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Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling Hardcover – June 18, 2013


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Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling + The Story of English in 100 Words
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Crystal makes a compelling case that spelling can be an adventure. This whirlwind review of the history of English spelling contains helpful tips for average readers and teachers, with small gems of discovery every few pages. The development of our language was influenced by everything from efficiency to fashion, such as the sixteenth-century love of Latin spelling. His brisk approach takes about as many chapters as there are English sounds—a bit more than 26—which are the root of several spelling variations. Writers’ knotty and convoluted efforts to bring order to this hodgepodge are often doomed, as the myriad exceptions to “i before e” demonstrate. Although his book is not exactly a love letter to the vagaries of English, linguist Crystal (The Story of English in 100 Words, 2012) maintains an affectionate tone of indulgence, similar to how a doting relative would treat a wayward nephew. For as Crystal shows, spelling is a cultural legacy as human—and therefore as prone to mischief—as anything else we create. --Bridget Thoreson

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Praise for The Story of English in 100 Words:
“The best word book to come down the pike in many a moon . . . An ingenious idea, and only David Crystal could have pulled it off." —Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, authors of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language and bloggers at Grammarphobia.com

“Brisk [and] exuberant . . . Crystal delights in exposing all the many wacky ways we English speakers make new words.” —San Francisco Chronicle

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press (June 18, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250003474
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250003478
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #182,338 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Crystal is honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. He has written or edited over 100 books and published numerous articles for scholarly, professional, and general readerships, in fields ranging from forensic linguistics and ELT to the liturgy and Shakespeare. His many books include Words, Words, Words (OUP 2006) and The Fight for English (OUP 2006).

Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
5 star
56%
4 star
36%
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8%
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See all 25 customer reviews
It's also been very helpful as my toddler learns to read. highly recommended.
Nonny Mouse
A big disadvantage to reading this book may be that you won't remember how to spell anything--or at least have doubts about how to spell words.
John R. Hightower
Mr Crystal's explanations are great reading and his research is extraordinary.
John Fulford

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Sandie Barrie Blackley on September 6, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
If you are reading this you are probably a word nerd. (Only word nerds are likely to find the subject of English spelling "enthralling"!) Some of Crystal's stories of how English spelling patterns evolved are fascinating. Crystal says he wrote this book as a bridge between English orthography's now "solid academic linguistic foundation" and the curiosity of the public about why words are spelled as they are--- and especially for teachers who need a "new pedagogy" based on explanations based on "sound linguistic principles". The reason I didn't give Spell It Out five stars is that, while the snippets and examples are indeed "curious, enthralling and extraordinary", Crystal doesn't really weave them in to any kind of coherent "story". His message is: "There a system behind the apparent irregularity", but he fails to put the system (or systems) in to any sort of clear or usable focus. The result is that the reader of Spell It Out constantly feels a little lost in the weeds.

In contrast, Richard L. Venezky's The American Way of Spelling: The Structure and Origins of American English Orthography (1999) begins with seven general principles and a metaphor: English spelling is a parade of marching bands, all playing the same music but wearing different costumes (p. 5-11). These principles serves to "frame the discussion" throughout the rest of Venezky's 343 page book, anchoring every element in every chapter.

Crystal's book does include am excellent discussion of the impact of digital media and the internet on English spelling, a discussion missing from Venezky's 1999 book.

If you want an overview of the subject of English spelling, Crystal's Spell It Out may suit you. However, if you are a serious word nerd and you really want to understand principles and systems of English (American) spelling, you are likely to find Venezky's book more useful.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Ralph Blumenau TOP 1000 REVIEWER on June 22, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Professor Crystal shows us that there are EXPLANATIONS for the bewildering variety of English spelling, but at the end I felt like adapting a French proverb: "tout comprendre n'est pas tout rappeler", even if in the last chapter is a Teaching Appendix he gives us a few guides of how to teach and how not to teach children how to spell. He maintains that "the underlying system [of spelling] is robust and regular, BUT STRUGGLES TO BE VISIBLE THROUGH THE LAYERS OF ORTHOGRAPHIC PRACTICE ..." The second part of that sentence is only too true!

Spelling has a history, and it begins with the problems presented to Early English scribes, who were monks schooled in Latin, in using the Roman alphabet of 23 letters (no u, no w and no j) to express a range of about 37 sounds (phonemes) in Anglo-Saxon speech. They added just four letters (which the French scribes who came with the Normans would do away with: two different ones for th, the runic one for w, - which they replaced with our w in the 13th century - and æ for the vowel a as in "man"). Runes were letters of pre-Latin alphabets used before the monks arrived. Wikipedia tells me that the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet had 34 characters; but the monks rejected them (with two exceptions) because, Crystal says, they were considered to be too associated with paganism. [I would have thought it was more because monks had been brought up with Roman characters which, moreover, had international currency in the Western Christian world.]

There were some "rules" (with lots of exceptions) for these transcriptions, but they were not standard, not least because there were regional variations of pronunciation.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By John Fulford on February 15, 2014
Format: Hardcover
David Crystal has the knack of explaining our language with easy clarity and some humor. He is also the top man in this field. I keep re-reading this book to learn even more about where our words come from and what happened to them over the centuries. Mr Crystal's explanations are great reading and his research is extraordinary.
I would have given the book 5 stars except for the fact that, while he gives useful tips on teaching spelling, he carefully avoids the crucial subject of 'improving' English spelling. Like most Englishmen he prefers the status quo and barely mentions Noah Webster and his logical improvements.
He also fails to mention the many other improvements to spelling that have been made in American English over the years. This is a problem with British academics who completely ignore the fact that the vast majority of English users are in North America, and that the English speaking population of Britain is now only a small fraction of all the people who use English every day all across the globe.
Despite that, it's a fine book and has an excellent word list in the index.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By chandru sharma on August 18, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
despite being a native english speaker and teaching english for over 15 years, i was amazed to learn the detailed facts and facets of so many spelling through stories. yes, to me they were like reading stories. so brilliantly written by david crystal. what an extraordinary research he would have done to get all the facts! and his style of presentation is fabulous. i loved every page of the book and i can say, unhesitatingly, i have become richer. anyone who is curious about the vagaries of english spelling should definitely possess this book.
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