Book Review: Spell It Out

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Given the intricate and highly convoluted nature of the history of spelling, one gets the impression that to call an etymological historian a pedant is something of a compliment. Following the trail of spelling variations through English history is a monumental task, even more so if the explorer in question is foolhardy enough to translate this history for the masses. But here, in David Crystal's Spell It Out, is a largely intelligible plain-English resource that is perfect for those willing to spend their reading time verbally enunciating letter sounds as they go. This is something worth avoiding on trains if you don't favour looking like a monkey.

spellitoutTypically, it's easy for any editor to appreciate what must have been some serious structural editing for this particular project. The 37 chapters are split primarily into three main sections: the history of spelling; famous spelling 'rules' and supposed misdemeanours of spelling; and a sort of miscellaneous section towards the end that deals with exotic spellings, unspellable noises and the now-mandatory final chapter discussing the future of English spelling.

One of the most distinctive elements of this book is its illustration of the truly inconsistent and chameleon-like state of English spelling since the time of sixth-century monks in Anglo-Saxon England. Indeed, envisioning spelling as anything with a fixed state has been largely a concoction of the post-Gutenberg era, when mass-produced books made it necessary to settle on agreed forms of spelling.

Spell It Out also highlights several ironies. For one, Crystal argues that people who are efficient at writing abbreviated text messages are actually displaying a fairly developed capacity for understanding the rules of legibility. Ostensibly, people who are good texters are generally good spellers, since abbreviation requires an understanding of which letters can be omitted and which cannot in order for a text message to be understood. And there is plenty of room in Crystal's work for a general, light-hearted scolding of English spelling curriculums throughout history. He argues, for example, that English classes past and present are guilty of enforcing 'rules' that, when the history or spelling evolution is explained, do little to aid new spellers. Instead, Crystal suggests classrooms would be better off replacing these 'rules' with a lesson on how to recognise words of Latin or French origin (the logic being that words with similar origins follow similar spelling practices).

Indeed, for any teacher or editor responsible for dictating useful tips on spelling practice to young learners, this is a useful (if highly detailed) tool. Spell It Out is a beginner's manual on why English spelling has become so bloody complicated and why it has so many relatively unfathomable and exception-filled rules. What is perhaps most fascinating about Spell It Out is Crystal's ability to make even dry subject matter a relatively interesting read — as long as you've had your morning coffee.

This isn't really a book around which you can curl your exhausted body in bed after a hard day at the office. It's a book for those interested in grasping the foundations of what is an exhaustively intricate topic. Thankfully, Crystal's style is clear-cut (and firmly edited) enough for readers who might be overwhelmed by the breadth of its subject matter. Crystal allows the reader to grasp how easily the history of English spelling could fill several volumes before it reaches the current era, in which pedants write passionate blog posts lambasting the increasing use of the greengrocers' apostrophe or nosediving spelling skill among teens.

If anything, Crystal gives us hope that the internet, and indeed the future of spelling, need not be as dire as some editors fear. We may work at the very nucleus of the spelling atom, spending our days with our noses buried in dictionaries and prizing (or despising) the spelling consistency with which we must align our projects. But like any human invention, Crystal's Spell It Out illustrates just how susceptible — and beneficial — spelling evolution can be to a language that has survived the centuries to become one of the predominant tongues on the planet.

Spell It Out
By David Crystal
Published by Profile Books / Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781846685675
RRP $29.99

Siobhan Argent