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Spellbound: The Surprising Origins and Astonishing Secrets of English Spelling
 
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Spellbound: The Surprising Origins and Astonishing Secrets of English Spelling [Format Kindle]

James Essinger

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Extrait

Chapter 1

Method in the Madness?



"What's your name, sir?" enquired the judge.
"Sam Weller, my lord," replied that gentleman.
"Do you spell it with a 'V' or a 'W'?" enquired the judge.
"That depends upon the taste and fancy of the speller, my lord," replied Sam.
–Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1837)


FIFTY years ago, an ex-schoolmaster called Geoffrey Willans sat down to write a book about a schoolboy. In fact, Willans went one better than that, and decided to make it seem as if the book were written by his schoolboy, Nigel Molesworth.

Nigel is one of English literature's great comic creations. He entices us to luxuriate in his anarchic, outrageous, yet curiously innocent world. From the moment he bursts into existence on the title page of Down With Skool!–the first of the four Molesworth books–Nigel reveals himself to be a keen observer of the foibles and cruelties of humanity.

The school he attends–St. Custard's–is run by a ghoulish headmaster, Mr. GRIMES, whose surname is always written in uppercase by a terrified Nigel. GRIMES supplements his educational income by running an extracurricular whelk stall. We're reliably informed by Nigel that GRIMES would very gladly arrange for all the pupils to be driven off a cliff in a bus, were it not that this would deprive him of his livelihood.

The other masters are hardly an improvement. They include the alarmingly unpredictable Sigismund, the mad math master. There is also a considerate, narrow-eyed pedagogue who observes to one boy before caning him, "Your psychoanalyst may say one thing, Blatworthy, I say another. And my treatment is free." The masters, pupils, and parents provide a wide-ranging panorama of passions, appetites, and vices: There are few crevices of the human condition into which Nigel does not insert an inky finger.

One thing Nigel certainly can't do, though, is spell. In his world, masters are very "ferce" and go around brandishing "kanes." He also airs his opinion that "peotry" is "sissy stuff that rhymes" and informs us that a boy might learn that everything in Latin happened a long time ago, but only if he can stay awake in class for "long enuff." As for football (soccer), many professional–and national–teams of today might echo his sentiments on the matter . . .



Foopball is a tuough game but it is a pity you canot win by hacking everbode.

"Everybody," that is. Much of the fun of the Molesworth books is their cranky spelling, which one can't help feeling Geoffrey Willans knew all too well from his own days as a schoolmaster. Yet Nigel's spelling is never so erratic that it makes no sense at all; there is always plenty of method in the madness.

And after all, why not spell "canes" as "kanes"? Why not write "enuff" for "enough," especially when the sound "ough" in English can also be pronounced as in "cough," "plough," "borough," "dough," "nought," and even two ways in that town name foreigners find so intimidating: "Loughborough"? Doesn't spelling "enough" as "enuff" constitute a magnificent subversive revenge? Spell it that way, and the whole established world of orthodoxy, authority, law, repression, and edict–the sort of world which, incidentally, once led to small boys being caned by sadistic masters–starts to tremble.

Yet Nigel hasn't the slightest interest in starting a revolution in spelling, let alone a revolution in society. All he's doing is spelling words as if the way they sound is the way they should be spelled. "Enuff," for example, is obviously an incorrect spelling according to accepted rules. But if archaeologists from the distant future were to find a copy of Down With Skool! and see the spelling "enuff," they would gain a much better insight into how the word was pronounced from about a.d. 1500 onward than if they found a copy of The Times containing the correct spelling "enough." This, much less helpfully, reveals how the word was pronounced from about a.d. 900 to a.d. 1500. Nigel was inadvertently giving to posterity a phonetic spelling–that is, a spelling which sets down letters that aim as closely as possible to evoke the actual sounds of the spoken language.

Without phonetic spellings many of the great writing systems of the past would still be undeciphered. It is not known exactly how the vowel sounds of the classical Egyptian language of the pharaohs were pronounced, and this lack of knowledge would very likely have made it impossible for posterity to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, many of which were used to represent sounds just as our letters do (if not always consistently) in English. But fortunately for scholars, the hieroglyph writers were obliged to write Greek names such as "Ptolemy" and "Cleopatra" in hieroglyphs, and both the vowel and consonant sounds of these words were of course known. Scholars were able to use the hieroglyphic writing of these foreign names to offer a key to the sounds represented by a good range of hieroglyphs, and could then gradually build up an understanding of the sounds represented by other hieroglyphs from what was known of how classical Egyptian consonants were pronounced.

In her entertaining and informative bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss lovingly airs her annoyance with lazy and clumsy punctuation. Her indignation is abundantly justified, because incorrect punctuation can entirely change the meaning of a sentence. This might even have fatal consequences. For example, if you were mistakenly to punctuate the sentence "the old tiger approached its time to die" as "the old tiger approached; it's time to die," it would be you who would be dying, not the tiger. Getting punctuation right is essential if you want to make utterly clear what you mean.

But spelling is, on the whole, a rather different beast (so to speak). It's true that if you spell words incorrectly–which (in fact) means nothing more or less than "incorrectly according to what is regarded as acceptable within a particular country or culture"–you run the real risk of letting yourself down socially, professionally, and very possibly also financially. But it's also true that spelling usually does not need to be as precisely accurate as punctuation in order to convey an exact meaning. Put more simply, we can usually still understand words that are misspelled.

If we are spelling perfectionists like my friend Clair-Marie (of whom rather more soon) we might–for example–feel irritated to see, on a bulletin board, little cards proclaiming messages such as "cook requred," or "accomadation available," or to see a stereo system advertised as being in "excellant" condition, but unless we're being absurdly (and in fact dishonestly) pedantic we know what the advertisers mean. As the novelist Anthony Burgess pointed out in his superb book about language, Language Made Plain, a "guage" does its job just as efficiently as a "gauge," and "parrallel" lines still meet at infinity.

Indeed, even if words are extremely misspelled we can still read them, apparently because we tend to read–at least when we are fairly expert at reading–by focusing on the entire image of the word, and particularly on the first and last letters. If you don't believe this, try reading the following, which is the first paragraph of this chapter spelled in a different way:


Ftify yares ago, an ex-soochlmeatsr celald Geoffrey Willans sat dwon to wtire a book aubot a scoohlboy. In fcat, Willans wnet one beettr tahn taht, and dcdeied to make it seem as if the book wree wttiren by his scoholboy, Nigel Molesworth.



In this passage, apart from the proper names, all the words longer than three letters have had their internal letters jumbled up (with the letters in word-compounds kept within the separate compounds), yet the paragraph presents no real difficulty to the native English speaker, or to anyone who has a good command of English as a second or foreign language. This example demonstrates that when we read familiar words we do assimilate and read them individually in their entirety rather than spell them out letter by letter.

Indeed, this point rather seems to be corroborated, not contradicted, by the fact that we have more difficulty reading a jumbled-up word, even if the first and last letters remain in the same position, when the other letters are in exactly the reverse order of what they should be. For example, "cetcidartnod" now reveals itself as much less readily readable than "contradicted." We do indeed appear to read whole words by their overall image, and are likely to become confused if the internal letters in a longish word are completely different from how they should be, rather than simply jumbled up a little.

But while we can usually make sense of misspelled words, the fact remains that spelling does matter. Of course it does. It matters enormously. The quality of your spelling will probably play a role in your career advancement, and even in the quality of your social life. We accept that most of us have words which we can't always spell accurately, but if you spell really badly, some people whose opinion you value may take you less seriously than you would like.

This is, in fact, distinctly unfair, because whichever way you look at it, the fact remains that the spelling of English is about as susceptible–at least superficially–to rational explanation as GRIMES's whelk stall is. Many people, whether native speakers of English or those learning English as a second language, regard English spelling as at best a joke and at worst a nightmare deliberately designed to bamboozle and perpl...

From Publishers Weekly

British author Essinger (Jacquard's Web: How a Hand Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age) provides an enlightening and enjoyable excursion into "the magical nature" of writing through the history of English spelling. Essinger provides many examples of English's well-known inconsistency between spelling and pronunciation, and the fact that many words are spelled illogically and arbitrarily. But there is, he says, "method in the madness" and concludes that there is no need for reform. Essinger notes fascinating research showing that some dyslexic children find Chinese characters easier to comprehend than written English, because Chinese characters relate to meaning rather than sound. Extremely valuable is the author's well-researched chronicle of the evolution of English spelling, beginning with the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066, through Middle English ( a hybrid of Norman French and Anglo Saxon) and the subsequent transformation into Modern English. The rise of Modern English was sparked by changes in pronunciation, the influence of the Renaissance, which led to heavy borrowing from Latin and Greek, and the introduction of the printing press. Essinger takes the influence of technology through the present, looking at the impact of e-mail and text messaging. A good-humored buoyant style helps make this examination of the origin and current state of English spelling a pleasure to read. (May 1)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Amazon.com: 3.9 étoiles sur 5  11 commentaires
7 internautes sur 8 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Superficial 24 août 2007
Par Glitzer - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché
In my opinion, this book cannot compete with more careful and serious works on the same subject. If you are interested in this topic, my recommendation would be to read Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World or Speak: A Short History of Languages. You can (and in fact should) then safely skip this one.

My overall impression is that Essinger (not a scholar and not an expert on the subject) hastily read a few popular books on the subject and then added his own effort. A first piece of evidence is the bibliography, which is amazingly short and contains very few serious works. More to the point, throughout the book Essinger has the annoying habit of using his prejudices and his extremely vivid imagination to fill gaps in our historical knowledge. The results are usually absurd.

Some examples: The Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain are "smelly." (That seems to change later with Alfred the Great, when the Anglo-Saxons become the good guys and their body odor no longer merits Essinger's attention.)
The Norman conquerors, on the other hand, get a more sympathetic treatment right away: they were not oppressors (Essinger writes). This point is forcefully driven home a few paragraphs later by pointing out that they disowned and/or killed the local aristocracy.

While serious scholars are puzzled by the fact that the Germanic conquerors kept their language in Britain but nowhere else in the Roman empire, Essinger knows the answer: continental Celts and Romans had nowhere to hide, so they decided to teach the Germans Latin, while their British counterparts ran away (or were killed, Essinger isn't very clear here and generally cares little about consistency).
4 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 English language spelling is charming? Absolutely! 22 juin 2007
Par JulieM - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché
The English language, in particular its spelling, is a strange and wonderful beast. Essinger gets to the heart of it in Spellbound. There are many facts that won't be a surprise to most reading the book, such as much of the language being influenced by the mix of Anglo-Saxon with Norman French or the borrowing of words from other cultures as they are encountered. It's the information beyond the facts, which have obviously been well-researched, that gives the book its flavor.

Yes, it is a book about spelling, and if anything ever was a bane of school children, it could be that. Essinger approaches it with a delight and joy that is contagious. As I read the book, there were points in it where I literally laughed out loud because of the wit and humor in the pages. At other times, I felt awe and wonder that the English language ever came to be. Something that many people think is a dry subject comes alive in the book. As the author writes in the Introduction, it becomes magical.

The book achieves what the author wanted to do in making something accessible to the general public, not just academics. It is neither pompous or boring. Instead, it's interesting and fun. In short... very highly recommended.
2 internautes sur 2 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 Superficial but Popularly Written Study of a Scholarly Topic 20 juin 2009
Par M. Layton - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
Essinger has given a serious linguistic subject a popular treatment that is in many ways quite superficial. While he can do no great harm with the book and may actually help some to become better spellers, he has made several glaring errors as well. For example, he says that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were speakers of Old High German when, in fact, they spoke a Low German language, just as the people of that region of Germany and Denmark from which they came still do in their local dialects. Essinger also oversimplifies Modern English as a Creole of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon to explain why inflection has largely been lost from Modern English. While that may be partly true, it is also true that English underwent sound shifts other than the Great Vowel Shift to which this inflection loss can also be attributed. If you know nothing about the subject, you may enjoy this book. Serious students of English language history need not bother.
4 internautes sur 5 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Highly informative and entertaining! 11 mai 2007
Par Andrew - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché
In this splendid book, James Essinger tells the fascinating story of the evolution of English Language and spelling.

Over the course of around 250 pages the reader is treated to an educational journey encompassing a variety of topics including early writing forms such as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, different forms of alphabets (with particular reference to our own), the historical roots of the English language, with emphasis on pivotal events such as the Normandy invasion of 1066, the development of the first dictionaries, and lots more. He even finishes up by discussing modern-day phenomena such as mobile phone text-messaging, which has arguably become a language of its own, barely recognisible from plain written English.

Essinger's writing style is lucid and highly readable. The book contains a wealth of information, without ever becoming dry or tedious. I have no hesitation in awarding it the full five stars.
3 internautes sur 4 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A BOOK OF MAGIC 30 mai 2007
Par Paul Gelman - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
THIS BOOK CAN BE CONSIDERED A GEM FULL OF CHARM AND MAGIC.WRITTEN FOR THE GENERAL READER- BUT ALSO FOR THE SPECIALIST-IT IS A SHORT BUT PRETTY PROFOUND SURVEY ABOUT ONE OF THE GREATEST ABSURDS WHICH EXIST NOWADAYS:THE TOTALLY- IRRATIONAL WAY THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IS SPELLED.

AS A TEACHER OF ENGLISH, I AM ALMOST CONSTANTLY FACED WITH THE (LEGITIMATE) QUESTION POSED BY MY STUDENTS ABOUT THIS INTRIGUING ASPECT OF THIS LANGUAGE.AND THIS BOOK GIVES YOU VERY SHORT AND PRECISE ANSWERS .THE BOOK IS DIVIDED INTO THREE PARTS .THE FIRST TWO ARE INTRODUCTORY, AND THE THIRD SECTION DEPICTS THE REASONS FOR THE SCANDALOUS WAY ENGLISH WORDS ARE SPELLED.I INDEED AGREE WITH THE AUTHOR'S CLAIM THAT A REFORM IN THE SPELLING WOULD BE A FUTILE ATTEMPT.HE ARGUES THAT WHOLE CULTURAL CHUNKS WOULD BE LEFT OUT AND FORGOTTEN.

CHAUCER, SHAKESPEARE,CAWDREY( WHO IS CONSIDERED THE FIRST ONE TO WRITE AN ENGLISH DICTIONARY),JOHNSON, WEBSTER- YOU WILL FIND OUT IN WHAT WAY THEY ARE RELATED TO THIS MOST FASCINATING SUBJECT.YOU WILL ENJOY THIS LIVELY, DYNAMICALLY WRITTEN BOOK AND YOU WILL- I AM CONFIDENT- BE SPELLBOUND BY IT.
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