Book Review: Righting the Mother Tongue

Book Product Details (from

Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Smithsonian; First Edition edition (October 7, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 006136925X
ISBN-13: 978-0061369254


One of my Christmas gifts last year was Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling (Hardcover) by David Wolman. It’s obstenaibly a history of English spelling, but really it’s a history of English spelling reform. That is, if you are curious as to why there’s an “e” in Phoenix, this book may or may or may not have an answer. But if you’ve ever wondered why they have to keep teaching this spelling in school even though the “e” is not really pronounced…then this book is for you.

One thing I like about this book is the hard-nosed attitude towards English spelling. Wolman is one of the many people in modern society who’s been chided all his life for his non-mastery of the crazy rules of English spelling. He’s realized that it’s not that he is who is lacking logic…rather it’s the English spelling system that could use some reform. He, along with many in the English spelling reform movement, ask if it is really necessary to burden our children with learning the difference between ‘night’ versus ‘knight’ when ‘nite’ works just fine.

Of course spelling reform is easier conceptualized than implemented, especially in a society which has forgone an official language board. This is a history of spelling rule formation, disintegration and call for reform. The book begins in the Old English period when spelling was something scholars made up as they went along, but at least it was phonetically consistent.

It moves quickly through Middle English when French brought some new spelling conventions to England to the era of printing, which is where most of the problems began. Widespread literacy requires a standardized spelling, but the codifiers were actually just printers trying to get a publication to press. Occasionally, they may have been Dutch printers at that who guestimated English spelling convention. Combine that with the fact that English already had both English and French spelling rules and was going through some serious sound shifts, and you will end up with a decidedly quirky system.

The rest of the book runs through different standardization and reform events ranging from Samuel Johnson who created the first modern English dictionary to Noah Webster who created the first American English dictionary and advocated some reforms…some of which stuck (e.g. plow vs plough). The chapters cover other major figures including Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt and others. Many have really, really tried, but usually with limited success.

The story ends with one mechanism which may actually cause reform to happen – the Google spell checker. The difference between Google and other efforts is that Google treats spelling like a socially defined convention. In English, most people spell the dark period after day as “night”, but maybe you also want “nite”. Google pulls up both if its database think they are alternate spellings. Wolman also notes the tactful way Google gives a suggested correction. Google never says yells or gives an error if you type “frend” instead of “friend”, but merely asks “Did you mean ‘friend’? when you type “frend”. Usually the answer is “Uh…yeah”, but it’s a relief Google doesn’t make fun of you or mutter under its breath about the decline of the English language.

And interestingly, …you may really mean “frend” either as an obscure word (e.g. the FREND spacecraft arm or director Charles Friend) or even as a check to see if speakers are using “frend” as an alternate spelling of “friend” (they are). Wolman argues that Google was instrumental in persuading some spelling authorities that spelling “r(h)ubarb” would not cause the end of the world, and might be…acceptable.

Ending with Google is interesting because spelling or any writing is really an arbitrary set of conventions…which people like to mess with for purposes of establishing linguistic identity. This is why the Pan Celtic word for three – /tri(:)/ is spelled as trí in Irish, trì in Scottish Gaelic (see the accent flip) tree in Manx, but just tri in Welsh and try in the modernized Cornish spelling system (Heaven forbid the European languages use the same spelling system).

In the end though, why shouldn’t Google decide? It’s much more democratic, and probably will have more acceptance than anything an official panel will decree. And it will be gradual enough to please those attached to the old forms. Nothing rouses outrage so much as a full-blown replacement of “corrected forms.” English spelling will probably be never fully “fixed”, but it would be nice if there were a better way to tame it.

My Rating

I would say a 4 out of 5. Ironically, I would have liked more discussion of some of the quirks of English spelling. Not so much to maintain them, but to help current speakers understand what is going on (hint: it’s usually a question of language origin plus some sound shift rules).

On the other hand, I am happy with any book from a non-linguist who understands that language is not made of up grammatical decrees.

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