Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling, is, as the title suggests, the humorous, condensed story of the development of English spelling.
The study of English spelling, or orthography, is complicated; our language has influences from many different languages and dialects (apparently 80-90% of our words come from other languages which, as you read, will turn out to be not so surprising). David Wolman, a less-than-stellar speller himself, takes his reader back 1500 years, to Wessex, to the time when Alfred the Great ruled. Jump forward five hundred years, to the invasion of England by the Normans and the infusion of Norman French into upper-class speech... and forward again, to the invention of the printing press... again, to the creation of Webster's dictionary and the invention of modern American spelling... and eventually to the modern inventions of spell-check, Google, e-mail, and text message. Oh, what a long way English spelling has come--and is likely to go. Its also amazing to me how English has gone from being a language of the street, farm, and tavern (as Wolman puts it) to being the language of international commerce--all within 1500 years.
Wolman sits down with a number of individuals to talk about this develoment, including the noted scholar David Crystal. His approach is therefore hands-on, and his tone is irreverent, catching on to those subtle ironies of the English language that make it so unique. In all, a concise, hysterically funny layman's guide to this fascinating but tricky subject. In many ways, its a lot like Lynn Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves.