Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling

By David Crystal

(Profile Books, R254)

David Crystal is a professor of linguistics, but has the gift of writing simply and making the mysteries of language accessible to lay folk.

English is notorious for the vagaries of its spelling system. “System” begs the question, as it is rather a palimpsest of systems. Anglo-Saxon monks reduced the language to writing using a set of Germanic norms. After the Conquest, Norman scribes introduced French conventions. A massive change in the pronunciation of the vowel sounds produced a separation between sounds and their symbols. The need to regularise spelling imposed by printing resulted in particular dialectical variants being favoured. The global spread of the language led to the introduction of a myriad words from diverse languages with diverse spelling systems. In the future, the internet will, no doubt, have its impact, too.

Throughout the history of English, purists have sought to inhibit change by confining the language in a straitjacket of rules and prohibitions, sometimes based on false analogies, mistaken etymologies or mere dogmatism. Because Crystal understands the processes at work, he can be more relaxed and is eminently successful in communicating a light and friendly approach to a subject that has in the past borne the heavy burden of meaningless spelling lists to be memorised and punitive corrections to be written out.

Spell It Out is a highly readable, reliable and informative book. – John Boje