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Verbal Energy

Rules of English spelling – revealed!

Popular linguist David Crystal's new book, 'Spell It Out,' explains the rules of English spelling – but who knew there even were rules?

By Ruth Walker / July 17, 2013



You are forgiven, dear reader, if your initial reaction to the headline is, There are rules?

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Ah, but there are – not quite like the rules of bridge or football or the United States Senate, but generalizations to help you place a word and its background. This, in turn, can help you fix correct spelling in your mind.

In his new book, "Spell It Out," popular British linguist David Crystal endeavors to explain English spelling by explaining the history of the language. He picks up the story in the 6th century, as missionaries were arriving to Christianize England.

Proto-English used one of the runic alphabets common across northern Europe at that time. But the missionary monks were uncomfortable with runes. Rune meant "something secret or hidden." Runes had too many associations with the forces of dark magic and paganism, Crystal notes.

The Roman alphabet, on the other hand, had "all the right associations" for the monks. Latin had been one of the languages of Christianity for centuries at that point. St. Jerome's Vulgate Bible was much loved. Calligraphers in Ireland had created some beautiful Roman letters. If it gave the monks any pause that Latin was also the language of one of early Christianity's leading antagonists, the Roman Empire, Crystal doesn't say.

At any rate, the monks brought the Roman alphabet to the British Isles, or rather, brought it back, because the imperial Romans had been there before. This time, though, the Roman alphabet was pressed into service of the language about to become Old English. The monks had 23 letters – the 26 we know today, minus J, U, and W – to stand for what scholars think were at least 37 essential sounds, or phonemes.

And so the monks had to adapt. They doubled letters to indicate short vowels (hopping versus hoping); added letters to indicate long vowels (the "e" that makes hop into hope). They lashed pairs of letters together and made them stand for single sounds. And they even used a few of those pagan runes.

After 1066, the next wave of adapters was made up of French scribes who came with the conquering Normans after the Battle of Hastings. They brought many French words to English, but also tweaked the spelling of English words, too, to make them look more agreeably French. They chucked out the special letters for the sounds at the beginning of the and think and began to write those sounds with "th."

Another big wave of English vocabulary expansion – a veritable shopping spree – came during the Renaissance. Scholars borrowed heavily from Latin, and tended to preserve Latin spelling where they thought they could. Thus we write timid, despite the rule about double consonants for short vowels. This leads to another rule: Etymology matters.

Through all this, the idea of standardized spelling developed only gradually. In theory, printing should have helped regularize spelling. Not always. The great English printer William Caxton, in the 15th century, was wont to add extra letters to words to fill out lines of type in an eye-pleasing way. And his Flemish assistants sometimes spelled words as they had done at home. That's how ghost got an "h," for example.

English spelling, with its "rules" (sorry, we still need the quotes), is the solution, worked out over centuries, to the problem of fitting English phonemes to the original 23 letters of the Roman alphabet.

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