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Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling

3.54  ·  Rating Details  ·  194 Ratings  ·  46 Reviews
“A funny and fact-filled look at our astoundingly inconsistent written language, from Shakespeare to spell-check.”
St. Petersburg Times

David Wolman explores seven hundred years of trial, error, and reform that have made the history of English spelling a jumbled and fascinating mess. In Righting the Mother Tongue, the author of A Left-Hand Turn Around the World brings us th
ebook, 224 pages
Published October 6th 2009 by HarperCollins e-books (first published September 24th 2008)
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(showing 1-30 of 704)
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Petra X
May 05, 2015 Petra X rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, reviewed
The book necessarily starts in Olde Englande because that's where our modern English spellings don't start from, that comes next, but was the foundation of the language. It is therefore very jarring to have the author intersperse this history of orthography with modern American cultural references, 'they didn't drink the Kool-Aid', a long chapter on Spelling Bees (did any of the popular kids in school actually go in for that, or was it reserved for teacher's best little kiddies?) and slang, 'coo ...more
Jason Pettus
Sep 03, 2010 Jason Pettus rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

I originally picked this up because of a hugely entertaining interview with the author I heard on public radio's "The World in Words;" and blessedly, the book turns out to be just as entertaining, a brisk yet informative look at the various attempts over the millennia to standardize what we know as the Eng
Evanston Public  Library
Are you a good speller? I am, but my husband and son rely heavily on spell-check (and me) to keep them from making terrible errors. Their problem is common: they are using mere logic and phonetics to spell many words and that leads them astray. In David Wolman’s telling of the story of English spelling, we learn why it is that our wonderfully rich language has such byzantine spelling conventions (hint: it has something to do with the number of other languages that contributed their vocabulary to ...more
Aug 03, 2010 Cindy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Continuing on my linguistic romp…this is a short, very readable introduction to the history of English orthography, specifically that of spelling. It spans the beginnings of the English language, talking about its myriad influences, to the printing press, to the very first dictionaries, to the call for reformation of the entire language by Webster himself, to the Spell Check, to the fight of the Simplified Spelling Society today.

The information in here is interesting, but I wanted more out of Wo
Nov 19, 2008 Mimo rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I'm divided on this book. On the positive side, the topic of the history of the English language and its orthography (that's fancy for spelling) was really interesting. The author went to England and traced it, sharing such gems as why lower and uppercase letters are called that. As a librarian, I was also interested to learn that besides devising the classification system that I still use today, Melvil Dewey was a huge player in the simplified spelling movement, even going so far as to change t ...more
Heather the Hillbilly Banjo Queen
I love the English language. I don't always use it "correctly", but maybe I don't have to all the time. Maybe I don't have to spell "correctly" every time, either. This book was a hoot...if you like English. It was a nice short history of spelling and how it came about. It's relatively new, starting around Chaucer's time. There are some who believe that we should switch to simplified spelling, and I'm sure you would be suprised at who is on that list. I know I was. It also dealt with how our lan ...more
Dec 01, 2009 Steve rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Breezy entertaining story of efforts over the centuries to change English spelling. Sometimes the efforts succeed, at least partly, as when letters were added to many words (like the b in debt, the o in people) to make them look more like Latin. Mostly, however, English spelling has changed slowly. The book recapitulates much of the standard history of the language, but the author adds quite a bit at the end about spell checkers and Google. Entertaining, but if you know your history of English, ...more
Todd Stockslager
Jun 08, 2015 Todd Stockslager rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Interesting insights into why and how we spell continues my recent thread on English (and specifically American) language

The American Language-4th Editin
Websterisms: A Collection of Words and Definitions Set Forth by the Founding Father of American English

Wolman takes off from a position of a spelling-challenged student to tour the roots of English orthography (the study of spelling) in this light extended magazine piece. He starts at several ground-zero sites in England where English as a spoke
Sally Boyer
Dec 07, 2015 Sally Boyer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some facts from the book:

"Following the Norman invasion, French usurped an estimated 85 percent of the Old English vocabulary." (p28)

"In the end, Gutenberg's downfall had nothing to do with knockoffs. Just as he was finally printing and selling some books, his business partner lost patience and took him to court. The famous inventor's debt led to a lost lawsuit and the forfeiture of his printing press, workshop equipment, and a bulk of whatever money he'd earned from sales." (p40)

"Many printers
Joy Schultz
Fairly interesting book on the history of English orthography, a discussion of of spelling reform, and some description of the cognitive side of reading and writing (which helps account for the difficulties some people have in these activities).

Chapter 5, which bridges the gap between the advent of printing and the publishing of Johnson’s dictionary, was the most illuminating section for me, as it gave some clarity to how printing houses and self-appointed tastemakers and language-shapers in the
May 26, 2009 Jon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some interesting stuff...the history of spelling up to the modern day spelling reformists. My only problem with this book was the same problem I have with the Mary Roach books...I like the facts, but don't much care for the author's personal journey. Less personality, more interesting factoids.
Sep 28, 2010 Erik rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Yet another entertaining and informative romp through the history of the English language. (I don’t seem to ever get bored with revisiting it, now do I?) Wolman offers a few more original insights into our mother tongue, even as he wanders down paths already trodden by his more eminent peers, like David Crystal. (Surprisingly, Crystal accompanied Wolman on many of Wolman’s excursions across the UK while researching this book, and as a near companion in this book.)

Outside of his detailed history
Kalle Wescott
Jan 06, 2013 Kalle Wescott rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

I just read this book by David Wolman.

The book was somewhat inconsistent in its approach but the subject matter was fascinating!

I learned that we lost 6 letters in Olde English. Here are three of them and the origins of ampersand.

The longest place name in the world is Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturi-pukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu in New Zealand.

Shakespeare invented over 2000 new lexemes and invented many phrases that are standard parts of the modern English language! Here

Aug 11, 2012 Cat. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, history, words
Why are English words so WEIRD and varying in terms of spelling. The author traces the history of the language, but it much more concerned with why everyone gets so worked up about spelling, why there has to be a "right" way to spell things when we invented spelling in the first place as a tool.

This book completely changed the way I look at spelling problems other people have. I've always known Shakespeare "couldn't even spell his own name consistently", but maybe the point really is that he di
Jerry Smith
Picked this up thinking it was a more general review of English than it turned out to be - that's my fault as the title makes it clear the author is examining how English spelling came about and it's various excentricities.

It succeeds in telling the story mainly from the point of view of the many protagonists who have tried to simplify it over the years, largely without success. There is also a nod to the more recent times where the internet and texting are having their inevitable effect!

The o
Carolyn Rose
Jul 26, 2015 Carolyn Rose rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating - somehow, even being an English major, I never "got" a lot of this before. But you can't read this while tired, or it will tangle your brain.
Caitlin Marineau
I may have given this book a slightly better rating if I hadn't made the mistake of reading it soon after Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma. Lynch's book covers many of the same topics as Wolman's, but in a wider breadth and greater depth. Wolman's book was a short and breezy read covering the history of English and spelling, and for those new to the topic of linguistics, Righting the Mother Tongue would probably be a good test of interest. However, if you have been exposed to the topic t ...more
Emily Blaine
Jan 24, 2015 Emily Blaine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
LOVED the early history of the English language. So many questions I've been wondering about were answered!
Indigo Editing/Ink-Filled Page
I'm sure, no positive, every editor in the conference did a double-take (or is that double take, or doubletake?)--scratch that--gravitated to this title. As people whose jobs are to tame the wild vines of dangling modifiers and evolving spelling rules, how could we not? Wolman, with an innocent look and a comfortably comic nature, promises to entertain us languagelubbers and maybe teach us a thing or two too (er, as well).

Originally posted on Seeing Indigo.
Nov 19, 2008 Marjanne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: english geeks
I am such a geek. I really enjoyed this book. The author gives a brief spelling history of the English language. It was fascinating and fun to read. The best part is that it really made me think about my perceptions of spelling and, particularly, the impact of modern devices on spelling (i.e. spell-check and texting). I considered myself a 'bad speller' when I was younger, but don't have a lot of trouble with it now and actually get paid to write. Overall, this book was fun and made me think.
Donna Jo Atwood
Wolman takes on orthography (spelling) from the Anglo-Saxons to Twitter and comments on the changes, the changers, and the changed. Taking the reader on a pilgrimage from Winchester Cathedral to Mainz, Germany to Stratford on Avon to the White House and on to Silicon Valley, the book traces the "right" way to spell--or is it?
A little tedious in places, but if you've an interest in words and in the ridiculousness of English spelling this might be your cup of tea.
Bill Ward
Nov 21, 2015 Bill Ward rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book. It's a history of English spelling, from the Anglo-Saxons all the way to Google today. It's a quick read, with plenty of wit and self-effacement (the author himself is a poor speller, and at one point gets himself tested for dyslexia even). There wasn't a lot in the book I didn't already know, but I still enjoyed reviewing the history.
May 21, 2014 David rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
It's hard for me to give a book like this more than 3 stars, but it really was an enjoyable, informative read. I do recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about the English language in general, or spelling in particular.
Dave/Maggie Bean
"Pop-linguistics," but very enjoyable. A brief, well-written, well-reasoned treatment of the vagaries of English orthography from the Norman Conquest to the age of texting and cyberspeak. I'll add, however, that it's a blessing to him that Wolman isn't Irish: Gaelic spelling would drive him bats**t.
Sep 20, 2009 Stacy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who can't spell
This is a great non-fiction book - even for those of you who do not always like the non-fiction. The content is interesting, the writing is good, its funny and thoughtful.... I liked it a lot. Plus, it made me feel better about my crappy spelling. I really recommend this one!
Jan 22, 2011 Christy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2011
Well, Christmas present-getters can't be choosers. Surprisingly and disappointingly dull, for a word fancier. Pretty badly written too. Favorite factoid: "olde" is actually a 19th marketing invention, the word was never spelled that way in Old (or Middle) English.
Jan 10, 2011 Deb rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It was interesting, but didn't rock my world until the last couple of chapters about how the internet is changing spelling--simplifying, standardizing--because of things like Google's "did you mean ..." features. Would have liked less history and more contemporary.
Nov 08, 2008 Turi rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: language
Fun, interesting book about - well, the history of spelling, really. Touches on the evolution of English to where it is now, different attempts to reform or simplify spelling, and the effects that modern technology are having on language and spelling.
Lindsey Doolan
Fun look at the history of English spelling. My only beef is that the author is a proponent of phonetic spelling, which is a quick way to destroy the ability to figure out what a word means based on Greek/Latin/Anglo-Saxon roots. Fun nonetheless.
Oct 22, 2010 Kostina rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
this was an engaging reading, albeit in parts slightly repetitive and jumpy; anyone interested in English as a language, especially re: the disconnect between spelling and pronunciation, will enjoy the book.
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David Wolman is a contributing editor at WIRED and MATTER, and the author, most recently, of Firsthand: A Decade of Reportage.

He has also written for such publications as the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Nature, and Outside. His long-form feature about Egypt’s 2011 uprising was a finalist for a 2012 National Magazine Award for reporting, and his profile of a curr
More about David Wolman...

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“The gh at the end of many modern words, however, like dough, cough, and trough, is actually an artifact not of Dutch orthographic tendencies, but of Norman distaste for the Middle English letter yogh, which looked like this: 3. Yogh fell out of use around the end of the fifteenth century.” 0 likes
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