David Crystal and the history of English spelling, or how the Internet is killing off silent letters

The Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, which is held annually in Wales, was a prolific spell it outplace this year for discussions about language use. Professor David Crystal gave a wonderfully engaging talk at the event, presenting his latest book Spell it Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling (the podcast is available here).

The Daily Mail reported on the event in an article with a catchy title Receipt without “p”, rhubarb without the “h”: How the Internet is killing off silent letters. Crystal explains the history of English spelling in his talk, a history of waves of variation and novelty, and of various people who kept “messing it up”. The French changed the simply-spelled Anglo-Saxon word CWEN into QUEEN, the Flemish typesetters are responsible for the “H” in GHOST, and the educated users of Latin for the “B” in DEBT (lat. DEBITUM). Crystal goes on to explain how English spelling is continuing to evolve today through the use of the Internet. The silent letters, such as the “H” in RHUBARB, are disappearing online in a medium which allows for writing and publishing without the filtering, editing process.

David Crystal was not the only one at the Hay festival to tackle the issues of spelling, language and pedantry. Simon Horobin, English professor at the Magdalen College, Oxford, addressed the language pedants in his talk, suggesting that there is nothing sacrilegious about “thru”, “lite”, and even the lack of spelling differences among “they’re”,“their”, and “there”, the Telegraph reports.

What caught my attention were the reactions from the readers, who seem to have less tolerant attitudes towards usage than the linguists. The best rated comments on the David Crystal article all express concern about “language wreckage” and the lack of education, whereas the results of the poll on the importance of grammar in the Telegraph below speak for themselves.

Does grammar matter

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