Reviewed: Does Spelling Matter? by Simon Horobin

Phoneme baloney.

A spelling bee in progress in 1870. Image: Getty/Hulton Archive

Does Spelling Matter?
Simon Horobin
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £20

Do you remember the “initial teaching alphabet” (ITA)? If you are in your late forties or early fifties, you may well. It was designed by James Pitman, grandson of the shorthand inventor Isaac, to make it easier for children to learn to read. I missed it by about two or three years but my younger brother was less fortunate. He appeared as a result to be semiliterate until about the age of 12. Many other children had the same fate; by the 1970s, the idea had been widely abandoned.

Pitman made the classic mistake of spelling reformers. Our otherwise Byzantine system of orthography takes no account of regional accents. ITA had extra characters to represent certain vowel sounds, such as “oo” in “book”, but given that a child in Blackburn or Accrington, before he or she even learns to read, pronounces a word such as “book” differently from (but no more or less correctly than) a child in Purley or Carshalton Beeches, you immediately encounter a problem. It is a nice idea that spelling should be more phonetic and should represent better the sound of the words, until you realise that not everybody chooses to pronounce the words in the same way.

In this captivating and scholarly book, which as well as describing the evolution of spelling is also a neat primer on the history of the English language, Simon Horobin explains why our spelling is so odd. More than that, he gives a good account of why it should remain that way. He is right to argue that the ability to spell correctly is not a sign of intelligence – we all know some truly bovine people who can spell perfectly and some allegedly brilliant ones who can’t. Yet he does write that making an effort to learn how to spell (for most people, other than those who have learning difficulties or are dyslexic, it is all about effort) is a good idea, because of the aid that correct spelling gives to communication.

Horobin clearly has little sympathy with those who would write another person off because of a propensity to make spelling mistakes but he also reflects on the inevitability of others making such a judgement. His subtle and persuasive argument in favour of rigorous learning is the perfect antidote to those academic linguists from the “anything goes” school of grammar and spelling, whose advice is ideal until one has to write a job application that will be read by someone with more traditional views.

Horobin starts with runes and hieroglyphics and how these symbols conveyed sound and ideas to anyone who read them. From there, he deals with the development of the Greek, Etruscan and Roman alphabets and how, once what became western civilization adopted the Roman one, it found it needed to add letters to it to cover all the sounds that might be used.

In England, the dialect of Old English around the see of Winchester gained prominence in much of the south of the country and became the first sort of standard English but was swept away by the Norman conquest. In time, the language of the oppressor (or part of it) was subsumed into a Saxon tongue that obstinately refused to die; the infusion of French was just one of several such invasions of the native tongue. With the Renaissance, more Latin and Greek words came into the language and necessitated new spellings. With the coming of empire, so did African, Levantine and Indian words.

The language grew with the population and from the time of Caxton and the printing press there were attempts to standardise how words were spelled. Some spellings appear never to have been settled – the Oxford English Dictionary records a long history of the fight between “despatch” and “dispatch”, and “admissible” and “admissable”.

In the great vowel shift of the 16th and 17th centuries, the sound of words travelled ever further from their spellings – the English had long since stopped sounding the silent letters in words such as “knight”; other than in one pedantic attempt, they never sounded those in “psychic” and “psalter”. As sound became less of an indicator of spelling, the need arose for a dictionary. Horobin is complimentary about Samuel Johnson’s efforts, published in 1755, but he points out that Johnson admitted that he was unsure of some of the etymologies and therefore about what the historical authority was for certain words to be spelled as they were (and, indeed, in many cases still are). The OED, a project that has now been under way for more than 150 years, has ironed out most of those doubts but it increasingly goes with the fashion when spellings change under the popular pressure of usage.

The book ends with a warning against trying to reform spelling. In other countries where this has been attempted, it has been disastrous, awakening the latent conservatism of almost entire nations. It also discusses the effect of texting and tweeting on standards of written English, citing evidence, on the one hand, that children claim they would never use the spellings used in those media in their schoolwork and, on the other, complaints from examination boards that the evidence of children doing so is regrettably obvious. This book is a sane, comprehensive and authoritative lesson in why we spell the way we do and why, in order to preserve the richness, subtlety and history of our language, it is right that we keep doing so.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail