Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling

D Crystal, Profile Books, 2012, 224pp, £13.99 (pbk), ISBN 978 1 846 68567 5

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

Buy this book

David Crystal's latest offering is clearly intended to be both educational and entertaining, mainly in the form of a narrative describing how the written form of our language has evolved from 'thorn' to 'textese', interspersed with illustrations ranging from Winnie-the-Pooh quotes via Victorian cartoons to film posters. The blurb on the inside front cover includes this assurance: 'armed with the history and the principles you'll make great strides towards mastering the complexities in English spelling'.

So, what does it do for people whose spelling is shaky? The writer's snippets of the history of English may be helpful. He explains the origins of many words, and relating to these there is, in addition to the conventional index, an Index of Words. If you're unsure how to spell, say, 'confectionery', you can use that index to find the reason behind the way it's spelt … and this may be enough to help it stick in your memory. There are also several very helpful points addressed directly to teachers of English, both in the book itself and in a pair of appendices.

However, Crystal makes no bones about it – the more knowledge you have of the languages from which so many English words have been derived and borrowed, the easier you'll find it to spell correctly. '[A]n etymological approach does explain a great deal of the irregularity seen in Modern English' (p4). '[I]f you can tell your Latin and French sources from your Germanic ones you'll know …' (p76). Near the end is a chapter in which he explains three of the underlying linguistic systems, knowledge of which can help: short words, doubling and – yes! – Latin roots.

All in all, I reckon that it's not so much the malapropinquitous blogger who's likely to enjoy this book as those who enjoy exploring the highways and byways of our language, and who already have a fair knowledge of – or at least an abiding interest in – its construction and roots. If that describes you, get ready for an enjoyable ride. If, however, you had only a hazy idea of what 'etymology' meant and were hoping for another Eats, Shoots and Leaves, you might find that this book takes you out of your depth – but I imagine that most members of the SfEP would find it both fun and highly informative.

Reviews of other literary criticism and books on language All book reviews