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Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling
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Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling [Format Kindle]

David Wolman

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The lively, informative book is full of evidence/cocktail party fodder proving that the English spelling system is a hopeless tangle of French, Dutch, Latin, German and much, much more and really makes no sense at all. (Portland Tribune )

A lively, engaging look at the idiosyncratic derivations and permutations of spelling in the English language. (Seattle Post Intelligencer )

“An engaging ramble through our orthographic thickets” (Boston Globe )

“Sprightly history that sensibly balances the merits of standardization against the forces for freedom.” (Kirkus Reviews )

An intellectual travelogue across the centuries that also ranges geographically from the Litchfield haunts of Dr. Johnson, creator of the first great English dictionary, to the Silicon Valley home of Les Earnest, the progenitor of computerized spell-checking. (Wall Street Journal )

“A funny and fact-filled look at our astoundingly inconsistent written language, from Shakespeare to spell-check.” (St. Petersburg Times )

Présentation de l'éditeur

“A funny and fact-filled look at our astoundingly inconsistent written language, from Shakespeare to spell-check.”
St. Petersburg Times


David Wolman explores seven hundred years of trial, error, and reform that have made the history of English spelling a jumbled and fascinating mess. In Righting the Mother Tongue, the author of A Left-Hand Turn Around the World brings us the tangled story of English Spelling, from Olde English to email. Utterly captivating, deliciously edifying, and extremely witty, Righting the Mother Tongue is a treat for the language lover—a book that belongs in every personal library, right next to Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, and the works of Bill Bryson and Simon Winchester.

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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 4.1 étoiles sur 5  57 commentaires
18 internautes sur 18 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Gud Funn, Gudd Fwn, Gwdd Fun, Goode Fun, Good Fun, Gd Fn 24 juillet 2008
Par Grey Wolffe - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
However you spell it, this is good fun if you like linguistics, etymology and orthography. Starting with the basics of Wessex (West Saxon) Old English (there never was an 'e' on old until Victorian times) the language grew from the influx of Norman-French (from William the Conqueror), and all the languages of the Empire (pundit, serendipity, kiosk). But how did the spelling of the actual words come to be?

Prior to the printed book, almost all books were hand scribed by monks in Scriptorium. (The building at Oxford where the OED was created was named so by sir James Murray.) Each monk spelled a word as close as he could to the way it sounded (phonetically). Since there were so few readers, it didn't really matter.

Once Guttenberg had devised his type-set printing, word spellings became much more important. The English (King James of 1611) translated Bible had different spellings for the same word, sometimes on the same page. As an aside, one of the reason we have odd spellings like 'ghost' instead of 'gost' was that the first English books were typeset in Bruges where the major language was Flemish. Typesetters made the decisions on the spot of how to spell a word (phonetically of course), and so used spellings they were comfortable with.

The first major shift to "standardize" English spellings, was by Dr. Samuel Johnson. Dr.Johnson's "Dictionary" was first published in 1755 and immediately became the "base line" (or war line) by which the budding science of 'philology' and 'lexicographers' (makers of dictionaries) fought the battle of the silent 'h' (in Ghost and Rhubarb) and silent 'gh' (in though and fought).

Noah Webster started the transatlantic lexicography war when he published his 'American Dictionary of the English Language' in 1828. Webster sought to 'americanize' English by changing gaol to jail, publick to public, centre to center and dropping the 'u' in honor, valor, color,etc.
This set off the longest running battle between the two major centers or centres of the English (?) speaking world.

In the late 1880's a group of men at Oxford, decided that the language needed to be standardized, because of the coming of government sanctioning of 'public' education. How to teach spelling and word meanings when there was no 'body' (such as the 'Academie Francais) to arbitrate the language. So the idea of the 'Oxford English Dictionary' was born. It took almost thirty years before it was completed in 1928 and it immediately became the standard for all publication in the UK and the British Empire. Americans are still making their own decisions.

With the advent of the internet and email, and especially cell phone 'texting', the language is once again developing a 'personalized' orthography. While there are accepted shorthand words such as Gr8 and BFF (best friends forever), there are a myriad of variations between friends and age groups. (No teenager wants to use the same shorthand as their parents, duh! how groudy!)

For those who enjoy a good story is how things came about (the eschatology) of any genre, this is a fun read (or reed or rede or ...

Zeb Kantrowitz
6 internautes sur 6 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 An everyman's journey through English spelling 7 août 2008
Par Sanpete - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
Here's author David Wolman's own explanation of what this book is:

"This book is my journey into the past and future of English spelling. It's an everyman's review of how the words of our language acquired their current form, a study of the quest to change the spelling code, and an exploration of spelling convention and innovation in the digital age."

That sums it up pretty well. It's an everyman's book in the double sense that it's written by a nonexpert and is pitched at people who want an overview with interesting facts, ideas and illustrative detail but not extended scholarly analysis. The information is generally derived from authoritative sources, often books written by language scholars for a general audience. Explanations are lucid.

Emphasis should be given to "my journey," as a fair amount of the book revolves around Wolman's trips to places of significance in his take on the history and future of English spelling. He travels to several places in Britain where events such as the Norman Conquest and the English translation of the Bible occurred, takes a side trip to Germany and Belgium, homes of Gutenberg and the first English printed book, visits the home of famous American dictionary author Noah Webster, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the home of Google in Silicon Valley, and other places along the way, usually accompanied by an expert who helps explain the significance of the events related to the places. It's like one of those BBC TV history specials without a camera crew.

His journey is also personal in the sense that he weaves in his own history with spelling, from a lifelong self-perception as a bad speller to his participation in a local spelling bee.

The narrative is leisurely and somewhat rambling, in a pleasant way, with frequent detours from one thread to another.

A major thread throughout the book concerns the controversy over how much emphasis should be put on proper spelling and what proper spelling should be understood to be. Should we care if a word is spelled unconventionally as long as we can easily understand it? Is it desirable or possible to reform spelling? Wolman seems to side with a laissez-faire approach, but he doesn't call for less emphasis on correct spelling in school or the like, so it isn't clear is he has a fully worked out position of his own.

Wolman finally considers reasons to worry about where spelling is headed but basically ends up at "the kids are all right." (I was hoping for some more robust tying up of ends about the controversies of spelling.)

The book is enjoyable and interesting, a fairly quick read.

Quibbles and ruminations inspired by the book

Wolman sees the importance of the spelling differences between words like 'desert' and 'dessert', but he doesn't see the significance of the differences between 'hare-brained' and 'hair-brained', or 'strait-jacket'/'strait-laced' and 'straight-jacket'/'straight-laced' (68). I think the differences in the latter cases are significant, as they convey different root images or ideas. Having the brain of a small animal is a different idea than having a brain with some quality related to hair (whether it be that hair is all there is in the head, or the thinness of a hair, or whatever). Both might naturally mean "stupid," but by different routes. Similarly, the idea of narrow or tight in 'strait' is very different than whatever might be conveyed by 'straight' in the examples given. ('Straight' actually works with 'straight-laced' but in its own distinctive way.)

Wolman suggests that spelling may change more quickly because of the internet, which is largely unedited. He cites in particular Google's enabling bad or alternative spelling with its "Did you mean ...?" search function. Things do change faster and and faster, and he may be right, but I think it could work more the other way, that bad spellers will now be reminded of correct spellings by Google, and by spellcheckers, which are more and more integrated into web-related applications, and have been improving my spelling, at least. I think these things may actually tend to slow the change of most spelling.

There are of course practical benefits to uniformity of spelling, which requires a common standard, but it feels like more is involved. Excuse the image, but I once had a very learned professor who said misspelling is like picking your nose in public, which I take to mean that it's a violation of manners. It is curious that we, or some of us, at least, do tend to feel about misspelling the way we might about holding our dinner fork with a fist while eating. But even if they're sometimes arbitrary, there is something to be said for having good manners about our forks and so on, and for drawing some limited inferences about people based their adherence to such niceties. They show something about our training and our willingness or ability to participate in social forms, rather like a dance we're all supposed to know the steps to and perform together. The steps may sometimes be arbitrary, but there's a grace in knowing them and doing them correctly.
4 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 A fun read for word nerds 20 août 2008
Par Alexis Coxon - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
This is an interesting -- though not totally captivating -- read about the history of spelling in the English language. While, as a professional copy editor and general fan of etymology, good spelling, good grammar and all things word-related, I enjoyed it, it may be a bit dry for those who don't already have an interest in this area.

The book starts with the history of the English language and continues through the days of Noah Webster, early-20th-century spelling reformers and up till texting and the Internet (and their effect on the English language).

The cover design could be more attractive -- I don't find it particularly compelling or even reflective of the book's content. And this is definitely no "Eats, Shoots and Leaves." But overall, if you're really fascinated by spelling and how modern English came to be the way it is, you'll find this a fun read.
3 internautes sur 3 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Entertaining and informative 22 août 2008
Par pm444 - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
I thoroughly enjoyed this brief, well-written history of the development of English spelling and its often bizarre conventions. While the thread that ties the chapters together is the spelling of English words, the author successfully incorporates fascinating bits of linguistics, cultural and social history, and biography to bring his subject to life.

The author's style is fresh and engaging and the book is very readable and in fact difficult to put down. I've read many books about linguistics and language history, and most suffer from a scholarly tone that sometimes borders on the pedantic. This book is a welcome change from that, and will appeal both to the general reader as well as those of us who love reading about language and language change.

While the author is not a professional linguist, he includes footnotes for each chapter and it's obvious that he researched his topic before writing the book. Highly recommended!
2 internautes sur 2 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Tangled Story Worth Untangling 21 août 2008
Par Peter Dykhuis - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
This was a very interesting concept for me. The history of the English language is one that sounds intriguing and interesting. The book does do a good job of attempting to make the topic interesting as and intriguing as well but the results are mixed.

The text details the history of peoples in English speaking lands, primarily England. By outlining the history as it relates to the linguistic usage the author give s a great historical backdrop and foundation to the history of the language. In this respect the author does a great job.

The second part of the book to talk about discusses more specific word evolutions and how certain words came about in relation to the mixing of languages and influences. The book also outlines certain accidents of usage that have been granted permanence in the language lexicon.

The last part of the book to discuss deals with organizations related to the codification of the language. This includes the advent of the dictionary, the efforts to simplify spelling in the early 20th century and then of course the advent of the digital/internet age and the implications thereof.

The Good:
1 Very crisp writing style. Easy to follow.
2 Very quick read. I finished this one in a single sitting.
3 Seems to be sourced very well. I did not get the feeling that the information was shot from the hip but was properly researched.
4 Well organized. I thought the chapters built on each other and were properly mapped out.

The Not So Good:
1. I felt as if it was well written but perhaps a bit more humor or humanization of the topic could have made this topic a bid more engaging. The narration seemed just a bit dry to me.

A very good book and one that is very interesting. This is a 4 star effort in my opinion. With just a bit more humor or personalization of the tale this could have been a 5 star work. I recommend the book without reservation.
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