Spell it Out, by David Crystal. The whole story of English Spelling. – John Bald

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Our story begins with the simple, but logical language, Old English, which has around 50,000 words, and a regular correspondence between sound and symbol, with some letters of its own, such as þ for the th sound. It works well – compare Cwen with Queen – and is tailor-made for synthetic phonics.

Then comes trouble, first with William the Conqueror and his legion of French-speaking scribes, and then with the need to spell a huge influx of new words as the language expands over a thousand years to reach its current vocabulary of around a million words. Along the way, we meet every human foible (an old(ish) French spelling for faible or feeble). Writers and compilers of dictionaries wish by turn to appear very precise and polite, to take shortcuts, to ape their betters and to look down their noses.

Professor Crystal uses the tracking systems of the computerised version of the Oxford English Dictionary (free online with most public library tickets) to detail each step in the process, and to explain in plain English exactly how things came to be as they are. William's French scribes do not like anything Saxon, so the old English þ is replaced with the two letters th to represent a sound that is (to a child ) a long way from that usually represented by t. The scribes like to mark a vowel (voice) sound as short by doubling the following consonant, as we still do to distinguish hopping from hoping. They begin by doing so at the end of the word too, but find this too much work, and so drop it, leaving hop. It was, though, useful to add a letter to mark a longer voice sound, so mad becomes made.

Later, the spelling of any word derived from Latin or Greek was held superior to anything English, and so allowed to override these patterns, so that there is a single p in rapid. Groups of letters such as ough were introduced first by printers and then canonised by Dr Jonson, whose influence, including his limitations, are set out in Chapter 25. Johnson, for example, wanted words ending in c to be spelled ck, but this was dropped for words of more than one syllable, possibly on aesthetic grounds, but perhaps also to save writing the additional letter.

The whole story is here, in a work that is more linguistic history than linguistics, and which is prefaced by generous acknowledgement to the scholars who originally dug the patterns out of the OED. So, what do we do about it? Our spelling is a bit like one of those Tudor houses

 Spell it Out, by David Crystal. The whole story of English Spelling.   John Bald
in which each extension is simply tacked higgledy-piggeldy onto the whole, in whatever location looks best at the time, but using similar materials. It creaks, but it stands up, and it lasts. Wholesale reform is impossible without knocking down the house and starting again. No one wants to do this, as it is not only beautiful, but capable of extension to meet all new requirements, from describing dinosaurs to designing computers.

Professor Crystal argues that the teaching of spelling should be based on linguistics, and he is right if this means telling children the truth about it. But we do not need to use the vocabulary of adult linguistics. In practice, most children's understanding of spelling mirrors the historical development of writing, and moves from writing down the sounds they can hear to learning about quirks such as groups of letters, extra letters and historical leftovers that make up the rest of spelling. My approach is to group these quirks together, explain them in simple language, and show children how to deal with them. It's simple, it works, and it's free. Here is an introduction.

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