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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Simon Horobin is professor of English Language and Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford. His latest book, "Does Spelling Matter?", whilst aimed at the interested non-specialist, presents a scholarly history of the forms of written English over the ages. There are times, especially in the early parts of the book, where it is perhaps a little too scholarly, offering heavy going for the lay reader. For those able to stay the course, though, the book presents much that is fascinating about the English language and its idiosyncrasies of spelling, debunking countless popularly upheld myths along the way. It stands as a competitor to David Crystal's "Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling", which made it into the best-seller lists when it was released last year. I do not expect this latest look at the history, make-up and potential future of English spelling to do as well as its predecessor in the popularity charts; Prof Horobin's erudition and academic rigour standing somewhat at odds with the more popularising style of Prof Crystal. Lovers of words, their form and their function, will nevertheless find much to savour between its covers.

The book's eight chapters chronicle the history of our written language from its earliest roots and origins in Anglo-Saxon England, through its re-emergence from suppression by the invaders' Norman French in the late Middle Ages, its renaissance during the Early Modern period of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and into the great definitive spelling age of the modern dictionary-ruled period. It closes with an examination of the impact of additional outside pressures on our spelling system, such as the spread of American spelling reforms, as well as the apparent suspension of correct spelling habits witnessed in the modern era of electronic communication. Each chapter details the attempts over the centuries that have been made to rationalise or simplify our English orthography. While some of these revisions have indeed been implemented and put into practice, remaining with us in some form today, the vast majority -- mercifully -- were abandoned never to see the light of day, or else fell rapidly by the way-side. Each chapter is painstakingly detailed, with the whole making for a fascinating story -- albeit one that is seemingly of a history of well-meaning cack-handedness in the way English has been treated over the years.

One progression which the author exposes in the book but doesn't really put under the microscope (thus, to my mind, failing to take it to its logical conclusion) is the steady shift in guardianship of standardised English orthography which has occurred over time. The earliest standardised form of written English in Anglo-Saxon times was very much within the domain of court scribes and monastic clerics; with the rising influence of major seats of learning and scholarship in the late Middle Ages, however, this yoke was taken up by academics, keen to establish and reflect (a largely bogus, as it happens) etymology for our language in classical Latin and Greek. The introduction of the printing press shifted the onus for establishing and maintaining the way words were represented on paper to the compositors of the printing houses. Simon Horobin presents wide-ranging evidence for the fact that even the most revered authors of English literature and scientific endeavour of those times rarely used consistent or even correct spellings in their letters, diaries, notebooks or even manuscript writings. It was left to those charged with the business of producing the final published works to maintain and preserve the consistency of presentation of material destined for any wider audience. In part, this was to ensure that their wares were as accessible to as wide a buying public as possible. Adhering to standard forms also facilitated the faster and more efficient preparation of the printing blocks, ensuring that the work was completed more quickly.

Over the last century or so, renewed drives for spelling reform have largely come from educators and politicians concerned with the economic cost that the inconsistencies in the way English spelling works supposedly imposes on its teaching. Few, if any, of the reforms suggested from this quarter have ever found sufficient support for their introduction, whilst many of those that have been tried have been abandoned as hopelessly unsuccessful.

Today, the global reach of most written English publications, particularly with the rise of the internet and other electronic means of transmission, together with concomitant perversions of established standards through widespread exposure to other English-based standards -- such as Webster's simplified American standard spellings -- leads many to fear for the inevitable acceptance of a steady bastardisation of our traditional spellings. Words such as programme, dialogue, catalogue and even pyjamas would seem to be particularly at risk in this regard, even though resistance to new renderings such as "color" remains high. Oddly, discussion of this on-going modern shift is side-stepped in Horobin's final chapter, where he flags up (and then dismisses almost as specious) the increased use of abbreviations and contractions prevalent in text messaging and on-line chat as potential threats to the continuance of traditional spelling forms.

To my mind, though, the greatest step ever taken in the democratisation of the written word has occurred through the rise of internet self-publishing with its absence of the traditional guardians of orthography and style, in the form of publishers' intermediary agents (be these the compositors and their apprentices of yore, or the latter day multi-tiered editors). For the first time almost since the dawn of the written English word, writers are fully free now to present and distribute their words to the public in whatever form and shape they wish. It is perhaps too early to say whether public approbation and ridicule for writings which present their authors as ignorant of "correct" English spellings will regulate or restrict the rate and direction of change which results and propagates from these sources. I am nevertheless surprised that Horobin does not even mention or comment upon the phenomenon. Those concerned about this issue will have to draw what succour they can from the book's final chapter summary of the general resistance demonstrated by all populations to any tinkering (official or otherwise) with spelling systems in general, which seems to suggest that change from this quarter, if it occurs at all, will be gradual and ultimately only small in scale.

Those buying the book in order to obtain a definitive answer to the question posed in its title may be disappointed to learn that they will need to wait until almost the final pages of the book before finding this addressed. They may be even more disappointed at the way the author hedges his bets somewhat in his conclusion: whilst suggesting that "proper spelling" probably isn't something that people should get as agitated about as they do, he shows it is clearly an issue about which people feel very strongly, concluding that to most, at least, spelling matters very dearly. Not only do people seem to feel the need to defend the investment which they themselves made in learning to read and write, their inherited spelling system also provides a clear and dearly held association with national or even personal identity. Moreover (and more importantly) spelling carries a wealth of information regarding the meaning and the sources of our words which assists greatly both in our assimilation of meaning as we read, and in our ability to determine the sense of words hitherto unfamiliar to us without the need for recourse to a dictionary. It is enormously helpful to a learner that "century", for example, through its similarity of spelling, indicates its connectedness to "cent", whilst "sentience", having a different spelling in spite of its identical opening sound, does not. Our current spelling system, for all its shortcomings, carries a rich and varied heritage, which most of us would not lightly wish to see lost. All of that said, however, the past history of English spelling, together with the nature of English as a living language which constantly changes and evolves, not only in the spelling but also in the meaning and pronunciation of its words, should be taken as an indicator that spelling rules are nothing like as fixed and immutable as many view them to be.

And any book that cites the grate and lerned (sic) Molesworth in its sources has be worth having.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Simon Horobin takes us through a historical tour of the changes in English orthography from the earliest times, through the standardisation of late West Saxon before a subsequent divergence in the post-Norman period with fragmentation into regional divergences of spelling, which came together piecemeal into early modern English alongside influences of French, Latin and Greek, and dubious attempts at etymological spelling. Various exercises at spelling reform in the 16th and 17th centuries were only partially successful and even added to the confusion, and even Samuel Johnson it seems has to take some blame with his inconsistent spelling choices in his famous dictionary.

Despite the suggestion of the title, relatively little of the book is given over to the question of whether a modern day spelling reform would be either desirable or successful. Horobin would say no to either, if only because of the loss it would entail to our rich literary tradition. Interestingly, Horobin notes that the rise of 'text-speak' and the like, despite the fears of Daily Mail readers up and down the land, is having little in the way of negative effect on standards of spelling, and users by and large use correct spellings in more formal situations.

Horobin writes an interesting and valuable book but it stands a little between two stools, between the populist and the more scholarly, not quite entertaining enough for people who are looking for the former and not quite deep and thorough enough for people wanting the latter.
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VINE VOICEon 18 June 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Horobin takes us through the history of the English language and its spelling, from the regional variances that started the inconsistent approaches and constant `battles' to standardise, through the many times since where the English language has adopted words from Latin, French, Greek and how attempts at spelling reform were only partially implemented which actually added to the confusion! I appreciate much more now how phonetics and pronunciation have influenced the written language and that continues today. It's true that the book does fall short between being a true academic reference book and casual light read but perhaps that may give it broader appeal? The constant references to the phonetic / spoken English would probably make the book work better as an audio book as I found it hard going to get those sounds into my head and understand the application in each case. The references back to the ancient alphabets and characters is also hard going, especially as there are few reference tables to help with a quick look-up (only a phonetic symbols list). So I did find it a tough read through the middle sections which explore beginnings and revision. However, the book certainly ends on a lighter note with the final chapter considering current factors influencing spelling, such as electronic and social media. So, not quite as light a read as I was expecting but informative all the same.
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on 1 June 2016
Once again this downloaded to my archives and i cannot get it as it is greyed out. This has become a frequent occurence and has put me off buying any more Kindle items.
I cannot giveit any rating under these circumstances.
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VINE VOICEon 8 June 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is an interesting look at the mechanics of spelling, phonetics, and why words are spelt the way they are in English. I'd agree with other reviewers the style is awkwardly pitched, not rigorous enough to be scholarly, not light enough to be for the casual reader. However, I would say it's easily as comprehensible as the overrated David Crystal, and the subject matter is fascinating. It doesn't really answer the title question at all, so it loses one star for that. But if you enjoy language and are interested in how it has developed, the book is worth every penny. Clear sighted and well argued, it's a good read. Worth a bit of your time...
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on 25 July 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is not as 'light' a read as I'd expected. It is a thorough, though highly engaging, history of spelling - and English in general - rather than a lighthearted 'eats, shoots and leaves' style popular guide. If you love the English language and are happy to read a book about the quirks and narratives of history, you might very well enjoy this.
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VINE VOICEon 18 September 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Simon Horobin obviously knows his subject. This book is full of fascinating information about spelling and language, but I did not find it as easy to read as I had expected or hoped. A bit of a chore to wade through, but perseverance was rewarding in places. Recommended.
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VINE VOICEon 22 May 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I am not an expert on linguistics, grammar or spelling. However I have briefly studied Anglo-Saxon and Middle English as part of my English Literature degree course many years ago and have always been fascinated by the complex and sometimes baffling development of the English language through the years. I have read many books since aimed at the general reader so I am not sure who Does Spelling Matter? is aimed at. It is generally readable, although following the many phonetic symbols made it a slow read. Clearly it is not aimed at Professor Horobin's students nor does it tell me anything new about the story of English but manages to make a big topic such as the 'great vowel shift' more difficult to understand than it needs to be.

However, I do agree with his conclusions that campaigns to reform spelling are fiendishly difficult to achieve, flawed and even misguided and that by altering everything we know - or even only half know - in order to make English easier to learn - we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, English spelling is idiosyncratic and creates unnecessary conflict between people, especially from snobbish and often wrong-headed letters to the press but it is a rich complex language which makes it super-flexible. I agree with him when he says text-speak is not ruining the English language forever. However I do think he doesn't pay enough attention to those people who genuinely struggle because of dyslexia or poor teaching. His analogy that the English language is like a cathedral is a good one: it may be impractical to work in, messy architecturally, it is also beautiful and awe-inspiring in its scope and rich variety. But this is hardly relevant to most people of Great Britain, even less those countries where English is their first language.

Although he introduces some humour, this is a dull trudge through well-trodden ground and he lacks the light and relaxed, but erudite style, of Professor David Crystal. So,if you want to understand how and how the English language developed, how it works and why it's often difficult to make sense of as well as where it's heading in the future (and it's not to hell in a handcart), I would recommend the brilliant Prof Crystal. His enthusiasm always shines through and his knowledge delights.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I was given the David Crystal "equivalent" to this for Christmas, "Spell It Out" and, to my surprise, although in parts very good, it left me underwhelmed. I am an English teacher and study linguistics and Crystal's books are usually excellent (I have many). With this one, though, it seemed to me he had almost "rushed it off" for an attempt at getting into the Guinness Book of Records' for writing the most ever books on the English language. What does Simon Horobin do differently? The key (for me) is that there's a greater sense of objectivity and sincerity in the writing. One reviewer here has called Horobin's book "dull" - well, I just couldn't disagree more. Clearly whilst any judgment has to be subjective, this book attacks its subject with clarity and liveliness. There's none of the trademark Crystal "wit", but that's not a negative here. Horobin takes us through the history of English and its spelling systems back to the very beginnings and on to modern times. If that sounds dry and dull (and my word it must to many people, I suppose), well, it isn't. The book is well-researched, well written and at times a delight. Well worth buying.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 24 May 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Way back in the day, I took a phonetic course as part of uni. Even so, I found this book very hard going - in fact, only managed the introduction and first chapter.

I wanted to like it. It promised so much, but it's that bit too dry - not quite textbook, but still a bit turgid. It could be so much more interesting. Fortunately we have David Crystal Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling, and even (for a very light read) Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language

A bonus point for using the IPA (International Phonetic Association) transcription. Once you've learnt it, you won't want to use the awkward systems used by e.g. Oxford dictionaries (Collins uses IPA). But apart from a single table, there's no introduction to explain the IPA itself (at least, not early on, when it's needed).

Beautifully bound, very bright quality paper. Shame you need to be an academic in the subject to be able to read it. It was clearly aimed at a more general readership, but missed the target.
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