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The Surprising Origins and Astonishing Secrets of English Spelling

Written by James EssingerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by James Essinger

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On Sale: May 01, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-440-33693-8
Published by : Delta Bantam Dell
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Synopsis

Welcome to the illogical, idiosyncratic, outrageous linguistic phenomenon known as the English language. The story of how this ragtag collection of words evolved is a winding tale replete with intriguing accidents and bizarre twists of fate. In this eye-opening, fabulously entertaining book, James Essinger unlocks the mysteries that have confounded linguists and scholars for millennia.

From the sophisticated writing systems of the ancient Sumerians through the tongue twisters of Middle English, the popular National Spelling Bee, and the mobile phone text-messaging of today, Spellbound chronicles the fascinating history of English spelling, including insights about the vast number of words English has borrowed from other languages (“orange,” “vanilla,” and “ketchup,” to name a few), and how their meanings differ from country to country. Featuring a lively cast of characters ranging from the fictional to the historically noteworthy (Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Shakespeare, Bill Gates), this affectionate tribute to English spelling shows why our whimsical, capricious common language continues to hold us spellbound.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Method in the Madness?



"What's your name, sir?" enquired the judge.
"Sam Weller, my lord," replied that gentleman.
"Do you spell it with a 'V' or a 'W'?" enquired the judge.
"That depends upon the taste and fancy of the speller, my lord," replied Sam.
–Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1837)


FIFTY years ago, an ex-schoolmaster called Geoffrey Willans sat down to write a book about a schoolboy. In fact, Willans went one better than that, and decided to make it seem as if the book were written by his schoolboy, Nigel Molesworth.

Nigel is one of English literature's great comic creations. He entices us to luxuriate in his anarchic, outrageous, yet curiously innocent world. From the moment he bursts into existence on the title page of Down With Skool!–the first of the four Molesworth books–Nigel reveals himself to be a keen observer of the foibles and cruelties of humanity.

The school he attends–St. Custard's–is run by a ghoulish headmaster, Mr. GRIMES, whose surname is always written in uppercase by a terrified Nigel. GRIMES supplements his educational income by running an extracurricular whelk stall. We're reliably informed by Nigel that GRIMES would very gladly arrange for all the pupils to be driven off a cliff in a bus, were it not that this would deprive him of his livelihood.

The other masters are hardly an improvement. They include the alarmingly unpredictable Sigismund, the mad math master. There is also a considerate, narrow-eyed pedagogue who observes to one boy before caning him, "Your psychoanalyst may say one thing, Blatworthy, I say another. And my treatment is free." The masters, pupils, and parents provide a wide-ranging panorama of passions, appetites, and vices: There are few crevices of the human condition into which Nigel does not insert an inky finger.

One thing Nigel certainly can't do, though, is spell. In his world, masters are very "ferce" and go around brandishing "kanes." He also airs his opinion that "peotry" is "sissy stuff that rhymes" and informs us that a boy might learn that everything in Latin happened a long time ago, but only if he can stay awake in class for "long enuff." As for football (soccer), many professional–and national–teams of today might echo his sentiments on the matter . . .



Foopball is a tuough game but it is a pity you canot win by hacking everbode.

"Everybody," that is. Much of the fun of the Molesworth books is their cranky spelling, which one can't help feeling Geoffrey Willans knew all too well from his own days as a schoolmaster. Yet Nigel's spelling is never so erratic that it makes no sense at all; there is always plenty of method in the madness.

And after all, why not spell "canes" as "kanes"? Why not write "enuff" for "enough," especially when the sound "ough" in English can also be pronounced as in "cough," "plough," "borough," "dough," "nought," and even two ways in that town name foreigners find so intimidating: "Loughborough"? Doesn't spelling "enough" as "enuff" constitute a magnificent subversive revenge? Spell it that way, and the whole established world of orthodoxy, authority, law, repression, and edict–the sort of world which, incidentally, once led to small boys being caned by sadistic masters–starts to tremble.

Yet Nigel hasn't the slightest interest in starting a revolution in spelling, let alone a revolution in society. All he's doing is spelling words as if the way they sound is the way they should be spelled. "Enuff," for example, is obviously an incorrect spelling according to accepted rules. But if archaeologists from the distant future were to find a copy of Down With Skool! and see the spelling "enuff," they would gain a much better insight into how the word was pronounced from about a.d. 1500 onward than if they found a copy of The Times containing the correct spelling "enough." This, much less helpfully, reveals how the word was pronounced from about a.d. 900 to a.d. 1500. Nigel was inadvertently giving to posterity a phonetic spelling–that is, a spelling which sets down letters that aim as closely as possible to evoke the actual sounds of the spoken language.

Without phonetic spellings many of the great writing systems of the past would still be undeciphered. It is not known exactly how the vowel sounds of the classical Egyptian language of the pharaohs were pronounced, and this lack of knowledge would very likely have made it impossible for posterity to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, many of which were used to represent sounds just as our letters do (if not always consistently) in English. But fortunately for scholars, the hieroglyph writers were obliged to write Greek names such as "Ptolemy" and "Cleopatra" in hieroglyphs, and both the vowel and consonant sounds of these words were of course known. Scholars were able to use the hieroglyphic writing of these foreign names to offer a key to the sounds represented by a good range of hieroglyphs, and could then gradually build up an understanding of the sounds represented by other hieroglyphs from what was known of how classical Egyptian consonants were pronounced.

In her entertaining and informative bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss lovingly airs her annoyance with lazy and clumsy punctuation. Her indignation is abundantly justified, because incorrect punctuation can entirely change the meaning of a sentence. This might even have fatal consequences. For example, if you were mistakenly to punctuate the sentence "the old tiger approached its time to die" as "the old tiger approached; it's time to die," it would be you who would be dying, not the tiger. Getting punctuation right is essential if you want to make utterly clear what you mean.

But spelling is, on the whole, a rather different beast (so to speak). It's true that if you spell words incorrectly–which (in fact) means nothing more or less than "incorrectly according to what is regarded as acceptable within a particular country or culture"–you run the real risk of letting yourself down socially, professionally, and very possibly also financially. But it's also true that spelling usually does not need to be as precisely accurate as punctuation in order to convey an exact meaning. Put more simply, we can usually still understand words that are misspelled.

If we are spelling perfectionists like my friend Clair-Marie (of whom rather more soon) we might–for example–feel irritated to see, on a bulletin board, little cards proclaiming messages such as "cook requred," or "accomadation available," or to see a stereo system advertised as being in "excellant" condition, but unless we're being absurdly (and in fact dishonestly) pedantic we know what the advertisers mean. As the novelist Anthony Burgess pointed out in his superb book about language, Language Made Plain, a "guage" does its job just as efficiently as a "gauge," and "parrallel" lines still meet at infinity.

Indeed, even if words are extremely misspelled we can still read them, apparently because we tend to read–at least when we are fairly expert at reading–by focusing on the entire image of the word, and particularly on the first and last letters. If you don't believe this, try reading the following, which is the first paragraph of this chapter spelled in a different way:


Ftify yares ago, an ex-soochlmeatsr celald Geoffrey Willans sat dwon to wtire a book aubot a scoohlboy. In fcat, Willans wnet one beettr tahn taht, and dcdeied to make it seem as if the book wree wttiren by his scoholboy, Nigel Molesworth.



In this passage, apart from the proper names, all the words longer than three letters have had their internal letters jumbled up (with the letters in word-compounds kept within the separate compounds), yet the paragraph presents no real difficulty to the native English speaker, or to anyone who has a good command of English as a second or foreign language. This example demonstrates that when we read familiar words we do assimilate and read them individually in their entirety rather than spell them out letter by letter.

Indeed, this point rather seems to be corroborated, not contradicted, by the fact that we have more difficulty reading a jumbled-up word, even if the first and last letters remain in the same position, when the other letters are in exactly the reverse order of what they should be. For example, "cetcidartnod" now reveals itself as much less readily readable than "contradicted." We do indeed appear to read whole words by their overall image, and are likely to become confused if the internal letters in a longish word are completely different from how they should be, rather than simply jumbled up a little.

But while we can usually make sense of misspelled words, the fact remains that spelling does matter. Of course it does. It matters enormously. The quality of your spelling will probably play a role in your career advancement, and even in the quality of your social life. We accept that most of us have words which we can't always spell accurately, but if you spell really badly, some people whose opinion you value may take you less seriously than you would like.

This is, in fact, distinctly unfair, because whichever way you look at it, the fact remains that the spelling of English is about as susceptible–at least superficially–to rational explanation as GRIMES's whelk stall is. Many people, whether native speakers of English or those learning English as a second language, regard English spelling as at best a joke and at worst a nightmare deliberately designed to bamboozle and perplex anyone who tries to learn it.

As users of an alphabetic writing system, we are aware that English spelling basically aims to equate letters in a word with the sounds of our spoken language. But how efficiently and consistently does English do this? The answer is, pretty inefficiently and inconsistently.

If you can write in an alphabetic language other than English you'll probably have noticed that the link between the sounds of the spoken words in that language and the letters on the page are somehow much more direct and regular than when you write English.

The Italian word forse, for example, meaning "perhaps," is pronounced simply by saying every sound in order. In Italian it sounds like "for-seh," not like "force," which is probably how the word would be pronounced if it existed in English.

The Latin word fortasse, from which forse derived, was also–as far as is known–pronounced by every letter's sound being spoken. In English we are so used to letters being silent that our instinct as English speakers would probably be to pronounce fortasse as something like "for-tass."

Take a more obscure European language, Finnish. While English, Italian, and Latin are, despite all their differences, members of the same Indo-European language family, Finnish is a member of a completely different language family, Finno-Ugrian, which is why Finnish words often look so unfamiliar. (For example, "I love you. Do you understand? I love you" is Mina rakastan sinua. Ymmarratko? Mina rakastan sinua, which is quite a mouthful on Saturday night or even Sunday morning.) But Finnish words are spelled more consistently than English words in that the written sounds correspond in a very regular way to spoken sounds. Finnish words may look strange, but they're easy to pronounce because you just say every sound in order, even to the extent of repeating the sound of a consonant if it is a double consonant. So, for example, the word kylla, meaning "yes," is pronounced something like "cool-lah" while kyla, meaning "village," is pronounced something like "coo-lah" with only one l-sound in the middle. Pronouncing written Finnish is in fact a piece of cake, or kakku, which is spoken something like "kak-koo."

The word "phonetic" is a convenient word to describe a link between a sound and a letter. A language that is highly phonetic is one where the same letter invariably represents the same sound. A language becomes less phonetic the less this is so. A strong case could be made for regarding English as one of the least phonetic alphabetic languages–perhaps even the least phonetic–on the planet. There are so many examples of inconsistencies–even outrageous inconsistencies–in English spelling that it is almost unnecessary to provide examples. But some examples of the many respects in which English is illogical ought perhaps be given to drive the point home:


*Different sounds are frequently represented by the same letter, or combinations of letters. A revealing example of this is the spectrum of notorious words "cough," "enough," "borough," "nought," "plough," and–yes–"Loughborough," the unassuming town I've already mentioned, which is just north of Leicester in the English Midlands. And think of "bite"/"night," "taught"/"thought," "bait"/"gate." There are thousands of other examples. One consequence of the fact that the same sounds in English are frequently spelled in different ways is that it is perfectly possible to construct nonsensical spellings that are entirely logical when you look at how the sounds are used in other words. For example, the writer George Bernard Shaw once pointed out that we are entitled to spell the word "fish" as "ghoti," using the gh spelling from "cough," the o spelling from "women," and the ti from "nation." And do you know a girl called Eaufaeleyu? This is simply "Ophelia," with the eau in "plateau," the f in "field," the ae in "Caesar," the l in "lip," the ey in "key," and the u in "but."

*The same sounds in English are frequently represented by a different letter or combination of letters. Many of these words are homophones–words that sound the same but have different meanings; for instance, "gate"/"gait," "made"/"maid," "mettle"/"metal," "tea"/"tee." There are in fact thousands of homophones in English because most one-syllable English nouns double as noun and verb, e.g., "cook"/"cook," "knife"/"knife," "nail"/"nail," "right" in the senses of "right and left" and "to right a wrong." However, these homophones are spelled in the same way, because the verb is derived from the noun, or vice versa. The very fact that homophones can be spelled in different ways shows just how inconsistent English spelling really is.

*English spelling contains numerous words that feature silent letters. Indeed, this is a notorious aspect of the English spelling system and causes great difficulty to anyone trying to learn how to spell and read English. Just a few of the many examples: "debt," "island," "knee," "knight," "scissors." The problem is hardly helped when the word containing the silent letter is also a homophone with another word of unrelated meaning, as is the case with words such as "knight"/"night."

*The use of the letter e–the most common letter in written English–is hugely inconsistent. It is often not pronounced at all, and seems practically redundant, as in words such as "image," "imagine," and "submerge." The letter e may, rather more usefully, reflect a change in the vowel sound of the spelled word to distinguish it from another word that does not have the final e. Examples are: "car"/"care," "jut"/ "jute," "mad" / "made." I can still remember being taught at school, at the age of seven or thereabouts, to read words such as "made" and "rode" by thinking of the e as "magical," because it changed the sound of the letter that was two letters behind it into the name of the letter–that is, "mad" becomes "made" and "rod" turns into "rode." A friend who teaches at a primary school recently told me she finds the notion of the e being magical a useful teaching aid even today.

*Generally, written letters in English can stand for a wide–even alarming–range of sounds. Consider, to take just one example, the different sounds represented by the written letter o in the following five words: "police," "Oswald," "ozone," "nation," and "zoo." Or consider how written letters can represent a range of different sounds in English in the numerous ways the ee-sound is written down in all the following words: "Caesar," "conceive," "fee," "field," "key," "machine," "me," "people," "quay," "sea," "subpoena." Similarly, the sh-sound is written down in a range of different ways: "chaperone," "conscious," "eschew," "fuchsia," "fissure," "mansion," "mission," "nation," "nauseous," "ocean," "shoe," "sugar," "suspicion." You don't even need to seek out longer words to see just how inconsistent English spelling is. Consider, for example, the problems of spelling "to," "too," and "two."
James Essinger

About James Essinger

James Essinger - Spellbound
James Essinger is an Oxford graduate who has published more than thirty books. He is particularly interested in the history of ideas that have had a practical impact on the modern world. His previous writings and his time spent teaching English abroad leave him exceptionally well qualified in the linguistic field.
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Praise

“His enthusiasm is contagious.... Mr. Essinger explains convincingly why our verb inflections are as simple as they are and why our nouns have no grammatical gender.”—Wall Street Journal

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