How did English spelling get to be so twisted? Who’s to blame for the in ghost? Who’s to thank for the marvel of spellcheck? Righting the Mother Tongue tells the tale of one untalented speller’s journey into the past, present and future shape of our words. Not all of ’em of course, but many, especially the tricky ones. You’ve persevered in spite of them your whole life: separatehors d’oeuvres, millenniumoccasionallyaccommodationperseverance.

The story of English spelling history is as delightful as it is serpentine, punctuated along the way by encounters with word-obsessed characters like Noah Webster, Theodore Roosevelt and George Bernard Shaw. From spelling bee champions and dyslexia researchers, to the creators of spellcheck and the word gurus at Google, Righting the Mother Tongue is an around-the-world attempt to make a little sense of it all.

This is not some leaden academic tome but an intellectual travelogue across the centuries that also ranges geographically from the Litchfield haunts of Dr. Johnson, creator of the first great English dictionary, to the Silicon Valley home of Les Earnest, the progenitor of computerized spell-checking. Continue




A romp through Anglo-Saxon orthography, from ninth-century monks matching letters with sounds to 21st-century spelling bees.


Journalist Wolman (A Left-Hand Turn Around the World, 2005) begins with the obvious: English spelling? A mess! He had trouble with spelling in school, he confesses, and "as a weak speller, I have some questions that need answering."

So he persuaded linguist David Crystal (By Hook or By Crook, 2008, etc.) to join him on "an orthography-themed road trip" across the English countryside. They started at Winchester's Hyde Abbey, where King Alfred held sway and nearly introduced a more standardized English. Instead, "the French came," so Wolman went on to the site of the Battle of Hastings, source of many subsequent spelling troubles as the conquerors brought their Gallic words along with them. He visited various places associated with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Johnson and others who shaped English language and orthography. Later, confronting old demons from elementary school, he entered a barroom bee and did battle with decuman. Wolman writes about Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary and that mad guy who worked on the OED. He takes an informative, amusing look at some of the more determined efforts to standardize spelling, most notably the Simplified Spelling Board of Melvil Dewey, who had better luck with the Dewey Decimal System. Wolman devotes some pages to "universal languages" like Volapak and Esperanto, also including a much lesser known attempt to create a standardized language, the Mormons' "Deseret Alphabet." Amusement cascades in the final sections as the author describes taking a test for dyslexia, joining the protestors outside a national spelling bee and visiting the godfather of computer spellcheck. Teens and texting, he predicts, are the future of spelling, like it or not.

Sprightly history that sensibly balances the merits of standardization against the forces for freedom.


Correct spelling can make a world of difference. It literally made half a world of difference to German traveler Tobi Gutt, who in 2007 ended up near Sidney, Mont., rather than Sydney, Australia, because of a misspelling while booking his ticket online. In the new book "Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling," Portland author David Wolman sympathizes. Still smarting from childhood trauma -- in fourth grade, he wasn't handed the red primer, for the best spellers -- Wolman set out to learn how English spelling got so convoluted and why we can't seem to fix it.


"An engaging ramble through our orthographic thickets"
-- Boston Globe Ideas columnist, Jan Freeman




"A funny and fact-filled look at our astoundingly inconsistent written language, from Shakespeare to spell-check."



A lively, engaging look at the idiosyncratic derivations and permutations of spelling in the English language.




Blood, good, food. Love, grove, move. Bomb, comb, tomb. Why on earth don't these words rhyme? (Why do bird, word, herd, and curd?) Why are there so many exceptions in English to one-to-one correspondences between sounds and letters, as opposed to orthographically simpler WYSIWYG languages like Italian and Finnish? And what do you do if you're a foreigner studying English confronted with, say, womb, and have no way to figure out which of those three possible pronunciations is correct? More


Chlorophyll. Coniferous. Cotyledons. These are some of my son Luke’s recent spelling words. As you can gather, his third-grade class is in the middle of a botany theme. He hates practicing them nearly as much as I do. He endlessly wants explanations of why, for example, does chlorophyll make the “f” sound with “ph” while coniferous uses an “f”? More


Did you ever wonder why English has such odd rules governing spelling?


Why does it have so many silent letters? Ghost, debt, right and wrangle would all be easier to spell without their silent consonants.


Why does it have so many different ways to spell the same sound? Consider the "oo" sound in school, you, blue and knew. They all "sound" the same. Why are they not all spelled the same? Every bad speller wonders about the arbitrariness of spelling.... More



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AuthorDavid Wolman