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Spell It Out:

The Singular Story of English Spelling

by David Crystal

Have you ever wondered why ghost is spelt with an h? Why isn’t it “gost” or “goast” to rhyme with “most” or “toast”. Other words that begin with a hard g, such as “gonad”, don’t have an h. The answer to the question of the spectral h in ghost, according to David Crystal’s entertaining Spell It Out, is the whim of a Flemish compositor called, gloriously, Wynkyn de Worde. De Worde came over from Bruges to work for William Caxton who, when he set up the first printing press in London in 1476, couldn’t find the skills he needed locally. De Worde’s English wasn’t good, and, like many non-native speakers, he was bewildered by the random nature of its spelling. So when he saw the word “gast” or “gost” (spelt “gheest” in Flemish) he decided to spell it the Flemish way, with an h. It took a while to catch on; in 1549, the Book of Common Prayer was still talking about the Holy Gost, but by the end of the century Hamlet was seeing his father’s ghost. The Flemish h spread to words such as ghastly and aghast, and was applied to foreign imports such as the Arabian word goul, which became ghoul when it began appearing in translations of the Arabian nights in the 18th century.

The Flemish h in ghost is one of Crystal’s many examples that show that the development of English spelling is as random, unsystematic and anomalous as the British constitution. English spelling is as rich a mixture of anachronism, privilege and fashion as the House of Lords. If you speak Russian, Spanish or even Welsh you can be fairly sure that what you hear is what you spell. Russian may have 65 separate verbs of motion and a different alphabet, but taking Russian dictation is a doddle. In English, on the other hand, there is no consistent phonetic spelling — cough, plough, though, rough, all end with the same letters but are pronounced completely differently.

Crystal explains how successive scribes, monks, printers and lexicographers tried to standardise the chaos. The original monks who tried to write down Anglo-Saxon English in a Latin alphabet did, according to Crystal, a pretty good job. Every word was pronounced phonetically — so the g in gnat would be sounded, as would the k in know. But the alphabet they devised didn’t have enough letters to represent all the sounds in spoken English and that was where the rot set in. Scribes started to double vowels to represent different sounds, such as moon, food, etc, but then the pronunciation changed in the south of England, shortening the same vowel in blood and flood, so that now, as Crystal puts it, “these spellings represent the pronunciation of a thousand years ago”. Of course, in some parts of the northeast and Scotland these words are still pronounced with a long o, which gives us an idea of how hard it must have been for monks in the south to come up with spellings that made sense in the north.

Fashion and snobbery have played as big a part in spelling as they have in other parts of English life. After the Norman invasion, Anglo-Saxon spellings were replaced by French ones: servis became service, mys became mice, and lys became lice, for instance. During the Renaissance, scribes looked to Latin for guidance — take the word debt. In the 13th century this could be spelt det, dett, dette or deytt. But 16th-century writers looked to the Latin word ­debitum, and inserted a silent b — linking the word to its Latin counterpart but making it much harder to spell.

For a long time, there was no stigma attached to variant spellings. Shakespeare famously wrote his name several ways, but, by the 18th century, Lord Chesterfield was writing to his son that “orthography…is so absolutely necessary for a man of letters, or a gentleman, that one false spelling may fix a ridicule upon him for the rest of his life; and I know a man of quality, who never recovered the ridicule of having spelled wholesome without the w”. Dan Quayle, the former US vice-president, never recovered from spelling potato with an e on the end when he corrected a pupil’s writing in front of the cameras at a junior school in New Jersey in 1992.

Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, spelling could still be influenced by individuals — Samuel Johnson did a great deal to fix English spelling with his dictionary. In America, Noah ­Webster in 1789 considered it a matter of honour “to have a system of our own, in language as well as government”. His 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language fixed the American practice of dropping the final u in words such as color, flavor and humor, and rationalising theatre and centre to theater and center. But rationalisation has its limits. When the Americans tried to standardise the spellings of place names by dropping the last h in those ending in -burgh, the inhabitants of Pittsburgh mounted a vocal and successful campaign to save their final h.

Even today, spelling is more fluid than we might think. “Moveable” for example (the Times style guide keeps the e, The Guardian prefers movable). And online there are no guides — the internet is the ultimate spelling demo­cracy. Take rhubarb, with its pesky silent h: in 2006 there were just a few hundred instances of “rubarb” in the Google database; by the end of 2011 they had passed the million mark. “If it carries on like this,” Crystal notes, “rubarb will overtake rhubarb as the commonest online spelling…   And where the online orthographic world goes in one decade, I suspect the offline world will go in the next.” He is relaxed about the use of textspeak — he thinks that abbreviations such as “c  u  l8r” make sense only because people know the correct spellings. As the mother of a frantic texter, I think Crystal may be too sanguine on that score. Textspeak abbreviations can, as the prime minister discovered, be ambiguous. Crystal also thinks our lives will become much easier as spell-­checking algorithms and speech-to-text software improve — but as anyone who struggles with autocorrect knows, that day is a long way off.

Reading this book made me thankful that English is my native language; the spelling must make it fiendishly hard to learn. No wonder it is one of the few languages where spelling has become a competitive sport. A classical education helps. Crystal is a great believer in explaining the origins of words: “ I find it hard to resist the conclusion that, if children were introduced to some basic etymology, many of the ‘famous’ spelling errors would be avoided.” So, forget “i before e except after c”, and bring on Wynkyn de Worde.

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