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Spell it Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling

March 20, 2013

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I Love words. I love finding out all their little nuances and foibles, discovering where they came from and what makes them tick. I love ancient words and new words, words rooted deep in science and made-up words. I Love words. But most of all, I love word origins. Etymology.

I don’t suppose there are many people with The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology nestled between their copies of First Steps in Old English and The Adventure of English, but that is just me. I love reading about our fascinating language and learning the routes and pathways by which we have come to speak and write as we do.

It was with great pleasure and fascination, therefore, that I took receipt of a copy of David Crystal’s Spell it Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling last Christmas. It looked like the sort of book which was tailor-made to my interest and I have enjoyed Crystal’s previous works such as The Story of English in 100 Words.

I don’t want you to misunderstand or be put off: the book is fascinating, funny and very informative and well worth reading if the subject fascinates you as it does me. But it is at times a little involved and specialist. I can see where a more general reader (I studied English at university) might be put off by Crystal’s comprehensive and quite technical overview of spelling as well as a lot of the specialised vocabulary employed. His use of the phonetic alphabet (the one which describes word sounds, rather than Alpha Foxtrot Zulu) can be daunting and off-putting to the uninitiated and I think Crystal fails to engage with the reader at times.

Another off-putting aspect is the way in which Crystal has to continually back reference his work, reminding the reader of what has been discussed in previous chapters and even telling us what is to come at some points. It doesn’t seem to hang together very well and fails to flow in quite the way a book, advertised as the story of a language after all, should do. At times, it reads like an extended and protracted lecture which would, I fear, put off the layman reader from what is otherwise an enjoyable read.

I like the intellectuality it employs, but I am someone who has a grounding in the subject. I could see myself being put off by the style and convoluted nature of the text. If Crystal wants to find a more general readership, then he shall have to find a different way of putting these genuinely interesting points across.

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