Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling
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Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling

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by David Crystal

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With The Story of English in 100 Words, David Crystal took us on a tour through the history of our language. Now, with Spell It Out, he takes on the task of answering all the questions about how we spell: "Why is English spelling



With The Story of English in 100 Words, David Crystal took us on a tour through the history of our language. Now, with Spell It Out, he takes on the task of answering all the questions about how we spell: "Why is English spelling so difficult?" Or "Why are good spellers so proud of their achievement that when they see a misspelling they condemn the writer as sloppy, lazy, or uneducated?" In thirty-seven short, engaging and informative chapters, Crystal takes readers on a history of English spelling, starting with the Roman missionaries' sixth century introduction of the Roman alphabet and ending with where the language might be going. He looks individually at each letter in the alphabet and its origins. He considers the question of vowels and how people developed a way to tell whether or not it was long or short. He looks at influences from other cultures, and explains how English speakers understood that the "o" in "hopping" was a short vowel, rather than the long vowel of "hoping". If you've ever asked yourself questions like "Why do the words "their", "there" and "they're" sound alike, but mean very different things?" or "How can we tell the difference between "charge" the verb and "charge" the noun?" David Crystal's Spell It Out will spell it all out for you.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A noted linguistics scholar and prolific author asks and answers the question, "Why do we spell words the way we do?" Crystal (The Story of English in 100 Words, 2011, etc.) argues that many of the traditional ways we teach spelling (using lists of unrelated words, teaching homophones together) have just not worked; he suggests a more productive approach: explaining words linguistically to students--not a surprising suggestion from a linguist. He also notes how, when and why spelling became so important to us and why that's not likely to change. Crystal contends that social media and texting are not harming spelling; you cannot text effectively, he writes, if you cannot spell well. But the meat in his sandwich is the history of the English language, which he relates in swift, focused chapters that frequently conclude with an amusing quotation about spelling from a noted writer (Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Twain) or a cartoon from Punch magazine. He reminds us of our fundamental problem: We have too few letters in our alphabet (26) and too many sounds in our mouths (about 44). But it's even more complicated. Our gumbo of words from Latin, Anglo Saxon, Norman French and all the other languages from which we have borrowed--and from which we continue to borrow--makes learning how to spell so daunting. (The author does not discuss why spelling is easy for some and hard for others.) Crystal goes after the "rules" that many people learned as children ("i before e, except after c" and so on), noting that they are rarely useful and often patently false. He also notes the changes introduced by medieval scribes and early printers and the considerable and lingering effects of lexicographers Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster. An entertaining mixture of erudition, attitude and wit that crackles, spits and sparkles.
From the Publisher

“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, on The Story of English in 100 Words

“Brisk [and] exuberant...Crystal delights in exposing all the many wacky ways we English speakers make new words.” —San Francisco Chronicle on The Story of English in 100 Words

Library Journal
Linguistics scholar and author Crystal (Univ. of Wales; The Story of English in 100 Words) delves into the etymological and linguistic backgrounds of words—from their morphology to the influence of other languages over centuries—to create a witty and robust primer on English spelling and how it works. Many readers may be put off by the technical language if they aren't familiar with terms such as phonemes and morphemes, but Crystal's presentation is conversational, and those not deterred by the consonant phoneme chart will find the information well worth studying. VERDICT If Christopher Upward's The History of English Spelling is too academic, Crystal's technical study of a complex subject is accessible and will appeal to those with an interest in language, linguistics, or orthography. [See Prepub Alert, 12/7/12.]—Linda White, Maplewood, MN

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Spell It Out

The Curious, Enthralling, and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling

By David Crystal

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 David Crystal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-02886-0


The nature of the problem

English spelling is difficult, but it is not as chaotic as is often claimed. An explanatory perspective can make the learning of spelling easier.

Why is English spelling so difficult? Why do we have spelling bees and competitions? Why do children spend so much time learning lists of spellings off by heart? Why do so many people feel they are bad at spelling, and worry so much about it? And why are good spellers so proud of their achievement that, when they see a misspelling, they condemn the writer as sloppy, careless, lazy or uneducated?

Spelling is evidently important. Society says so. When people notice spelling mistakes in a newspaper or poster, they react – with emotions ranging from mild amusement to horrified disgust. Publishers employ proofreaders to prevent such things happening. Some employers have told me that if they see a job application with spelling mistakes, it goes into the bin straight away. We are under similar pressures online: to access an Internet address, we have to get the spelling exactly right.

Society expects us to spell perfectly. And yet we are all aware that there are some words in the language that we don't know how to spell, and have to look them up before we write them. There are no exceptions. Nobody knows how to spell every word in the language. Even the brilliant spellers who win the prizes in spelling bees get some words wrong.

People provide aids to help us achieve that perfection: dictionaries and spelling checkers. But there are problems with both. To look a word up in a dictionary, we have to know how to spell it – which rather defeats the purpose of the exercise. We'll find it eventually, of course, but it isn't the most obvious way to deal with the difficulty. And spelling checkers are useful only to a limited extent. They spot spellings that don't exist; but they won't highlight a word if it's misspelled yet does exist. The first two stanzas of an ode to a spelling checker, by Mark Eckman and Jerrold H. Zar, illustrate the problem:

    I have a spelling checker,
    It came with my PC.
    It plane lee marks four my revue
    Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

    Eye ran this poem threw it,
    Your sure reel glad two no.
    Its vary polished in it's weigh.
    My checker tolled me sew.

A spelling checker wouldn't spot anything wrong here.

One day spelling checkers will be more sophisticated, taking the context of the word into account; but for now they can let us down badly. One day there'll be even better labour-saving spelling devices. We will speak into a machine and it will spell the words out for us, or type them for us. Devices of this kind already exist, using voice-to-text software, but they're far from perfect. They don't like broad regional accents. They don't like fast speakers. They don't like background noise. They especially don't like proper names. Eventually these problems will be solved – but not for another generation or so.

So in the short term we need to spell as best we can – and maybe even in the long term. After all, none of these devices will work at all if our computer or phone runs out of power. And if we want to write when we've no electronic equipment to hand, the responsibility remains with us.

What can we do to make the task of learning to spell easier? My answer is in a word: EXPLAIN it. I believe the first step in solving a problem is to see why the problem exists. If we understand why English spelling is apparently in such a mess, we remove part of the barrier. Explaining why words are spelled the way they are can help us remember them. The stories behind the spellings are often fascinating, and interest adds motivation. I've told some of them to young schoolchildren, and their comments warm my linguistic heart. 'I'll never forget there's an h in ghost now,' said one to me, with a big smile on her face. Yes!

Note I say 'apparently in such a mess'. English spelling isn't as bad as most people think it is. They describe it as 'chaotic', 'inconsistent', 'irregular', 'unpredictable', 'unlearnable'. Thomas Sheridan, the 18th-century elocutionist, went so far as to say that the state of our spelling system is worse than 'the darkest hieroglyphics or most difficult ciphers which the art of man has hitherto invented'. The impression is fuelled by writers who have gone out of their way to draw attention to the irregularities.

A famous example dates from the middle of the 19th century, and came to be associated in the 20th century with George Bernard Shaw: ghoti is said to spell fish, because f is spelled gh as in cough, i is spelled o as in women, and sh is spelled ti as in nation. This is complete naughtiness. The spelling ti is NEVER used with this sound at the end of a word in English, and the spelling gh is NEVER used with this sound at the beginning of a word. But people have been taken in by this sort of nonsense. And the feeling that English spelling is a mess has been reinforced by the clever creations based on irregular forms, such as 'Though the rough cough and hiccough plough me through, I ought to cross the lough.' All good fun, but hugely misleading as a summary of the English spelling system. It's a bit like listing eight accident blackspots in a country, and saying all the roads are like that.

English spelling isn't as chaotic as Shaw suggests. It isn't 'unlearnable'. You, reader, have learned to decode it, otherwise you wouldn't even be reading this. And there are thousands of English words that you have no trouble spelling at all. So how did you manage it? You probably have a vague memory of spelling tests and lists, but how did you actually get from that stage of early learning to your present level of competence? Somehow, over several years, you worked out the system and took on board the exceptions. You have quite a powerful 'spelling engine' in your head, which enables you to see a new word and make a reasonable shot at how to pronounce it (text to speech) and hear a new word and make a reasonable guess about how to write it down (speech to text).

But not all words are easy to say and write. And it takes several years to get to the stage where our spelling engine purrs along nicely. So anything we can do to make learning to spell easier – both for children learning their mother-tongue and foreigners learning English as a foreign language – must be a good thing. Some people think spelling reform is the best way forward. But whether we believe in spelling reform or not, the first step is to understand the present English spelling system. And that's what this book aims to do. It explains why English spelling has come to be the way it is. It isn't the whole solution. We still have to work at it, to become a good speller. But it's half the battle.

And we begin, as all good explanations must, at the beginning.

Pooh and his friends on spelling

Pooh said to Piglet: 'It's all right, Piglet. Spelling is easy once you get started.'

Piglet nodded. 'Getting started is the worst bit.'


Christopher Robin jumped onto the tree stump and made an announcement. 'Friends, the Spelling Bee has been cancelled, because spelling is difficult enough at the best of times, and impossible in the rain.'

(David Benedictus, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, 2009, Ch. 2, 'In which Owl does a crossword, and a Spelling Bee is held')

You can't help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn't spell it right; but spelling isn't everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn't count.

(Rabbit of Owl, in A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner, 1928, Ch. 5)


The beginning

The origins of the English writing system lie in the alphabet the Romans used for Latin. The task of adaptation was a priority for the monks in Anglo-Saxon England.

Imagine. You are one of the missionaries arriving in Britain in the 6th century AD. You discover a place largely ruled by Anglo-Saxons, in several kingdoms, speaking dialects of a Germanic language brought from the Continent a century before. Your job is to introduce Christianity into the country. Charters have to be agreed with kings. Letters sent out. Churches established. Local organisers have to be trained. Priests need to compose prayers and homilies in Anglo-Saxon so that ordinary people will understand them. A priority, in short, is to get the language written down.

You look around, and you see a few signs of writing already there. Some are memories of the days when the Romans ruled, centuries before. Inscriptions on old walls, buildings and monuments. A few coins and objects with writing on them. But they are all Latin words and names, not Anglo-Saxon ones. No help there.

You find that some of the Anglo-Saxons do know how to write. The early settlers had brought a runic alphabet with them from Europe, and used the letters to write names or charms on swords, brooches, rings and other objects, as well as on gravestones and buildings. The rune-carvers, or rune-masters, were special people. Runes were mysterious and magical. The very word 'rune' means 'something hidden' or 'secret'. Why not use those? Unfortunately, you can't. As a Christian monk, you have a problem. Runes are too strongly associated with magic, dark forces and the pagan practices you want to eradicate.

The Roman alphabet, on the other hand, has all the right associations for you and your colleagues. It has been used for centuries as a medium of Christian expression. You've been reading St Jerome's Latin Bible as long as you can remember. Several beautiful handwritten forms of Roman letters exist, especially in Ireland. You and all your colleagues know that alphabet well. It's the obvious choice. All you have to do is write down the sounds of Anglo-Saxon using the Roman letters. You have twenty-three at your disposal: A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z. That should be more than enough, you think.

You quickly realise that you're wrong. You listen carefully to Anglo-Saxon – or English, as it would later be called – and you hear sounds that don't exist in Latin. Two sounds especially catch your attention: consonant sounds made by the tongue between the teeth (we'd call them 'th' sounds today, as in this and thin). How are you going to write those? There also seem to be far more sounds in this language than in Latin. What on earth are you going to do?

The abbot calls a meeting in the scriptorium, where all manuscript work takes place. 'We are going to have to adapt the Roman alphabet [he says in Latin] to make it work. Any suggestions?'


The size of the problem

The origins of spelling difficulties in English lie in the fact that there are far more sounds in the language than there are letters, as can be seen from a list of the spoken vowels and consonants that have to be written down. Phonetic symbols help to explain problem cases in later chapters.

Old English, the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, is dead and gone. We speak and write Modern English now. But we can get a sense of the scale of the problem facing the monks if we transfer their task to the present day. If we had to write down Modern English in Britain with a different letter for every distinctive sound, just how many letters would we need?

The first thing we have to do is establish how many distinctive sounds there are. We do this by finding all the words that change their meaning when just one of their sounds is altered. We might start with pip, and change the first sound. Tip is different from pip. So is sip, and hip, and lip ... That gives us a p, t, s, h, l ... Then we could change the second sound. Pip is different from pop and pup and peep ... That gives us i, o, u, ee ... Linguists call these distinctive sounds 'phonemes'. How many phonemes are there in English? The answer depends on the regional accent we have, but for many people the total is forty-four. That's the number we hear, for example, in the British accent known as 'Received Pronunciation' (RP), widely understood in the UK because it's used by many presenters on national radio and television. The corresponding accent in the USA is known as General American.

To understand how English spelling works, it's essential to develop a sense of what sounds have to be written down. So I list below all the phonemes in these two accents, using the system presented by John Wells in his classic study, Accents of English. Don't pay attention to the spellings at this point. Simply say the words aloud and listen to the sounds that the spellings convey to you. Phoneticians have given each phoneme its own symbol to show that it's different from the others. And to show that we're talking about sounds, not letters, these symbols are put in slant brackets.

It's not important, at this point in the book, to remember all the symbols. But do keep a bookmark on this page, because in order to explain certain spellings I will sometimes have to show the pronunciation of the words, especially in the older period of the language, and that is where you will see these symbols used. For the present, it's important only to appreciate the number of phonemes there are in English.

There are twenty-four consonant phonemes in both Received Pronunciation and General American.

/p/ as in pin, apple, rip
/b/ as in big, table, rob
/t/ as in top, writer, pot
/d/ as in dog, radar, bed
/k/ as in kin, taking, rock
/g/ as in got, bigger, hug
/f/ as in fat, rifle, off
/v/ as in van, saving, love
/Θ/ as in thin, earthly, path
/ö/ as in this, mother, seethe
/s/ as in sit, rustic, pass
/z/ as in zip, buzzer, has
/[??]/ as in shop, bishop, mash
/[??]/ as in gigolo, confusion, mirage
/[??]/ as in chest, butcher, catch
/[??]/ as in jest, badger, lodge
/h/ as in hot, unhand
/m/ as in map, summer, dim
/n/ as in net, deny, win
/?/ as in hanger, sing
/l/ as in lip, police, fool
/r/ as in rip, carrot, and in General American also after a vowel, as in star
/w/ as in well, unwilling
/j/ as in you, beyond

There are up to twenty vowel phonemes in these accents, and the way they are used varies a little between British and American English, though not enough to cause any real problems of intelligibility. We understand each other well enough.

When you see a colon (:) after a symbol, it means that the sound is long, with a single phonetic quality throughout. If there is no colon, the vowel sound is short. When you see a combination of two symbols, it means that the sound is long because it has two distinct phonetic qualities; such sounds are called 'diphthongs', and they play a particularly important role in the history of English spelling.

/I/ as in kit, sister, filling
/e/ as in met, dress, spelling
/æ/ as in cat, trap, magnify
/[??]/ as in lot, got, cloth, gone; in General American, /a/ as in lot, gotten, /[??]/ as in cloth, gone
/[??]/ as in cup, strut, buckle
/[??]/ as in foot, look, put
/∂/ as in the, sofa, profess
/i:/ as in see, fleece, eating
/a:/ as in bath, palm, start; in General American, /æ/ as in bath, /a/ as in palm, /ar/ as in start
/u:/ as in soon, goose, tube
/[??]/ as in thought, north, force; in General American, /[??]/ as in thought, /[??]r/ as in north, /or/ as in force
/[??]/ as in nurse, bird, sermon; in General American, /3r/ as in nurse, bird, sermon
/eI/ as in aim, face, delay
/aI/ as in I, price, deny
/[??]/ as in oil, choice, boy
/[??]/ as in oh, goat, below
/[??]/ as in owl, mouth, cow
/[??]/ as in ear, beard, near; in General American, / r/ as in ear, beard, near
/[??]/ as in air, fairy, square; in General American, /?r/ as in air, fairy, square
/??/ as in cure, your, fury; in General American, /?r/ as in cure, your, fury

Of course, if you don't speak with either a Received Pronunciation or a General American accent, you may find you have a different number of phonemes. The traditional Cockney accent of London, for example, doesn't use the two 'th' sounds; they use /f/ and /v/ instead. For a Cockney, fin and thin sound the same; so do vat and that. But whichever accent you have – Canadian, Australian, Irish, Indian, Nigerian ... – you'll be using a similar number: forty or so.

To write them all down in a completely regular way, we would need an alphabet of the same size. And that is what we haven't got. We have an alphabet of only twenty-six letters. How are we going to spell forty+ phonemes with twenty-six letters? That, in a nutshell, is the problem of English spelling.


Excerpted from Spell It Out by David Crystal. Copyright © 2012 David Crystal. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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 Crystal is the author of The Story of English in 100 Words and Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. In 1995, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to the English language. He lives in the United Kingdom.

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Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I teach English as a Second Language to Adults and one of my older students asked me why spelling in English is so hard. I knew part of the answer was that English has borrowed so many words from other languages. However, I didn't know the whole story until I read this book. David Crystal takes you on a historical yet logical tour on how English spelling became as convoluted as we know it today. An excellent book, extremely interesting and one that I have already recommended to others. The writing offers a very clear explanation step by step on why English spelling problems continue to this day.