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Foreword to Spelling for Life (Sneak Preview)

As promised in our newsletter, here is a sneak preview of the very illustrious Anatoly Liberman’s kind and generous foreword in the forthcoming edition of Spelling for Life.


Professor Liberman is also known as the Oxford Etymologist and writes an incredibly informative weekly blog about word origins. He is also the author of several books, notably Word Origins and How We Know Them. See more of his material here.


I could never have imagined that I would one day agree to recommend a book espousing principles so contrary to my own as Spelling for Life. I believe that English spelling is inconsistent, too burdened with its medieval heritage, and therefore sometimes unmanageable, while Lyn Stone assures us that it is “an elegant, pattern-based system, which becomes apparent if examined thoughtfully.” But then I engage in quixotic battles for spelling reform, a reform that will, I am afraid, never be carried out (implemented, as her Scottish kin might say), while she has devoted years to teaching children, sick and dyslexic children among them, how to spell and achieved laudable results. I have nothing but admiration for her efforts, even though my views on English spelling remain unaltered. But perhaps there is greater honor (allow me to stick to American spelling and grammar in this short introduction) in receiving praise from an opponent than from a member of one’s own party.

At a time when the sons of English gentlemen were routinely sent to public (that is, private) schools, so at least until the eighteen-nineties, some of their textbooks bore titles like Exercises in Etymology and Lessons in Etymology. Those manuals had very little to do with etymology as we today understand it, because their subject matter was grammar (morphology with elements of syntax) and word formation. Spelling for Life reminds me of those useful books. Today few people remember them, but at an age in which English grammar was supposed to replicate the grammar of Latin they must have served their purpose well. The young Winston Churchill was still made to “decline” the noun table so: nominative (table), genitive (of the table), dative (to the table), accusative (table), ablative (by the table), and vocative (o table). He was puzzled by the vocative, but that form, the examiner told him, occurred when he apostrophized a table, which, by his admittance, he never did.

In the early twentieth century, thanks to the efforts of many prominent linguists, children (no longer only boys!) began to study English grammar along modern lines. All went reasonably well until somebody—not too long ago—discovered that grammar was boring and not “fun.” Fun, the backbone of modern instruction in all areas, banished grammar. So today’s undergraduates swoon when they hear the phrase subjunctive mood outside subordinate clauses. But experience shows that, when teachers know how to do things properly, the audience, regardless of the level, understands and enjoys grammar and “etymology” in all its aspects.

Spelling for Life is informed with the spirit of optimism and the author’s belief in children’s ability and readiness to master difficulties. Every page in it is based on experience and convinces the user that, indeed, language system can and should be presented to a class of eager learners and that the presentation will bear fruit. Step by step Lyn Stone goes through vowels, consonants, and syllable structure, introduces such concepts as homophones, touches on the role of foreign elements in English (this would be etymology by any definition), explains the meaning of exceptions, which often also follow rules, and reveals laws where at first sight lawlessness reigns supreme.

Perhaps no evidence is needed to prove that English spelling can be mastered. After all, most of us end up as tolerably good spellers (in this respect English-speakers do not differ from their French , German, or Russian counterparts), though I know no one who would not sometimes be in doubt about the shape of words like reconstructable (isn’t it reconstructible?), schism, skeptic, ascetic, or chthonic. Those, however, are negligible crumbs. The real pie is more digestible. Even if we agree that English spelling is an elegant, pattern-based system of writing, the pattern requires an earnest effort to learn, and we would perhaps be better off if quarter were spelled kwarter, unscathed were spelled unskathed, and gnaw lost its initial g.  (And what about Lin for Lyn?) But let me repeat: This is not an issue for Lyn Stone. She has an artifact before her, enjoys its complex beauty, and wants to open her pupils’ eyes to it. In this she has succeeded in an exemplary way; her book is practical from first page to last. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and the uses to which her work can be put will be obvious to every unprejudiced teacher.

In principle, Spelling for Life can be consulted anywhere in the English speaking world, given an enthusiastic instructor and a malleable class. But whom have bad instructors taught anything, and what have those learned who fought their teachers? Teaching is like love: it brings happiness only if it is requited. I wish the book loving users and a long life on library shelves and especially in the classroom.

Anatoly Liberman, author of the weekly column ‘The Oxford Etymologist’

Look inside Spelling for Life here.

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