BookBrowse Reviews Spell It Out by David Crystal

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Spell It Out

The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling

by David Crystal

Spell It Out by David Crystal
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jun 2013, 336 pages
    Dec 2014, 336 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

Buy This Book

About this Book



David Crystal's fascinating look at how English words are spelled sheds light on the diverse forces that shaped the language.

David Crystal's rich, useful and fascinating survey of English spelling will change the way you think about language. Crystal shows us that language is not a fixed system created by scholars, but is constantly being shaped and reshaped by individual pens and voices – monks, scribes, speakers of regional dialects, printers, and even Twitter users.

Crystal shows why English spelling can be confusing and how it got that way: "[the] origins of spelling difficulties in English lie in the fact that there are far more sounds in the language than there are letters." After a brief and illuminating section on alphabet origins, Crystal explains how scribes first used the Latin alphabet to record the sounds of Old English, a runic, Germanic, inflected language that had sounds that didn't exist in Latin: the short "a" sound in "man," for which scribes created the "ae" letter, "ash" and the "th" sound, which scribes represented through two letters, "eth" and "thorn." For the "w" sound we hear in "we," for which some scribes used the Latin "v," while others used a double "u"or "uu" or borrowed a letter from the runic alphabet, "wynn," which looks like a lowercase p. Wynn persisted until the 13th century when the double "u" became our single letter, "w."

Despite these innovations, spelling varied from region to region to reflect local pronunciations and the preferences of individual scribes who often spelled the same word different ways in the same document to justify a margin or because they simply liked the way a certain spelling looked. Although today "correct" spelling is expected, these expressive variations in spelling were the norm, Crystal says: "There was no notion of 'correct' or 'standard' spelling at the outset. So if people in the north of England said the word for 'land' with rounded lips, so that it sounded like 'lond,' then it would be spelled that way." Spelling is complicated now because modern English uses silent letters and letters can represent more than one sound.

Unlike contemporary English, Old English words were spelled phonetically and all letters in the alphabet were pronounced. Crystal surveys the forces that created the English we spell and speak today - among these the way silent "e" and doubling consonants answered the need to differentiate between long and short vowels; the increase in suffixes and prefixes during the Middle Ages; new words borrowed from French and Latin and the impulse toward Latinate spelling; the handwriting style of medieval scribes which dotted the "i" and substituted "y" for "i" when it came at the end of a word; and the need to distinguish homophones. Other forces shaping spelling were the process of analogy, the tendency for words which have similar sounds to be spelled in the same way; the development of printing; the dictionaries of Johnson and Webster; the rise of publishers and house styles; the urge to express personal and cultural identity (British vs. American English); and the effect of the Internet and texting.

By showing us that the story of English spelling is the story "behind the words," Crystal demonstrates how etymology illuminates spelling. Each chapter begins with a quotation about spelling and these are often amusing, but I wish Crystal had included more excerpts from literature and medieval manuscripts. I also wish he'd followed the evolution of the word, "spelling" from its root meaning as a group of words with magical powers to its current, more practical meaning.

Crystal also presents effective and rational ways to teach spelling and gives the lay reader a lucid introduction to the history and linguistic features of English. For teachers of spelling, he provides two appendices and a useful index of words covered in the text.

Crystal gave me a new understanding of each writer's, speaker's and speller's power to shape our changeable language.

Reviewed by Jo Perry

This review was originally published in July 2013, and has been updated for the December 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

One-Month Free Membership

Discover your next great read here

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Nest
by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

A funny and acutely perceptive debut about four siblings and the fate of their shared inheritance.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Stars Are Fire
    by Anita Shreve

    An exquisitely suspenseful novel about an extraordinary young woman tested by a catastrophic event.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Manderley Forever
    by Tatiana de Rosnay

    Bestselling author Tatiana de Rosnay pays homage to Daphne du Maurier.
    Reader Reviews

Who Said...

Children are not the people of tomorrow, but people today.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

Y S M B, I'll S Y

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.

Modal popup -