Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling Info

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Reviews for Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling:

2

Mar 18, 2012

The book necessarily starts in Olde Englande because that's where our modern English spellings don't start from, that comes next, but was the foundation of the language. It is therefore very jarring to have the author intersperse this history of orthography with modern American cultural references, 'they didn't drink the Kool-Aid', a long chapter on Spelling Bees (did any of the popular kids in school actually go in for that, or was it reserved for teacher's best little kiddies?) and slang, The book necessarily starts in Olde Englande because that's where our modern English spellings don't start from, that comes next, but was the foundation of the language. It is therefore very jarring to have the author intersperse this history of orthography with modern American cultural references, 'they didn't drink the Kool-Aid', a long chapter on Spelling Bees (did any of the popular kids in school actually go in for that, or was it reserved for teacher's best little kiddies?) and slang, 'cool' for one. A history of spelling should become a reference book, it's certainly exhausive enough, but the effect of the writing is, despite the widespread use of English and its common roots, to parochialise it to the US and also, which is worse, to date the book immediately.

Two reviewers of this book call it a 'linguistic romp'. I like my linguistics to be serious, and my 'romps' (what a word, very tabloid, so National Enquirer or Daily Mirror) to be a great deal more entertaining than this. However, the book is informative and serious at times and if two such words could go together, tediously entertaining in part.

Recommended to fans and partipants of Spelling Bees who will find themselves utterly glorified The rest of us - a dictionary is vastly more interesting.

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5

Jun 12, 2010

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

I originally picked this up because of a hugely entertaining interview with the author I heard on public radio's "The World in Words;" and blessedly, the book turns out to be just as entertaining, a brisk yet informative look at the various attempts over the millennia to standardize what we know as the (Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

I originally picked this up because of a hugely entertaining interview with the author I heard on public radio's "The World in Words;" and blessedly, the book turns out to be just as entertaining, a brisk yet informative look at the various attempts over the millennia to standardize what we know as the English language. Because that of course is an important thing to know about English, for those who don't; that unlike, say, France, there is no official governing board for standard English usage, deciding with legal authority what is "proper" use of the language and what isn't, which is the main reason that English is both one of the most difficult languages on the planet to learn and one of the most expressive. But Lord, as Wolman so eloquently describes, there sure have been a lot of people who have tried their damnedest to impose a sense of official order over the language: from Chaucer and his cohorts in the Middle Ages to Webster and the other proto-linguists of the Enlightenment, to the surprisingly high-profile series of reformers during the Victorian and Edwardian eras (including Theodore Roosevelt, Dale Carnegie and Mark Twain) who spent millions of dollars trying to reduce the language down to a level more akin to modern text-messenging, all the way to the modern crackpots who "picket" the National Spelling Bee each year in order to garner more awareness for their cause. As you can imagine, then, there are a whole series of fascinating side-lanes along this path to modern English, which Wolman puts to very good use in his book, making it not just a dry history but a modern travel guide as well, as he journeys from the birthplace of standardized English (southwest England, that is), to the birthplace of printed text (Germany), to the first global headquarters of printed English books (Antwerp, surprisingly enough), peppering his text throughout with looks at all the various bizarre exceptions found in English spelling and why those exceptions exist. (Why does 'rhubarb' have a silent H? Why is 'color' spelled with an extra U in England but not the US?) It's one of the better nonfiction reads I've come across in a long time, and it comes highly recommended today.

Out of 10: 9.4 ...more
0

Jul 05, 2009

Are you a good speller? I am, but my husband and son rely heavily on spell-check (and me) to keep them from making terrible errors. Their problem is common: they are using mere logic and phonetics to spell many words and that leads them astray. In David Wolmans telling of the story of English spelling, we learn why it is that our wonderfully rich language has such byzantine spelling conventions (hint: it has something to do with the number of other languages that contributed their vocabulary to Are you a good speller? I am, but my husband and son rely heavily on spell-check (and me) to keep them from making terrible errors. Their problem is common: they are using mere logic and phonetics to spell many words and that leads them astray. In David Wolman’s telling of the story of English spelling, we learn why it is that our wonderfully rich language has such byzantine spelling conventions (hint: it has something to do with the number of other languages that contributed their vocabulary to ours). In the course of tracing the somewhat tortured path to modern English, Wolman writes about world history, literature, pop-culture, and—no surprise—the digital world. Not exactly light topics, but this is no dreary orthography treatise (orthography is a fancy word for spelling, origin Greek, from ortho=correct, graph=writing). You’ll chuckle at the author’s humorous take on things as he delves into such areas as spelling bees, dictionary wars, spelling reformers (proponents of changes that would give us fu for few, frends for friends, ruf for rough, and so on), spell-check, and texting (r u a gd spllr?). When all is said and done, Wolman states, there is no holding back the tide of spelling simplification that the Internet is bringing, and encourages all the prescriptivists who bemoan the loss of standards to relax, take a cue from the descriptivists who hold that language is an evolving thing, and resistance is futile since change in the way people speak and spell is practically a force of nature (or, a fors uv nachur). (Barbara L., Reader’s Services)

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3

Nov 06, 2008

I'm divided on this book. On the positive side, the topic of the history of the English language and its orthography (that's fancy for spelling) was really interesting. The author went to England and traced it, sharing such gems as why lower and uppercase letters are called that. As a librarian, I was also interested to learn that besides devising the classification system that I still use today, Melvil Dewey was a huge player in the simplified spelling movement, even going so far as to change I'm divided on this book. On the positive side, the topic of the history of the English language and its orthography (that's fancy for spelling) was really interesting. The author went to England and traced it, sharing such gems as why lower and uppercase letters are called that. As a librarian, I was also interested to learn that besides devising the classification system that I still use today, Melvil Dewey was a huge player in the simplified spelling movement, even going so far as to change the spelling of his name from Melville Dewey to Melvil Dui. The Dui didn't stick. Oh, and why Americans don't add an extra u in words like color.
On the other hand, part of me just wanted to shake the author and tell him to get over the fact that he wasn't a good speller. I can see his argument (sp? :)) that English is a very complicated language to spell. However, it would be confusing to have to learn all new spellings. Plus, even if Spanish and German are easier to spell, we don't have it so bad just take a look at Irish. I also would have liked for him to have spent more time on how email and texting might influence the lexicon in the long run. ...more
3

Aug 03, 2010

Continuing on my linguistic rompthis is a short, very readable introduction to the history of English orthography, specifically that of spelling. It spans the beginnings of the English language, talking about its myriad influences, to the printing press, to the very first dictionaries, to the call for reformation of the entire language by Webster himself, to the Spell Check, to the fight of the Simplified Spelling Society today.

The information in here is interesting, but I wanted more out of Continuing on my linguistic romp…this is a short, very readable introduction to the history of English orthography, specifically that of spelling. It spans the beginnings of the English language, talking about its myriad influences, to the printing press, to the very first dictionaries, to the call for reformation of the entire language by Webster himself, to the Spell Check, to the fight of the Simplified Spelling Society today.

The information in here is interesting, but I wanted more out of Wolman’s accounts about his travelling. In the beginning of the book he talked about his taking a road trip around the UK to visit the so-called landmarks in the history of English orthography, and I wished he’d written more about that. I thought his personal account of picketing outside the Scripps National Spelling Bee with the Simplified Spelling Society charming, but the rest of those travel accounts were forgettable. Unfortunately, overall his writing wasn’t as engaging or witty as I’d hoped from reviews.
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5

Nov 18, 2018

This is an absolutely terrific book. It might, possibly, be my new favorite linguistics book. I'm sorry, I meant, orthography book. But, you can't talk about orthography without talking about linguistics. From the beginning, the book drew me in with the approachable storytelling. This isn't an author who wants to impress you with how supremely intelligent he is. He is open and honest about his own struggles, which are some I can also relate to. The book is intelligent, but with the right amount This is an absolutely terrific book. It might, possibly, be my new favorite linguistics book. I'm sorry, I meant, orthography book. But, you can't talk about orthography without talking about linguistics. From the beginning, the book drew me in with the approachable storytelling. This isn't an author who wants to impress you with how supremely intelligent he is. He is open and honest about his own struggles, which are some I can also relate to. The book is intelligent, but with the right amount of humor thrown in. Yes, it might be nerd humor, but it's still humor. He's also honest about the classist and racist roots of grammar and spelling 'rules'. While some of the information in the book is related to information I've read in other linguistics books, there is also a fresh take and information on how technology integrates with spelling. I really enjoyed this book from cover to cover, and it would be a great intro to anybody who isn't already a linguistics or English history nerd. ...more
5

Aug 11, 2012

Why are English words so WEIRD and varying in terms of spelling. The author traces the history of the language, but it much more concerned with why everyone gets so worked up about spelling, why there has to be a "right" way to spell things when we invented spelling in the first place as a tool.

This book completely changed the way I look at spelling problems other people have. I've always known Shakespeare "couldn't even spell his own name consistently", but maybe the point really is that he Why are English words so WEIRD and varying in terms of spelling. The author traces the history of the language, but it much more concerned with why everyone gets so worked up about spelling, why there has to be a "right" way to spell things when we invented spelling in the first place as a tool.

This book completely changed the way I look at spelling problems other people have. I've always known Shakespeare "couldn't even spell his own name consistently", but maybe the point really is that he didn't CARE how it was spelled. The point is really to make us able to communicate without misunderstandings. Then people who need to control things got involved and started making rules and ... now we have spelling bees.

All of this is told in easy-to-read chapters that don't talk down to the reader, but also don't require a PhD. in linguistics to understand. ...more
4

Oct 19, 2009

I love the English language. I don't always use it "correctly", but maybe I don't have to all the time. Maybe I don't have to spell "correctly" every time, either. This book was a hoot...if you like English. It was a nice short history of spelling and how it came about. It's relatively new, starting around Chaucer's time. There are some who believe that we should switch to simplified spelling, and I'm sure you would be suprised at who is on that list. I know I was. It also dealt with how our I love the English language. I don't always use it "correctly", but maybe I don't have to all the time. Maybe I don't have to spell "correctly" every time, either. This book was a hoot...if you like English. It was a nice short history of spelling and how it came about. It's relatively new, starting around Chaucer's time. There are some who believe that we should switch to simplified spelling, and I'm sure you would be suprised at who is on that list. I know I was. It also dealt with how our language and the spelling thereof is always changing and growing. It is never static. I truly enjoyed the book. I don't know that I agree with his conclusion, but anything is possible. ...more
3

Dec 01, 2009

Breezy entertaining story of efforts over the centuries to change English spelling. Sometimes the efforts succeed, at least partly, as when letters were added to many words (like the b in debt, the o in people) to make them look more like Latin. Mostly, however, English spelling has changed slowly. The book recapitulates much of the standard history of the language, but the author adds quite a bit at the end about spell checkers and Google. Entertaining, but if you know your history of English, Breezy entertaining story of efforts over the centuries to change English spelling. Sometimes the efforts succeed, at least partly, as when letters were added to many words (like the b in debt, the o in people) to make them look more like Latin. Mostly, however, English spelling has changed slowly. The book recapitulates much of the standard history of the language, but the author adds quite a bit at the end about spell checkers and Google. Entertaining, but if you know your history of English, it won't add a lot. ...more
4

May 26, 2009

Some interesting stuff...the history of spelling up to the modern day spelling reformists. My only problem with this book was the same problem I have with the Mary Roach books...I like the facts, but don't much care for the author's personal journey. Less personality, more interesting factoids.
4

Oct 22, 2010

this was an engaging reading, albeit in parts slightly repetitive and jumpy; anyone interested in English as a language, especially re: the disconnect between spelling and pronunciation, will enjoy the book.
2

Jan 22, 2011

Well, Christmas present-getters can't be choosers. Surprisingly and disappointingly dull, for a word fancier. Pretty badly written too. Favorite factoid: "olde" is actually a 19th marketing invention, the word was never spelled that way in Old (or Middle) English.
3

Apr 13, 2014

It's hard for me to give a book like this more than 3 stars, but it really was an enjoyable, informative read. I do recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about the English language in general, or spelling in particular.
3

This book was somewhat disappointing. It started out okay and then fizzled. It never gave me quite the information that I was hoping for.Full Review
3

Why is English spelling so bizarre? Here are some of the answers. Also, lots about various efforts to simplify out spelling and why they fail. Informative and enjoyable.Full Review
4

This is a great little book about English spelling, how it got so weird and what people think of it. Wolman presents an easily digestible look at the path written English has taken to arrive at its ...Full Review
5

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.) I ...Full Review
3

Jun 04, 2019

The author confronts the issue of "correct" spelling with some animosity. Who is to say what is really the correct way to spell words, huh? He goes into some detail about various spelling reform movements of the early 20th century (Melvil Dewey who simplified the spelling of his given name, Melville was one of the most indefatigable proponents), the impact of Noah Webster's first dictionary, and the argument that simplified spelling will make it easier for people to learn how to read and write The author confronts the issue of "correct" spelling with some animosity. Who is to say what is really the correct way to spell words, huh? He goes into some detail about various spelling reform movements of the early 20th century (Melvil Dewey – who simplified the spelling of his given name, Melville –was one of the most indefatigable proponents), the impact of Noah Webster's first dictionary, and the argument that simplified spelling will make it easier for people to learn how to read and write English. Only a nod or two is made to the fact no one should forget: reformed spelling would make it all but impossible to read easily anything already printed with accepted "correct" spellings.
A somewhat disappointing book. I had expected a more serious, deeper approach to the history of spelling, with examples of words that have transmuted over the centuries. He does address the sensible argument that standard spelling tells us a lot about the historical development of the word, and its etymology (which should be a good memory boost to those trying to spell correctly.
I will remember Dewey's sincere but misguided efforts. I will remember the unpersuasive arguments about simplified spelling making learning English easier. ...more
5

Apr 13, 2020

I love this book. I have always loved language its peculiarities. This book deals with English spelling and it is insightful, fascinating, and a laph ryut. (I laughed out loud a lot.)
Both sides of the spelling wars attract devoted scholars, some of whom (thankfully) are also weirdos and wackadoos.
If this topic seems at all temptting to you, then you should read this book. And if it seems truly boring, then read it anyway - it is far more interesting than you might think.
Fittingly, the Kindle I love this book. I have always loved language its peculiarities. This book deals with English spelling and it is insightful, fascinating, and a laph ryut. (I laughed out loud a lot.)
Both sides of the spelling wars attract devoted scholars, some of whom (thankfully) are also weirdos and wackadoos.
If this topic seems at all temptting to you, then you should read this book. And if it seems truly boring, then read it anyway - it is far more interesting than you might think.
Fittingly, the Kindle version has plenty of missing spaces, which make it a little harder to read, but ironically satisfying. ...more
0

Apr 15, 2020

Apparently, throughout history, there have been movements to make spelling in the English language more simplified, so it is easier to learn to read, for instance. Mr. Decimal System himself--who called himself Melvil Dui--was a proponent. People, however, are very resistant to change--though some things, like the proposed spelling "thru," has become more widespread, if not totally accepted. This was a fun little book.
2

Nov 24, 2017

I didn't finish this. It was okay at the beginning. However it soon became tedious; it did not live up to the title nor to my expectations.
5

Jul 15, 2019

Great insight into how modern English was formedthrough accident, geography, popular works, and sometimes royal decrees (and spending). Great insight into how modern English was formed—through accident, geography, popular works, and sometimes royal decrees (and spending). ...more
4

Sep 28, 2010

Yet another entertaining and informative romp through the history of the English language. (I dont seem to ever get bored with revisiting it, now do I?) Wolman offers a few more original insights into our mother tongue, even as he wanders down paths already trodden by his more eminent peers, like David Crystal. (Surprisingly, Crystal accompanied Wolman on many of Wolmans excursions across the UK while researching this book, and as a near companion in this book.)

Outside of his detailed history Yet another entertaining and informative romp through the history of the English language. (I don’t seem to ever get bored with revisiting it, now do I?) Wolman offers a few more original insights into our mother tongue, even as he wanders down paths already trodden by his more eminent peers, like David Crystal. (Surprisingly, Crystal accompanied Wolman on many of Wolman’s excursions across the UK while researching this book, and as a near companion in this book.)

Outside of his detailed history of the spelling wars in our mother tongue on both sides of the Atlantic, here are some of the more interesting tidbits and observations that Wolman provides which I found delicious to ponder over:

1. The likelihood that English spelling would have been more consistent and simplified if Anglo-Saxon hadn’t been injected with French after the Norman Conquest. (But if you look at any random page of un-translated Chaucer, that would be a scary thought indeed.)

2. A Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum exists in London where the preeminent dictionary author lived and wrote in the 18th century. Which is yet another reason why I love London so much, and is yet another reason to go back.

3. Despite many fringe, pseudo-patriotic views contending on a pure, unadulterated golden age of English in early American history, “As many as 25 percent of the population of the US in 1790 didn’t speak English as a first language.” Which goes to show that the existence of other languages in our fair nation back during its founding decade didn’t endanger English one bit. (English-only proponents be damned. You’re wasting your time on fighting a battle that has already been won by our mother tongue. And which is winning converts every day worldwide, as English is the most spoken second language across the globe, and is in no danger whatsoever of being overtaken.)

4. Richard Feynman at his best, yet again: “If the professors of English will complain to me that students who come to the universities, after all these year of study, still cannot spell friend, I say to them that something’s the matter with the way you spell friend.” Touche, Professor!

Next to Crystal, Wolman may be in the lightweight category with his much slender volume and curriculum vitae. But add him to your to-read list if you have a love of the English language and its beautiful absurdity.
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4

Jun 08, 2015

Interesting insights into why and how we spell continues my recent thread on English (and specifically American) language

The American Language-4th Editin
Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English

Wolman takes off from a position of a spelling-challenged student to tour the roots of English orthography (the study of spelling) in this light extended magazine piece. He starts at several ground-zero sites in England where English as a Interesting insights into why and how we spell continues my recent thread on English (and specifically American) language

The American Language-4th Editin
Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English

Wolman takes off from a position of a spelling-challenged student to tour the roots of English orthography (the study of spelling) in this light extended magazine piece. He starts at several ground-zero sites in England where English as a spoken and then written language evolved, moves on to sites in Belgium and Germany to trace the origins of the printing press and its impact on orthographic orthodoxy, makes a stop at Noah Webster's homestead in Connecticut to consider his history-making impact on English language from the American shores, and picks up a protest sign to picket the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC along with other spelling simplification advocates to assess the impact of this quixotic band on the broad mainstream of spelling.

It turns out that among professionals in the field, there are those who espouse descriptive approaches--document and describe the state of spelling without judgment--and those who take the prescriptive approach that there are correct ways of spelling that must be honored, and deviations, either sharp or slight, must be corrected back to--

--and there's the rub. Back to what, no one is sure. Unlike some languages, English has no arbiter, either commercial, professional, politically-appointed, or self-appointed, of correctness. Wolman talks about how the great English dictionaries (Samuel Johnson's, Noah Webster's, and the all-inclusive OED) silently serve this role, and concludes with some considerations of how Google searches, texting, and the Internet may change spelling.

And yes, I used the spell-checker on this review, accepting corrections to "quitoxic" (difficult foreign-loan word), "judgement" ("simplified" spelling confusion), and "Samual" (simple typo). I did not replace "texting" even though the spell checker flagged it, as I judge it to be correct in spelling and valid in usage. ...more
3

Mar 08, 2015

Fairly interesting book on the history of English orthography, a discussion of of spelling reform, and some description of the cognitive side of reading and writing (which helps account for the difficulties some people have in these activities).

Chapter 5, which bridges the gap between the advent of printing and the publishing of Johnsons dictionary, was the most illuminating section for me, as it gave some clarity to how printing houses and self-appointed tastemakers and language-shapers in the Fairly interesting book on the history of English orthography, a discussion of of spelling reform, and some description of the cognitive side of reading and writing (which helps account for the difficulties some people have in these activities).

Chapter 5, which bridges the gap between the advent of printing and the publishing of Johnson’s dictionary, was the most illuminating section for me, as it gave some clarity to how printing houses and self-appointed tastemakers and language-shapers in the 16th and 17th centuries favored this or that construction/spelling and set it apart as most “correct.”

Honorable mention to chapters 10 and 11, which explore the creation of computerized spellcheckers and postulate how people's use of language on the Internet may shape English further.

Wolman is informative, entertaining, and does a good job balancing arguments for the prescriptivists and descriptivists.

A few more thoughts here: http://is.gd/7c9tD2 ...more

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