Review: Righting the Mother Tongue

I’m not sure where I found this book originally, but it called out to me and my word-loving sensibilities.  Let it stand as a point in favor of libraries: you can have all the fun of impulse book-buying without any issues of budgeting (well, except your time) or storage (aside from the temporary tsundoku by your bed).

Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling is David Wolman’sWriting the Mother tongue journey through history to figure out just how English spelling became so confusing, whether it’s possible for it to be simplified, and what might become of the language in future.  Wolman himself grew up with siblings whose competence in spelling left his ability far behind – not to mention the frustration that attended his classroom attempts at words like “different,” “restaurant” and “license,” words from various forebears with diverse paradigms.  He heads on a road trip through various parts of England and America to discuss language shifts with a number of experts.

I was, for the most part, already familiar with a lot of his journey: the Wessex dialect of Old English spread on account of Alfred the Great’s influence; monks, clerics, and scribes set about copying manuscripts and Bibles; the Norman conquest brought an influx of French words, used mostly by the higher class.  Then there was a bit of an English resurgence, due in part to the popularity of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible.  Gutenberg’s printing press and its movable type meant that printing houses chose spellings that worked best for their margins, as opposed to the scribes who would tailor their wordwork for the ease of whoever was buying (and reading) it.

Chapter 5, which bridges the gap between the advent of printing and the publishing of Johnson’s dictionary, was the most illuminating section for me.  It noted that self-appointed tastemakers and language-shapers in the 16th and 17th centuries favored this or that construction/spelling and set it apart as most “correct,” so as to distinguish the polloi from the more educated, stylish elite.  For example, they included more Greek and Latinate terms, and, occasionally, tweaked certain words to more greatly resemble their fellows: rime became rhyme to match rhythm, delit became delight to match right and might (which had themselves undergone a shift, from pronouncing the “gh” to leaving it silent).

Then follows Samuel Johnson’s codification of English in his Dictionary of the English Language: In Which the Words Are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers, To Which Are Prefixed a History of the Language and an English Grammar.  Spelling was far more settled by this point (1755), and the dictionary cemented it further.

The chapters following that detail some history of American English, including several different parties in the past 200 years who wished to render English spelling a simpler matter.  Even today, the Simplified Spelling Society fights for a more efficient system.  Admittedly, the members of said society aren’t quite sure which system to utilize instead…but they all agree that English has a lot of “booby traps,” spelling-wise, that students have to spend a lot of time learning to navigate.

For my own part, that navigation was easy.  I grew up with the luxuries of educated, involved parents; plenty of reading material that taught me how words looked; and a fairly good memory for reproducing words, especially if I knew their etymology.  Wolman addresses this in a chapter on the Scripps National Spelling Bee:

Manning says she sees words differently now that she’s a Bee parent.  She had never thought much about all the other languages that influenced English spelling or the different parts of speech, but as her daughter developed a love of words and started studying for the Bee, Manning found that there was much more to spelling than just remembering what letters go where.  “It’s those clues and weird little histories that you pick up – that’s what makes it interesting.”

…an orthography that is perfectly reflective of pronunciation may not be ideal.  In isolation, words with silent or extra letters may strike people as inefficient, and at times they are.  But in other cases, they help our brains draw dotted lines between words with related meanings, such as sign and signature, condemn and condemnation, dough and doughnut, or bomb and bombard.

After deftly navigating the arguments between prescriptivists, who wish to prescribe, or lay down rules, for ‘proper’ spelling and grammar, and descriptivists, who prefer to record how people are in fact using language from day to day, Wolman goes on to examine how we treat orthography in the 21st century.  Nowadays, everyone’s computer or mobile device is outfitted with an spellchecker, which some suppose renders spelling irrelevant; does it matter if I forget the first “r” if my computer underlines “irelevant” with a red squiggle?  If we all disregarded the red squiggle, would the spelling change?  Wolman spends some time on the history of spellcheck before turning to Google and its suggested spelling function:

The last thing Google people want is to be perceived as setting rules or boundaries around what users do.  A company as big as Google already has enough trouble dispelling fears of Big Brother-esque practices.  “The question, ‘Do you mean?’ is deliberately ambiguous,” said Norvig.  “What we’re not saying is, ‘Here’s how you spell.’”  In this way, Google can be authoritative without being authoritarian, providing a snapshot of what’s out there in cyberspace without presuming to correct your English.

Chalk Google up as descriptivist, I guess.  I lean toward the prescriptive side myself, though not as heavily as I did before reading this book.  Reminding myself of the centuries of change English has already undergone makes me a tiny bit less likely to castigate someone’s spelling as wrong! …but see what I do next time something says “there” instead of “their.”

Overall, Righting the Mother Tongue is a fairly interesting book on the history of English orthography, a discussion of of spelling reform, and some description of the cognitive side of reading and writing (which helps account for the difficulties some people have in these activities).  While he examines the weirdness behind certain words – the now-silent “g” in “right,” the “h” in “ghost” or “rhubarb,” the in-and-outs of “aisle” and “isle” – Wolman spends more time on the shaping of the English language as a whole:

“Language is people,” Crystal told me as we stared out at the River Avon.  Words are not the flesh of thought entirely, for we also think in pictures, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings.  But words are an essential part of the flesh of society and cultural intercourse.  They are products of human innovation, folly, power, preference, and change.  For that reason, correct English is nothing more than a phantom.  That doesn’t make English any less expansive and glorious, but the idea that there is clearly a right or a wrong way to go about the business of pronunciation, grammar, or even spelling, flies in the face of language’s true machinations.

English has grown and shifted before, an organism that changes with time and the people who use it.  It is not petrified or ossified, but living: it will continue to grow and shift and, perhaps, look quite different in a generation or two.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Righting the Mother Tongue

  1. Thanks for the review, Joy! I find all this fascinating, though I think the history side appeals to me more than the pure linguistics. I really struggled with spelling in school, most likely because I over analyzed the sounds in each word (along with the accents of those teaching me the words). Maybe knowing the history behind and relationship between words would have helped. Now as a teacher, I think this would be a great way to help students spell better as well as integrate disciplines in the classroom. Here is a question I also wonder as a teacher: will abbreviated language used in emails and text messages became a solidified and legitimate part of the language? My students use these in their papers sometimes (and I know I am not the only teacher who sees this), and I think some of them really didn’t know they weren’t using a real word. Did the author address this in his book? What do you think?

    • You’re quite welcome! I can well understand how the history side would appeal. My struggles tend to be on the opposite side – where I can spell a word I’ve read, but then find I’ve mispronounced it my entire life. It makes me wonder if watching/listening to, say, British telly or NPR broadcasts would smooth the way for a child or adolescent learning to spell.

      Wolman does address abbreviated language of emails and texts a bit in chapter 11, after talking about Google’s suggested spelling tool. He notes that some acronyms and abbreviations – OK, ASAP, RSVP, FYI, BBQ, SCUBA – existed before the Internet, and obviously have sticking power; so might LOL, TBH, or FWIW, in the end. Not that I can imagine how they’d fit into more formal contexts like school papers.

      Regarding spelling/misspelling in the internet age: “All together those altered spellings [milennium, tendancy, reverant, enuf, brocoli, comraderie, privledge, miselanious] certainly *look* jarring. But the real changes won’t be nearly so disruptive – orthographic rebellion that leads to less intelligibility doesn’t make much sense. More likely, the process will be natural, almost invisible, like …how goode became good, omnibus because bus, catalogue became catalog ….whereas once this process took centuries, it could go much faster on the Web.”

      xkcd.com/1414, though a little bit…scatological in its approach, takes something of the same line he does: that though no one really welcomes textspeak in *formal* contexts, the fact that kids and teenagers text so constantly IS contributing to greater verbal aptitude of some sort – maybe not better vocabulary, maybe not anything polished, but there’s much more practice at the baseline of expression.

  2. Spelling was never, and still isn’t easy for me because of my mild dyslexia. But that being said, I am in love with English… navigating its quirks is an exciting and interesting task, made all the more fun by its history.
    I’ve come to see spoken dialect as a very different thing from the written word, though. What I might call out, on page, I find quite correct and interesting when it manifest in local speech-patterns. ^_^

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