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Tout comprendre n'est pas tout rappeler!,
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".
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 10, 2014 5:18:26 PM PST
Andrew Charig says:
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
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.
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