Righting the Mother Tongue: From olde English to email – the tangled story of English spelling

by David Wolman (Harper, 2010): 211pp, £9.72 (pbk), ISBN 978 0061369261.

Reviewed by Michèle Clarke

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This fascinating history of how our garbled spelling arose is a real journey, both physical and theoretical. David Wolman travels part of the way with the Crystals (and even the SfEP conference is mentioned – we're a 'starstruck audience' listening to the magnificent David!).

Unlike many 'Story of English' types of books, this is an easy and enjoyable read. Throughout there's a running theme of people, ideas and technology that have tried over the years to change our difficult spelling problems, covering periods in history from Old English borrowing from Dutch and Latin, through invasions of Norman French, input from the innovative technology of printing from Gutenberg and Caxton (who made new decisions regarding spelling), and particular people such as Hart, Dryden and Shakespeare in the 16th century, the appearance of dictionaries (Webster, Oxford), and later Swift, Johnson, Dewey, and the development of new languages (such as Esperanto) and spelling methods.

The 'spelling bee' is iconically American, and Wolman, who considers himself dyslexic, submitted himself to this agonising ritual. The bee, dyslexia, spellcheckers and Google all have whole chapters to themselves in Wolman's fascinating trawl through the development of our written language.

This book is thoroughly recommended as a 'read' rather than just a reference book. My only criticism, as ever, is of the poor index. I looked up some things that I knew I had read – e.g. Crystal – but not all the page entries were there. So do make a better one for the next edition!

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