Erik's Reviews > Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling

Righting the Mother Tongue by David Wolman
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Sep 28, 10

Read in September, 2010

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 of the spelling wars in our mother tongue on both sides of the Atlantic, here are some of the more interesting tidbits and observations that Wolman provides which I found delicious to ponder over:

1. The likelihood that English spelling would have been more consistent and simplified if Anglo-Saxon hadn’t been injected with French after the Norman Conquest. (But if you look at any random page of un-translated Chaucer, that would be a scary thought indeed.)

2. A Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum exists in London where the preeminent dictionary author lived and wrote in the 18th century. Which is yet another reason why I love London so much, and is yet another reason to go back.

3. Despite many fringe, pseudo-patriotic views contending on a pure, unadulterated golden age of English in early American history, “As many as 25 percent of the population of the US in 1790 didn’t speak English as a first language.” Which goes to show that the existence of other languages in our fair nation back during its founding decade didn’t endanger English one bit. (English-only proponents be damned. You’re wasting your time on fighting a battle that has already been won by our mother tongue. And which is winning converts every day worldwide, as English is the most spoken second language across the globe, and is in no danger whatsoever of being overtaken.)

4. Richard Feynman at his best, yet again: “If the professors of English will complain to me that students who come to the universities, after all these year of study, still cannot spell friend, I say to them that something’s the matter with the way you spell friend.” Touche, Professor!

Next to Crystal, Wolman may be in the lightweight category with his much slender volume and curriculum vitae. But add him to your to-read list if you have a love of the English language and its beautiful absurdity.
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