The history of English spelling

The history of English spelling. By Christopher Upward and George Davidson. (The language library.) Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Pp. 392. ISBN 9781405190237. $34.95.

Reviewed by Natalie Operstein, California State University Fullerton

As stated in the book’s introduction, in the opinion of the American linguist Mario Pei, English spelling is ‘the world’s most awesome mess’. This view is seconded by the Austrian linguist Mario Wandruszka, who describes English orthography as ‘an insult to human intelligence’. On the other hand, Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle claim that ‘English orthography turns out to be rather close to an optimal system for spelling English’. Which of these opposing views will stand up under closer scrutiny of modern English spelling?

This question is at the heart of this book, which presents current English orthography as a systematic result of the historical evolution of English, both linguistic and sociopolitical. In its nine chapters, the book traces the development of the sound and spelling systems from Old to Modern English, paying particular attention to language-internal developments such as the Great Vowel Shift, scribal innovations, the impact of the printing press, and borrowings from Old Norse, French, Latin, Greek, and other languages that have contributed to the vocabulary and orthographic conventions of English.

Ch. 1, ‘Introduction and overview’, provides an outline of the entire book, emphasizing both its aims and its limitations. Ch. 2, ‘England and English from the Romans to the Vikings’, examines the use of writing in pre-Norman Britain, from the runic to the Roman alphabets; offers the first look at the spelling system of Old English; and outlines the Scandinavian influence on English vocabulary and spelling. Ch. 3, ‘The Old English roots of Modern English spelling’, analyzes Old English spelling in greater detail, focusing on the variants that are particularly relevant for the evolution of Modern English. In this and subsequent chapters with similar structure, the presentation is arranged letter-by-letter with subheadings, e.g. ‘short A’ (under ‘A’) or ‘palatalized G leading to ModE DG’ (under ‘G’).

Ch. 4, ‘The decline and revival of English in the Middle English period’, discusses the linguistic consequences of the Norman Conquest, including the division of labor between English and French in the period immediately after the conquest and the revival of English from the mid-thirteenth century onwards. Particular attention is given to the standardization of orthography during this period, and to the impact of the London-based standards and the introduction of printing on the codification of English spelling. Ch. 5, ‘The Franco-Latin element’, examines borrowings from French and Latin and their consequences for English orthography. The forms under discussion are arranged alphabetically, and particular attention is given to doublets or larger sets of words, like hospital/hostel/hotel, that have different shapes in English due to having entered the language at different times. Ch. 6, ‘Some sound and spelling developments in Middle and Modern English’, examines the period’s core sound changes and spelling innovations that are responsible for many of the current mismatches between spelling and pronunciation.

Finally, Ch. 7, ‘The Greek contribution’, and Ch. 8, ‘The exotic input’, examine the contributions of Greek and other languages, and Ch. 9, ‘Reformers, lexicographers and the parting of the ways’, discusses various attempts at spelling reform and highlights the influence on current English orthography of Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster.