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

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

by David Wolman

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When did ghost acquire its silent h? Will cyberspace kill the one in rhubarb? And was it really rocket scientists who invented spell-check?

In Righting the Mother Tongue, author David Wolman tells the cockamamie story of English spelling, by way of a wordly adventure from English battlefields to Google headquarters. Along the way, he


When did ghost acquire its silent h? Will cyberspace kill the one in rhubarb? And was it really rocket scientists who invented spell-check?

In Righting the Mother Tongue, author David Wolman tells the cockamamie story of English spelling, by way of a wordly adventure from English battlefields to Google headquarters. Along the way, he joins spelling reformers picketing the national spelling bee, visits the town in Belgium—not England—where the first English books were printed, and takes a road trip with the boss at Merriam-Webster Inc. Wolman punctuates the journey with spelling wars waged by the likes of Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Theodore Roosevelt, and Andrew Carnegie.

Rich with history, pop culture, curiosity, and humor, Righting the Mother Tongue explores how English spelling came to be, traces efforts to mend the code, and imagines the shape of tomorrow's words.

Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe
“An engaging ramble through our orthographic thickets”
St. Petersburg Times
“A funny and fact-filled look at our astoundingly inconsistent written language, from Shakespeare to spell-check.”
Wall Street Journal
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.
Seattle Post Intelligencer
A lively, engaging look at the idiosyncratic derivations and permutations of spelling in the English language.
Portland Tribune
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.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
A lively, engaging look at the idiosyncratic derivations and permutations of spelling in the English language.
Kirkus Reviews
A romp through Anglo-Saxon orthography, from ninth-century monks matching letters with sounds to 21st-century spelling bees. Journalist Wolman (A Left-Hand Turn Around the World, 2005) begins with the obvious: English spelling? A mess! He had trouble with spelling in school, he confesses, and "as a weak speller, I have some questions that need answering." So he persuaded linguist David Crystal (By Hook or By Crook, 2008, etc.) to join him on "an orthography-themed road trip" across the English countryside. They started at Winchester's Hyde Abbey, where King Alfred held sway and nearly introduced a more standardized English. Instead, "the French came," so Wolman went on to the site of the Battle of Hastings, source of many subsequent spelling troubles as the conquerors brought their Gallic words along with them. He visited various places associated with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Johnson and others who shaped English language and orthography. Later, confronting old demons from elementary school, he entered a barroom bee and did battle with decuman. Wolman writes about Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary and that mad guy who worked on the OED. He takes an informative, amusing look at some of the more determined efforts to standardize spelling, most notably the Simplified Spelling Board of Melvil Dewey, who had better luck with the Dewey Decimal System. Wolman devotes some pages to "universal languages" like Volapuk and Esperanto, also including a much lesser known attempt to create a standardized language, the Mormons' "Deseret Alphabet." Amusement cascades in the final sections as the author describes taking a test for dyslexia, joining the protestors outside a national spelling beeand visiting the godfather of computer spellcheck. Teens and texting, he predicts, are the future of spelling, like it or not. Sprightly history that sensibly balances the merits of standardization against the forces for freedom. Agent: Giles Anderson/Anderson Literary Agency

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Righting the Mother Tongue

From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling

By David Wolman
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2008

David Wolman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061369254

Chapter One

War of the Words

"There is no excuse, however, for 'thru' for through from any point of view."
Benjamin Ide Wheeler, September 15, 19061

The students in Stanford University's "Calamity Class" of 1906 must have thought the world was falling apart. Five months before graduation, the Great Earthquake leveled much of San Francisco. More than 3,000 people perished, and the destruction and subsequent fires left some 225,000 residents homeless. Overseas, Italy's Mount Vesuvius had just erupted, again. Russia was recovering from a revolution and war with Japan. A tsunami in Hong Kong and earthquakes in Ecuador and India had killed tens of thousands of people.

The United States was not engaged in military conflict at the time, but the Spanish-American War was fresh in the collective memory. On the other side of the Atlantic, Europeans were planting the seeds of political foment that would lead to World War I, and, closer to home, Upton Sinclair's muckraking exposé, The Jungle, was shocking readers with its grisly portrayal of working conditions in America's turn-of-the-century stockyards.

Thirty miles to the south of the devastated City bythe Bay, the earthquake had caused considerable, although less catastrophic, damage on the Stanford campus. Still, the graduates of 1906 had been dubbed the "Calamity Class." Their four years at Stanford were marred by a trio of campus tragedies: A typhoid epidemic in 1903, the death of Mrs. Stanford in 1905, followed by the Great Earthquake. They finally celebrated graduation on September 15, 1906.2

It was a typically sunny day on campus when Benjamin Ide Wheeler began his commencement address. Wheeler, president of the University of California and a renowned language expert, opened his speech by commenting on the recent destruction wrought by nature, and humanity's inherent resourcefulness and generosity in times of adversity. But then he turned to a battle that was gripping the nation. A rebellion was building momentum and Wheeler wanted it quashed. If the revolutionaries triumphed, he warned, the outcome promised "loss and waste to intercourse and culture."

America was at war over words. The composition of words, to be precise—what some people call orthography and the rest of us call spelling.In its rise from a motley collection of Germanic tongues crossbred with French and Latin, spiced up by languages the world over and then churned through the lexicographic contortion machine of history, English, already on its way to becoming the lingua franca, had developed a nasty not-so-secret secret: its spelling system was a mess.

Amidst the thicket of foreign words, silent letters, and rule exceptions of English spelling lies more order than some people might expect, and likewise more chaos than others would like to admit. But when measured by the commonsense yardstick of consistent sound-to-letter correspondence, there's no denying that English spelling is a nightmare. Compared to the likes of German, Spanish, Italian, Finnish, and many other languages, our orthography is, as one scholar puts it, "flamboyantly inconsistent."3 Renaissance, millennium, diarrhea, bulletin, camaraderie, accommodation, feign, entrepreneur, rhythm, miscellaneous, cemetery, yacht, fluorescent, temperamental, license, perseverance, misspelling—do any of these words ring bells of confusion? Not even occasionally?

As native speakers and readers, we rarely, if ever, stop to consider that the sound commonly represented by the letters sh, as in shine, is the same sound in sugar, emotion, omniscience, charade, social, and fissure.4 Imagine the bewildered look on the faces of people learning English as a second language when they first hear about these sh shenanigans, or when the teacher writes out rough, dough, bough, and through on the blackboard, and then says that each is pronounced differently. These are quick examples, but they get right to the point, as do silent letters like the g in gnarly and the k in knuckle, inconsistencies like mask versus masquerade and fear versus interference, and geographic variations like program and honor in the US, compared with programme and honour in England.

For nearly as long as English has had a relatively stable or "settled" spelling system, there have been people complaining about it and campaigning for change. They've wielded a variety of arguments: A more phonetic spelling system would return English to a purer form, improve literacy, make time for students to tackle other areas of study, and reduce printing and proofreading costs. One of the most energetic times in the history of spelling reform was the turn of the twentieth century. "Philologists Declare War on Cumbrous Spelling of English," reported the New York Herald on March 18, 1906.5 "Spelling Campaign Praised as Today's Real Need: Simplified Spelling Reform is Indorsed by Leading Citizens," declared the Chicago Evening Post.6

As a professor of philology (the predecessor to today's historical linguistics), Wheeler was a certifiable lover of words and kept careful watch over news from the front lines of this escalating conflict. Still, a commencement address about spelling? It doesn't exactly carry the weight one usually associates with such occasions, especially for an audience that had been through so much.

But that's the thing: Spelling matters. In Wheeler's time, spelling reform was no obscure topic. Heavy hitters from politics, education, business, and art were lining up in support of spelling reform. The newly elected president, Theodore Roosevelt, was a proponent of a revision scheme known as simplified spelling. In 1906 he began using some of the three hundred novel spellings suggested by a group called the Simplified Spelling Board, including dipt for dipped, rime for rhyme, and tho for though. He ordered the Government Printing Office to apply the new spellings to all future materials, although the order was soon revoked.7

The Simplified Spelling Board was captained by the esteemed bookworm Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System for the classification of library books. Joining him on the board were such influential figures as Columbia University President James Murray Butler, Stanford University President David Starr Jordan, Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer, and Century Magazine editor Richard Watson Gilder. Steel baron Andrew Carnegie provided financial backing for the campaign.


Excerpted from Righting the Mother Tongue by David Wolman Copyright © 2008 by David Wolman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet 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.

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