The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch

Very readable history of how the rules of spelling and grammar in English have evolved over time, often despite the efforts of those who attempted to set those rules in stone. Makes a great companion book for Shady Characters.

Three things I learned:

  • No one cared about English grammar or spelling until the 18th century. I’d always heard that Shakespeare was a bad speller, or a rebellious speller, but that wasn’t it at all: no one in his era cared about spelling very much, so however he wrote the words down, so long as their meaning was clear, was fine.
  • At least part of our spelling problems come from using a 23-sound alphabet (the Latin one) to write a 40-phoneme language. The original runic script for writing English had 33 letters, which made it much easier to distinguish the blended th in thing from the separated th of masthead.
  • Many of the differences in spelling between American English and British English (e.g., color vs colour) come from Noah Webster, who, in a spate of linguistic patriotism, wanted to give the new country its own English.