Spellbound: the improbable story of English spelling

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Spellbound: the improbable story of English spelling

By James Essinger

Robson Books pound;9.99

I have lived in Cornwall for 20 years (and written more than 20 spelling books), without realising that a common English word was donated by the county's ancient Celtic tongue. Thanks to James Essinger, I now know that gulls - those most Cornish of birds that wake me every morning - take their name from the Kernowek word gullan.

I can't begin to explain how much this means to me. As Antonia Byatt once said, language is as much a part of one's identity "as flesh and blood and passion". The knowledge that, for millennia, Cornishmen and women identified those dratted birds using the same syllable as this displaced 21st-century Lancastrian is a delicate unbroken thread stretching back into the remote past.

Spellbound is full of such treasures. Its subtitle sums up the joy of the book. English is utterly improbable, the product of a ridiculous sequence of historical events. While other nations have attempted to protect and purify their languages, the mongrel English kept open house, welcoming all-comers from all corners of the globe. (It is our greatest strength, and we should be SO proud of it.) Out of the resultant linguistic chaos emerged one of the most expressive languages on Earth - the language of Shakespeare, Austen, Churchill, Robbie Coltrane - a weird hotchpotch that, despite its quirks and quandaries, is now the international language of choice. And the story of this treasure is enshrined in its spelling. Indeed, as Essinger points out, that very word "spell" demonstrates that English - and the way we write it down - is magical.

There are zealots who would "simplify" English spelling, making it phonetically tidy and consistent. Spellbound is the antidote to such rubbish. It deserves as wide and devoted a readership as Lynne Truss's paean to the apostrophe (Eats, Shoots and Leaves - indeed, it deserves far more. Essinger displays not only verve and affection (there are nuggets of linguistic information on every page) but also great scholarship - he is fluent in four languages and acknowledges his debt to academic mentors.

Spellbound is much more than a record of personal quirkiness. It tells how the English language came to be, and, in coming to be, how it formed the English-speaking peoples. Our silly, irregular, nonsensical spelling system is part of that story and is therefore just as much part of us as our flesh and blood and passions. We should celebrate it.

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