Does Spelling Matter?

S Horobin, Oxford University Press, 2013, 288pp, £20.99 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 19966 528 0

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

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You've read David Crystal's Spell It Out and you're keen to explore the history of English spelling in greater depth? Plunge into this book, then!

But be aware … despite its jokey blurb, Does Spelling Matter? in fact encapsulates a serious exploration into a vastly complex subject. By the time you've absorbed it, you should be able to utter such throwaway lines as:

The question of how many potestates a particular figura can be associated with is also one that has been much debated, especially those who have tried to reform English so that each individual figura maps on to a single potestas.

The relationship between phonemes and graphemes is conventional. There is no inherent reason why the phoneme /k/ should be represented by the grapheme <k> rather than some other grapheme like <d>. For that matter it would be equally possible to represent the phoneme <æ> with the letter <o> and the phoneme /t/ with <g>, with the result that the word /kæt/ would be spelt <dog>.

This last is a rare moment of levity in what is primarily a dense and well-thought-out academic exposition of the development of English spelling through the ages. The author is careful not to take a stance on most issues: however, his viewpoint on the long-running issue of spelling reform is that English would do better without it.

The index is divided into two types: word and subject. This helps the book become a handy reference source after first reading. Highly recommended.

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