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Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling First Edition Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 58 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0061369254
ISBN-10: 006136925X
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Editorial Reviews

Review

The lively, informative book is full of evidence/cocktail party fodder proving that the English spelling system is a hopeless tangle of French, Dutch, Latin, German and much, much more and really makes no sense at all. (Portland Tribune)

An intellectual travelogue across the centuries that also ranges geographically from the Litchfield haunts of Dr. Johnson, creator of the first great English dictionary, to the Silicon Valley home of Les Earnest, the progenitor of computerized spell-checking. (Wall Street Journal)

“An engaging ramble through our orthographic thickets” (Boston Globe)

A lively, engaging look at the idiosyncratic derivations and permutations of spelling in the English language. (Seattle Post Intelligencer)

“Sprightly history that sensibly balances the merits of standardization against the forces for freedom.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“A funny and fact-filled look at our astoundingly inconsistent written language, from Shakespeare to spell-check.” (St. Petersburg Times)

About the Author

David Wolman is the author of A Left-Hand Turn Around the World and writes for magazines such as Wired, Newsweek, Outside, National Geographic Traveler and New Scientist. He lives in Portland, OR.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Smithsonian; First Edition edition (October 7, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006136925X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061369254
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,845,836 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Grey Wolffe VINE VOICE on July 24, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
However you spell it, this is good fun if you like linguistics, etymology and orthography. Starting with the basics of Wessex (West Saxon) Old English (there never was an 'e' on old until Victorian times) the language grew from the influx of Norman-French (from William the Conqueror), and all the languages of the Empire (pundit, serendipity, kiosk). But how did the spelling of the actual words come to be?

Prior to the printed book, almost all books were hand scribed by monks in Scriptorium. (The building at Oxford where the OED was created was named so by sir James Murray.) Each monk spelled a word as close as he could to the way it sounded (phonetically). Since there were so few readers, it didn't really matter.

Once Guttenberg had devised his type-set printing, word spellings became much more important. The English (King James of 1611) translated Bible had different spellings for the same word, sometimes on the same page. As an aside, one of the reason we have odd spellings like 'ghost' instead of 'gost' was that the first English books were typeset in Bruges where the major language was Flemish. Typesetters made the decisions on the spot of how to spell a word (phonetically of course), and so used spellings they were comfortable with.

The first major shift to "standardize" English spellings, was by Dr. Samuel Johnson. Dr.Johnson's "Dictionary" was first published in 1755 and immediately became the "base line" (or war line) by which the budding science of 'philology' and 'lexicographers' (makers of dictionaries) fought the battle of the silent 'h' (in Ghost and Rhubarb) and silent 'gh' (in though and fought).

Noah Webster started the transatlantic lexicography war when he published his 'American Dictionary of the English Language' in 1828.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Here's author David Wolman's own explanation of what this book is:

"This book is my journey into the past and future of English spelling. It's an everyman's review of how the words of our language acquired their current form, a study of the quest to change the spelling code, and an exploration of spelling convention and innovation in the digital age."

That sums it up pretty well. It's an everyman's book in the double sense that it's written by a nonexpert and is pitched at people who want an overview with interesting facts, ideas and illustrative detail but not extended scholarly analysis. The information is generally derived from authoritative sources, often books written by language scholars for a general audience. Explanations are lucid.

Emphasis should be given to "my journey," as a fair amount of the book revolves around Wolman's trips to places of significance in his take on the history and future of English spelling. He travels to several places in Britain where events such as the Norman Conquest and the English translation of the Bible occurred, takes a side trip to Germany and Belgium, homes of Gutenberg and the first English printed book, visits the home of famous American dictionary author Noah Webster, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the home of Google in Silicon Valley, and other places along the way, usually accompanied by an expert who helps explain the significance of the events related to the places. It's like one of those BBC TV history specials without a camera crew.

His journey is also personal in the sense that he weaves in his own history with spelling, from a lifelong self-perception as a bad speller to his participation in a local spelling bee.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is an interesting -- though not totally captivating -- read about the history of spelling in the English language. While, as a professional copy editor and general fan of etymology, good spelling, good grammar and all things word-related, I enjoyed it, it may be a bit dry for those who don't already have an interest in this area.

The book starts with the history of the English language and continues through the days of Noah Webster, early-20th-century spelling reformers and up till texting and the Internet (and their effect on the English language).

The cover design could be more attractive -- I don't find it particularly compelling or even reflective of the book's content. And this is definitely no "Eats, Shoots and Leaves." But overall, if you're really fascinated by spelling and how modern English came to be the way it is, you'll find this a fun read.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I thoroughly enjoyed this brief, well-written history of the development of English spelling and its often bizarre conventions. While the thread that ties the chapters together is the spelling of English words, the author successfully incorporates fascinating bits of linguistics, cultural and social history, and biography to bring his subject to life.

The author's style is fresh and engaging and the book is very readable and in fact difficult to put down. I've read many books about linguistics and language history, and most suffer from a scholarly tone that sometimes borders on the pedantic. This book is a welcome change from that, and will appeal both to the general reader as well as those of us who love reading about language and language change.

While the author is not a professional linguist, he includes footnotes for each chapter and it's obvious that he researched his topic before writing the book. Highly recommended!
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