Christopher Upward and George Davidson. The History of English Spelling. Oxford:
Wiley-Blackwell. 2011. xiii +376 pages. ISBN 978-1-4051-9023-7 paperback. Price $36.95.
Spelling is an area of language which seems to attract more attention from the general public than from linguists. Knowing how to spell according to prescriptive rules is a useful skill to be trained from the first encounter with the written word. There are spelling bees and bootcamps for kindergartens and schools. People tend to attach great importance to orthographic rules and amuse themselves with clever rhymes on the convoluted and unkempt nature of English spelling. This general audience will welcome the recent overview of the history of English spelling, published in the Language Library Series under the series editorship of David Crystal.
The volume comprises the usual front matter, with useful lists of tables, figures, abbreviations, etc., nine content chapters, a technical glossary, a bibliography and indexes: a comprehensive language and dialect index, a word and ‘word-element’ index, and a general index. The book is a posthumous edition of Christopher Upward’s notes on the history of English spelling. Upward was a Senior Lecturer in German and an activist in the Simplified English Spelling
Society, where he specifically promoted a spelling reform which would consist in the omission of ‘redundant letters’. He also collected etymological material, mostly on the basis of the Oxford English Dictionary, in extensive notes, which have been adapted for publication here. The manuscript was in gestation for several years, until Upward’s death in 2002. The edition, dedicated to the memory of the book’s author, was prepared by George Davidson, a freelance lexicographer, an author of several linguistic guides for the general public, including books on punctuation and spelling, and the editor of the current edition of Roget’s Thesaurus.
The editor’s inclination towards the non-specialist audience can be gleaned from several editorial decisions. First of all, there are no references in the text, but for a few modest footnotes directing the reader to a rather outdated and basic bibliography at the end of the book. It is therefore impossible to follow up particular threads of discussion because one does not know what sources the author (or editor) actually used. Another decision was to trim Upward’s notes and leave the bulk of extensive notes in the form of lengthy documents downloadable from a dedicated website: http://www.historyofenglishspelling. info/. This was, of course, necessary, as supplements to some more complex chapters run into several hundred pages. On the other hand, Davidson may have devoted more space to outlining the methodology of Upward’s data collection and analysis rather than simply compiling the book out of selected 171
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D ow nloaded from sections of the material. More critical engagement with the data and a more pronounced methodological stance would have been welcome, if the book were edited with an academic audience in mind.
The book, according to the authors, concentrates on ‘current English spelling, how it came to be as it is and, to a lesser extent, how efficient it is as a means of symbolizing English pronunciation’ and does not aim to provide ‘a complete history of English spelling, and its relationship to English pronunciation’ (p. 11). In spite of this assertion, in the book individual letters and letter combinations in specific vocabulary items are traced back to their etymological roots and the underlying phonemic values for each letter are reconstructed for different stages in the history of English.
For each historical period, there is a separate chapter or section introducing the extra-linguistic background and sketching out major issues relevant to the study of spelling of that period. After the introductory chapter, which presents the main recurrent themes in the discussion of English spelling, Chapter 2 concentrates on language contact and written practices in the Old English period. In the next chapter the reader is presented with an alphabetical list of graphemes, e.g. A, and their combinations, e.g. EA. For each grapheme, the authors provide reconstructed Old English phonemic realizations, making a direct link between these grapho-phonemic relationships and the present-day orthographic system. Chapter 4 pays attention to the decline and revival of written English and to dialectal diversity and emerging standardized spelling systems in Middle English. Chapter 5, ‘The Franco-Latin element’, is the longest section of the book, with a detailed letter-by-letter presentation of the original Latin or French grapho-phonemic correspondences and how they came to be realized in words borrowed into English. Chapter 6 on ‘Some sound and spelling developments in Middle and Modern English’ repeats portions of information from the previous two chapters and also devotes some space to the
Great Vowel Shift and how it contributed to the discrepancy between sound and spelling in English words. Chapter 7 concentrates on ‘The Greek contribution’, which is a welcome detailed overview of spelling patterns in that important source of borrowings, while Chapter 8 presents the ‘Exotic input’ to present-day English spelling. The choice of label in that chapter hints at the tone of the whole book: a rather traditional, prescriptive and regulatory attitude, whereby languages such as Italian, Welsh, Russian and Thai are put into one ‘exotic’ basket (p. 228).
Even though the authors promise to ‘provide historical descriptive explanations for the facts of present-day English spelling’ (p. 3), they often lapse into a prescriptive vein, judging what is a ‘correct’ form or an ‘anomaly’. Several sections are simply entitled ‘Anomalies’ (p. 43, 57, 99, etc.) and such obsolete loaded terminology is used on a number of occasions. Whenever discrepancies between sound and spelling emerge, the authors talk about them as ‘problems’ which can get ‘aggravated’ (p. 55). If there is an innovation which does not fully 172 Reviews at Ryerson U niversity on June 15, 2015 http://ijl.oxfordjournals.org/