Righting the Mother Tongue

Sorry for the lack of posts. I’ve been in the Portland area for the last couple of weeks, getting many wedding tasks done and enjoying a nice time with Amy before Fall entirely monopolizes my schedule. That, and there was sad personal news this past week that has pressed on my mind, that I can’t quite get around to writing about.

For now… a book review:

Spelling is yet another reason why I’m so glad I was born in America. Maybe not the most pressing reason, or the most important, but it sure has made my life a lot easier. Because I grew up with English, learned to read and write before my mind became aware of the presence of absurdity.

English has a lot of absurdity in it. Though, I notice now that absurdity itself makes a lot of sense–as it is spelled like it sounds. Not so much many other of our million words. Why through? Why threw? Can’t we just write thru? No, that last one is wrong, even if it is the most right. Right isn’t right in English, otherwise right would be rite, or riyt, or… well, it’s hard getting sounds into symbols, and people have a lot of different conceptions on how to best do that. When people come from other parts of the world, and from other kinds of languages, and from varied classes then spelling itself is cobbled together over the centuries to some vaguely agreed upon standard.

Vaguely, because spelling is more like a glacier than granite. It flows, and picks up all kinds of junk along the way.
Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling is the story of this flow over time. David Wolman tells a fluid tale of why English is the way it is. After finishing the book, I may not always like English spelling, but now at least I understand where our American ‘u’ went in colour, or what happened to many an ‘e’, and even why that frustrating gh shows up to add complexity to what should be a simple word like thru or thot.

It really does make sense, and Wolman shares the story in an immensely readable and approachable way. His background is in magazine writing, and this book certainly reflects a winsome and vibrant style.

The early expectation I had was this would be a spelling version of the great grammar success Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. It’s not really. For one thing, Wolman isn’t particularly a spelling fanatic. In fact, he admits early on to being a rather bad speller. So, his goal isn’t to reform the spelling world nor to bring a renewed spelling emphasis upon our email and text laden communication. Instead, he’s wanting to explore the topic of spelling without any kind of real goal.

Righting the Mother TongueHe’s not emphasizing a wrong or a right. He’s telling a story. The frame of this story seems to be the repeated attempts at spelling reform that happen every so often. Each of these attempts seeks to make more simple what is admittedly quite tangled. Only the attempts to make it simple are themselves tangled, and never really able to push for lasting reform.

Our spelling might be peculiar, but it’s our spelling and we apparently like it. No matter what Dewey and the rest might say about it.

However, this doesn’t mean all spelling reforms are entirely without accomplishment, and indeed that is the history of English itself–periodic revolutions that have established segments of spelling tradition. Old English meets French. The printing press insists on some uniformity and also space–meaning letters are left out because there’s just no more room. Dr. Johnson deploys his immense intellect to standardize spelling while Noah Webster deploys his in order to help differentiate Americans from Brits.

All along there are twists and turns, none really entirely transforming the language as a whole, but most leaving marks, scars maybe, that result in absurd piecing together of letters and confused students of the language.

The book tells the tale well, though it does seem that Wolman could have added a bit more history to the story. I got the feeling he ran out of historical material about a hundred pages in, but wanted a 200 page book. We jump quickly to the 20th century and spend a bit more time than necessary on present movements that are insisting on spelling changes. The book bogs down a bit when Wolman breaks the narrative for his own Dave Barry sounding field trips. But, get past these sections and the story continues onwards.

I quite enjoyed Righting the Mother Tongue and heartily recommend it to lovers of words, patrons of good spelling, and teachers of all ages who will finally be able to answer, “Why colonel?”

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