Posts Tagged ‘influences on English language’

David Crystal: Spell It Out

June 21, 2016

51p7rzC0mSL._AC_US160_Teaching (or attempting to teach) spelling was part of my job throughout my career, and it was quite important to me to encourage students to be as accurate as possible. I tried to adopt a structured approach to teaching spelling – in fact worked my way through a number of what I thought were structured approaches; I felt that I met with a certain amount of success, and yet, according to David Crystal, I was not going about it the right way. After reading his book, I have to agree with him (mostly)…

I have always been a good speller, never having any real problems with any aspect of it: once I’ve met a word in print, it sticks along with its spelling. I’ve put this down to the way my memory works – maybe photographically for spelling – and the fact that I read a lot (!) This hasn’t always made it easy for me to be sympathetic to those who clearly found it all much more of a struggle, but I did try.

Crystal presents the history of the development of spelling in English, through the varied influences of Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, the Great Vowel Shift and a whole host of other factors, including a number of well-intentioned but wrong-headed attempts to reform, to structure and to standardise spelling. We can thus see how the rules and the anomalies and the myriad exceptions came about, and how they cause problems for the unwary and the non-native English speaker. I thought I knew quite a lot about our language and its history, and yet it all came across as much more complicated than I had known. The book – like many others of his – is clear, well-written and explained, and copiously illustrated with examples.

He also makes some suggestions as to how spelling might be better taught and learned, as well as recognising that it’s not a fixed thing, but changing and evolving over time, pointing out that electronic communication and the internet are forces that tend both to standardise and also to allow more rapid evolution of spelling. Context is important for teaching spelling – so all those lists of words in isolation so beloved of English teachers are not that helpful; an understanding of some basic principles of etymology is useful, so clearly a knowledge of Latin would be a help. I’m not holding my breath on this one, but it’s another of those factors that must have helped me, coming, as I did from a generation of students who needed O Level Latin to embark on an arts degree…

If I’d read this book whilst still working, I would have made some major changes to how I went about teaching spelling. It’s a useful book for the interested general reader as well as for teachers, I think.

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