Monday, 3 December 2012

David Crystal Spells It Out in Bath

A new book by David Crystal, one of the world’s foremost linguists, has turned out to be his bestselling book ever. David Crystal has written, co-authored and edited over 120 books about language. This hugely successful book is about – spelling!

David Crystal has written a hugely successful book about – spelling!


In the evening of Monday, 26th November, he gave a highly entertaining talk about "Spell It Out" for Toppings Bookshop in Bath. The venue had to be moved from the bookshop itself to the nearby Christchurch because the number of tickets purchased had exceeded the space available at the bookshop. David Crystal is such a popular speaker that he received huge cheers from the audience even before he’d said a word!

In his talk he cast light on why English spelling is such a mess. His explanation: it’s a mess because the people messed it up! For example, the French after the invasion in 1066 insisted on spelling English the French way. Dr. Johnson later set out to (as he put it) fix English orthography in his Dictionary of the English Language of 1755. Noah Webster published the American Spelling Book in 1783, with the result that Americanisms have been creeping into the British language ever since. And there have been many more attempts by various people to impose new spelling systems on everyone.

The story of English spelling is by no means over yet, which is mainly due to the influence of the internet. Note that all offline publications have been checked by a copyeditor or proofreader, but who controls what spellings you use on Facebook, Twitter or your blog? Once enough people have made the same mistake all over again, it will eventually creep into the language and be considered standard.

Funnily, I spotted a typo at Tyntesfield near Bristol only yesterday. "independent" had been misspelt as "independant" on an official National Trust poster announcing a Christmas concert. It had probably been confused with the French spelling. And I liked what I saw: a visitor, without further ado, had crossed out the a to replace it by e using a fat, black pen!

Misspellings happen easily and can crop up everywhere. According to David Crystal, the fear of incorrect spelling is widespread among both adults and kids, and emotions typically range from mild amusement to horrified disgust. No one, understandably, wants to appear as being sloppy or uneducated. 

Lisa Davey, one of my main ports of call as to the correct use of British English, recently has written about English spelling on her blog at http://www.translationworks.co.uk/tworks_eng/2013/10/good-english-spelling.html.