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Murder by Death

I read cozy and historical mysteries, a bit of Paranormal/UF, and to mix it up, I read science and gardening books on occasion.

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 - David Wolman

For language lovers and orthographists, this is undoubtedly a good introductory read.  It's the story of English spelling as told from the slant of spelling reform through the ages.


Wolman is writing from the perspective of a bad speller and laments that English is so complicated, with so many exceptions to standardisation.  Why must it be so hard to spell?


While I was never at risk of winning any spelling bees, I've never found spelling particularly challenging, but I enjoyed the history (80-90% of all English words aren't English in origins; we are the supreme linguistic magpies), and the debates, efforts and arguments to simplify spelling were ... interesting.  I didn't agree with most of them, but I admired their tenacity and passion. 


I found some of Wolman's assertions over simplified; for example, that the 'd' in words like sledge, wedge, edge, judge, and fudge is silent, so why is it there?  An unscientific and ad hoc survey of friends shows that the 'd' is subtle, but not silent; it hardens that g sound just a tiny bit, enough that sledge sounds different that slege.  The 'd's' absence becomes even more pronounced in wedge (wege) and edge (ege).  There are better examples of his argument about extraneous silent letters, but even those can be argued to be useful.  Not/knot for example - that 'k' is definitely silent - but handy when reading sentences like: Better not tie the knot too tight.  


I guess what I'm trying to say is that this is a good book, but its strict focus on just orthography limits its scope and its argument.  A conversation about spelling that doesn't take into account reading comprehension is really only half a conversation.  I am, admittedly, a prescriptivist; I feel strongly that there are correct spellings and incorrect spellings, and that there's a time and place for 'text-speak', but it should not be on school exams.  I think this puts me dangerously on the edge of 'fuddy-duddy', but I'm still rebel enough to drop all those u's the Brits are fond of, and I still insist on swapping my 're' for 'er' (meter/metre, etc.) so I'm not quite ready for the cane-waving just yet.  ;-)


I have several of David Crystal's works (whom Wolman cites frequently), and I think this book will have served as a terrific jumping-off point for Crystal's titles.