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Spell It Out: The Many Shades of English Spelling

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When Professor David Crystal's new book "Spell It Out: the Singular Story of English Spelling" came out on 6 September 2012, a few weeks later it was a bestseller on Amazon, ahead of the erotic trilogy "The Fifty Shades of Grey". Cooking. Spelling. Sex. That was the order. English spelling sexier than sex! Could it have ever occurred to the Anglo-Saxon bards that we would come to this?

Now, whence so much ado about spelling?

From the quite sane Old English orthographic system English language has developed a spelling which has been unnerving learners, teachers, natives and foreigners alike. Methods on how to teach spelling and whether to teach it at all have reverberated since the 18th century but with results leaving much to be desired.

With English increasingly a global phenomenon, the scenario in ELT practice is even more dramatic. You will know the old joke that the English spell Manchester and read Liverpool. The discrepancy between English spelling and pronunciation is so eye-popping for learners of English that they oft toss in the sponge in despair. My students take it for granted that they should fail dictations. Usually, there is a "weirdo" or two in a group who can spell. I was the one in my time... One of the qualities about the English language that fascinated and intrigued me right from the beginning was the magic of its spelling...

In the most recent of his many sexy books - "Spell It Out: the Singular Story of English Spelling", Professor David Crystal starts the story from the early times when the Christian missionaries in late 6th century faced the need to suit the Roman alphabet of 23 letters to a language which had at least 37 phonemes. Their decisions were clever as well as random.

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As the language was evolving into its Chaucerian form, words were losing their endings, relations between them now expressed through word order. Spelling too, naturally, was affected. There was a huge amount of variation and the busy scribes did not always appreciate the rich array of English dialects and accents reflected in the many spellings. Night, Professor Crystal writes, according to the OED, had over 60 spelling variants by the 13th century, and he goes on to illustrate them all.

The need for a standard spelling was first sensed when William Caxton introduced printing in England in 1476. Though, Professor Crystal mentions, publishing helped to fix spellings as much as added to the fancifulness, due to the foreign tastes of Caxton's Dutch type-setters.

The start of the Great Vowel Shift in the 15th century and the increasing craving for English words to imitate and visually remind of the revered tongue Latin, added to the outward bizarreness of today's orthographic landscape.

By Shakespeare's time, spelling was still relaxed (take the name Shakespeare!). Indeed, variation was ripe even by the 18th century when a word like music would have over 40 variant spellings, Professor Crystal highlights.

Dr. Johnson was the top authority (and he, too, had preferences) in establishing standards - so was Webster across the pond.

The brave new world of the Internet has added a new dimension to English orthography. Professor Crystal positively dwells on this and the creative, ludic potential of text-messaging.

"Spell It Out" is more than a reader-friendly, comprehensible and comprehensive story of the history and evolvement of English spelling - Professor Crystal gives practical advice in Teaching Appendix as well as throughout the book. Memorising random lists of difficult words is not the solution as practice over ages has shown. The author believes and demonstrates that we need a linguistic take on getting to know the system which is not as bizarre and unassailable as popularly condemned; explaining is key, so is acquainting children with basic etymology at an early age. Professor Crystal is brilliantly convincing: "The story of the English writing system is so intriguing, and the histories behind individual words so fascinating, that anyone who dares to treat spelling as an adventure will find the journey rewarding."

In "Spell It Out", the many shades of English spelling are accurately examined, exposed, and entertainingly explained. And who but David Crystal could make English spelling more appealing and seductive a subject than "the office between the sheets"!

How many stars for this book? As many as there are spelling rules (and exceptions) in English!