Customer Review

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tout comprendre n'est pas tout rappeler!, June 22, 2013
This review is from: Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling (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 ć 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. Most of the rules were related to distinguishing between the pronunciation of short and long vowels; but when new words came into the language, especially from Latin-derived prefixes or suffixes, further exceptions were made to make these words "look" more Latin. This is just one example where the knowledge that a word relates to Latin rather than to Anglo-Saxon helps you to get to a correct spelling.

Some of the explanations of what the French scribes did - for example how gh came sometimes to be silent as in "night") and sometimes to be pronounced like f ("laugh") - positively make your head spin. They introduced the useful letter j, but some words still use g for that sound (as in "ginger"). The letter i received its dot only in the 11th century, to distinguish it in cursive handwriting from other adjacent minims (downstrokes) like m or n (as in "minim"!) Sometimes scribes distinguished between homophones (words which sound the same) or homographs (words which look the same but are pronounced differently); but sometimes, where there was little likelihood of them being confused when read in context, they did not bother. (In his appendix, Crystal lays great stress that children should be taught spelling by always seeing words not in isolation, but in context - such as "school principal", "principal boy" and "in principle", "on principle".)

Some now silent letters were once pronounced ("dumb"), and, by analogy, now figure in words that never had them to start with ("numb"). It was now also added to "debt" in he 16th century because printers knew that the word came from the Latin "debitum" - an example of a host of words in which silent letters now appeared for the same reason. The etymological origins also help us to understand why it is "scorn" (from French "escorner") but "skin" (old Norse "skinne").

Some spellings reflect the sound before the Great Vowel Shift in the 15th century, which affected the long (but not the short) vowels. The spelling of words which entered the language after the Shift reflect the sound accurately. So we have "entice" (pre-shift, when it was pronounced "entiss"), and "police" (post-shift). The Flemings who worked for Caxton inserted an h after g in words like "ghost" because it was present in the Flemish word "gheest".

Crystal shows up the inadequacies of such "rules" as "i after e except after c" ("ancient", "conscience" etc and a large number of French-influenced words like "foreign", "heir", "reign"). [Which is why, as a teacher, I had always added "when the sound is as in `key' - except for `seize'. That seems to work.]

From Samuel Johnson's time onwards we have "authoritative" guides to spelling; but these are never universally accepted. Most notably English and American authorities lay down spellings which differ; but so do "house styles" laid down by different publishing houses and newspapers. Then there are idiosyncracies in the names of towns (like Leominster) or surnames (like Featherstonehaugh, pronounced Fanshaw).

The Internet and advertising have spawned a host of new words in forms which would previously have been considered illiterate - and he argues interestingly how the Internet actually makes it users more rather than less accurate in spelling.

This review gives just a small selection from the over 2,000 words (all indexed) whose spelling Crystal discusses in this illuminating book.

See also my Amazon review of the author's "The Story of English in 100 Words".
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

[Add comment]
Post a comment
To insert a product link use the format: [[ASIN:ASIN product-title]] (What's this?)
Amazon will display this name with all your submissions, including reviews and discussion posts. (Learn more)
Name:
Badge:
This badge will be assigned to you and will appear along with your name.
There was an error. Please try again.
Please see the full guidelines here.

Official Comment

As a representative of this product you can post one Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.   Learn more
The following name and badge will be shown with this comment:
 (edit name)
After clicking the Post button you will be asked to create your public name, which will be shown with all your contributions.

Is this your product?

If you are the author, artist, manufacturer or an official representative of this product, you can post an Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.  Learn more
Otherwise, you can still post a regular comment on this review.

Is this your product?

If you are the author, artist, manufacturer or an official representative of this product, you can post an Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.   Learn more
 
System timed out

We were unable to verify whether you represent the product. Please try again later, or retry now. Otherwise you can post a regular comment.

Since you previously posted an Official Comment, this comment will appear in the comment section below. You also have the option to edit your Official Comment.   Learn more
The maximum number of Official Comments have been posted. This comment will appear in the comment section below.   Learn more
Prompts for sign-in
 

Comments

Tracked by 1 customer

Sort: Oldest first | Newest first
Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 10, 2014 5:18:26 PM PST
TOIO LONG! TOO LONG! TOO LONG! You are supposed to write a review, not the book.

Posted on Mar 16, 2014 12:01:50 AM PDT
AC says:
Ralph, thank you for this terrific, enlightening, and very interesting -- and useful -- review. Thank you for having taken the time to convey what you did. I and many others appreciate it.
‹ Previous 1 Next ›

Review Details

Item

4.5 out of 5 stars (23 customer reviews)
5 star:
 (13)
4 star:
 (8)
3 star:
 (2)
2 star:    (0)
1 star:    (0)
 
 
 
$22.99 $16.01
Add to cart Add to wishlist
Reviewer


Location: London United Kingdom

Top Reviewer Ranking: 719