He visited various places associated with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Johnson and others who shaped English language and orthography. Later, confronting old demons from elementary school, he entered a barroom bee and did battle with decuman. Wolman writes about Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary and that mad guy who worked on the OED. He takes an informative, amusing look at some of the more determined efforts to standardize spelling, most notably the Simplified Spelling Board of Melvil Dewey, who had better luck with the Dewey Decimal System. Wolman devotes some pages to “universal languages” like Volapük and Esperanto, also including a much lesser known attempt to create a standardized language, the Mormons’ “Deseret Alphabet.” Amusement cascades in the final sections as the author describes taking a test for dyslexia, joining the protestors outside a national spelling bee and visiting the godfather of computer spellcheck. Teens and texting, he predicts, are the future of spelling, like it or not.

Sprightly history that sensibly balances the merits of standardization against the forces for freedom.