Understanding English

You never know when you are going to bump into a valuable resource for your research. When I was in London a few years ago, I was researching at the British Library. While waiting for a friend, I was perusing the gift shop and found a wonderful book that has proven very important to me. 

Part of being able to read and understand original documents in our research is having an understanding of language. Knowing how and why words were created and formed can lead us to many kinds of spelling variations. The greater the understanding of these variations, the easier it becomes to read old documents. 

One great resource is David Crystal’s Spell it Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling(London, England: Profile Books, 2012). There are 37 short chapters talking about many different aspects of spelling, from Old English to Modern English. 

Throughout the book there are highlights about spelling from literature, film, history and more. One of these struck me as particularly key to the problems we have as genealogists reading old documents. The character of Tony Jobling, in Charles Dickens’s Bleak Houseis talking about Mr. Krook when he says: 

“He’ll never read. He can make all the letters separately, and he knows most of them separately when he sees them; he has got on that much under me; but he can’t put them together. He’s too old to acquire the knack of it now — and too drunk.”

Certainly many of us have read documents that appear as if the letters were randomly put together in manner that might question the author’s sobriety. But also it reminds us that writing is more than just understanding letters. It requires a knowledge of exactly how those letters are combined to make words. 

Through the centuries letters have been introduced in different ways. Some letters stayed and others (such as the thorn) have disappeared. Both vowel sounds and consonant sounds have impacted our words. The introduction of printing impacted our language. Abbreviations have also introduced changes. He also includes discussion of how phonetics has impacted spelling throughout the ages. You can get a copy of the book at your local bookstore, or at Amazon

Leave a Comment