Book Review: Spell It Out by David Crystal

Posted 5 December, 2017 by Alicia in Book Review / 0 Comments  



With The Story of English in 100 Words, David Crystal took us on a tour through the history of our language. Now, with Spell It Out, he takes on the task of answering all the questions about how we spell: “Why is English spelling so difficult?” Or “Why are good spellers so proud of their achievement that when they see a misspelling they condemn the writer as sloppy, lazy, or uneducated?” In thirty-seven short, engaging and informative chapters, Crystal takes readers on a history of English spelling, starting with the Roman missionaries’ sixth century introduction of the Roman alphabet and ending with where the language might be going. He looks individually at each letter in the alphabet and its origins. He considers the question of vowels and how people developed a way to tell whether or not it was long or short. He looks at influences from other cultures, and explains how English speakers understood that the “o” in “hopping” was a short vowel, rather than the long vowel of “hoping”. If you’ve ever asked yourself questions like “Why do the words “their”, “there” and “they’re” sound alike, but mean very different things?” or “How can we tell the difference between “charge” the verb and “charge” the noun?” David Crystal’s Spell It Out will spell it all out for you.

my review

I must admit: I was not a super duper fan of this book. I know David Crystal is quite popular in the world of linguistic literature. But this was not the best book to start out on, it would seem. Now, don’t get me wrong, the information was very interesting—it just didn’t need to be a 300-page book. It could have been condensed down to a few chapters. I know because I took notes on it and the amount of notes I took was incommensurable with the amount of pages there were. Some of the extra content was good. There were a lot of interesting examples (and in some cases there could have been even more). But a lot of it was repetition or stuff not entirely related to the topic at hand. It was sort of a difficult read. Not because of the content matter, as you may be able to guess, but rather it didn’t manage to hold my attention very well. And yes, there were a few mistakes that somehow passed editing that I was astonished by given the subject matter. Maybe things are different in British English, and I know a good many differences but I can’t claim to know all of them—but some things I believe were just mistakes. I hesitate to call it boring, because it wasn’t entirely, but very nearly so. Not many linguistics books are written a way that makes the subject unusually interesting, so there isn’t too much of a standard to which I can hold it, but my linguistics textbook actually does a much better job. I did learn some things, of course, but for a book this long I would have expected him to go into more detail than he did. That said, I shall give his other books a try, but with expectations lowered.

This review was originally published on my book blog. You can find the book on Goodreads and Amazon.



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