Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling by David Crystal

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Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling by David Crystal

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: Extremely entertaining and really readable, this book is a must for any bookshelf, whether your a language novice or a linguistics scholar
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846685675

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Are you a speller? I must confess I'm not much of one myself, so the main thing I was after from this book was an insight into the peculiarities of English spelling, and some hints and tips for remembering the rules. Oh, and a fun, entertaining read at the same time (this is Crystal, after all).

I was not disappointed.

(Even if I can still only spell disappointed with the help of my spellchecker)

This book runs from Anglo Saxon days right up to the Twitter of 2012, seamlessly weaving in references to spelling from Oscar Wilde to Winnie the Pooh. Starting with the alphabet, it examines the disparity between 26 letters (or 24 as once was) and the 40 plus phonemes of Received Pronunciation and the less snazzily termed General American. If we are to have both long and short sounds, we need different combinations of letters to indicate each, hence we know hop vs. hope and slop vs. slope, and can use these rules to establish the pronunciations of words we may never have seen before (cf. snop vs. snope) . That bit is simple, but not everything is regular. Fee and bee may sound the same, but foot and boot don't, even though they have the same vowel combinations

There are some modern developments that do not sit well with me. I have trouble accepting et as the past tense pronunciation of to eat, and still prefer to spell paediatrics as such, though I am partial to a nice z in organize, realize and recognize. Crystal avoids saying what is right or wrong in these situations, other than language being an evolving entity with many influences. It was especially interesting for me to learn, however, that –ise currently beats –ize only at a ratio of 3:2 in British usage, and this is on track to swing the other way (and therefore I was correct to let my EFL students use either in the writing, because it really doesn't matter).

This book goes beyond the basic rules to give background and explanations, which makes it much easier to remember things (and prevents the EFL teacher's default of because it's English and English is a silly language when asked why, for example, shop doubles its p for shopping, but sweat is quite happy sweating without an additional t).

The section on homographs and homophones was familiar but fun to read, and I understood the author's criticism of some children's resources which try to 'teach' these in a very un-useful way, along with his later point about A is for…. books, posters and chants: fine for A, less easy for X because which child really needs to know what an X-ray is? X is in…. Fox would indeed have been a much more sensible way to go. This book is also one of the first times I've heard anyone argue the case FOR homographs – namely that since so many words in everyday English have multiple meanings, the additional spellings needed to write them all differently would be a hideous and horrendous burden on an already complex writing system.

This book is very much for the average reader rather than the linguistics scholar, and it is not laden down with phonetic transcription or other alienating tools. While this makes it a much more fluid read and a suitable bedside book as well as a desktop text, it does have the odd limitation. At one point he writes that good does not rhyme with blood which left me puzzled, because the way I speak it usually does (though I'd be quite happy to accept that wait and weight are not the same sound), so I would have gratefully accepted a few / / at that point.

Back to my original expectations, then, and it is very simple. I learnt a great deal from the book, both things I never knew I never knew, and the answers to more than a few questions I've always wondered about in passing, but never found the urge to look up (or had tried to look up, but had many various and conflicting answers, such can be the curse of Google). I gained hints and tips and was thoroughly entertained, though I expected nothing less.

Fabulous.

Thanks go to the publishers for supplying this book.

The Story Of English In 100 Words, also by David Crystal would sit nicely next to this one. Literally. Same size, same design (not that you'll judge by the cover, of course), same readability factor.

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Buy Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling by David Crystal at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling by David Crystal at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling by David Crystal at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling by David Crystal at Amazon.com.

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