Does Spelling Matter?
S Horobin, Oxford University Press, 2013, 288pp, £20.99 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 19966 528 0
Reviewed by Caroline Petherick
You've read David Crystal's Spell It Out and you're keen to explore the history of English spelling in greater depth? Plunge into this book, then!
But be aware … despite its jokey blurb, Does Spelling Matter? in fact encapsulates a serious exploration into a vastly complex subject. By the time you've absorbed it, you should be able to utter such throwaway lines as:
The question of how many potestates a particular figura can be associated with is also one that has been much debated, especially those who have tried to reform English so that each individual figura maps on to a single potestas.
The relationship between phonemes and graphemes is conventional. There is no inherent reason why the phoneme /k/ should be represented by the grapheme <k> rather than some other grapheme like <d>. For that matter it would be equally possible to represent the phoneme <æ> with the letter <o> and the phoneme /t/ with <g>, with the result that the word /kæt/ would be spelt <dog>.
This last is a rare moment of levity in what is primarily a dense and well-thought-out academic exposition of the development of English spelling through the ages. The author is careful not to take a stance on most issues: however, his viewpoint on the long-running issue of spelling reform is that English would do better without it.
The index is divided into two types: word and subject. This helps the book become a handy reference source after first reading. Highly recommended.