+ English Spelling – Some Historical Notes

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Sixty years after the death of Chaucer, William Caxton introduced his printing press in 1400.  Suddenly, typesetters began freezing the spellings of words, stabilizing them in mass produced texts. 

Here, from an early chapter of David Crystal’s “The Fight for English”, is an example of the extent of the problems surrounding word spellings during this period.

Take an everyday word like might, as in “I might go.”  Over twenty different spellings have been recorded for this word in Middle English — a baker’s dozen is ‘meaht’, ‘maehte’, mihte’, ‘micte’, ‘myhte’, ‘michte’, ‘mitte’, ‘myht’, ‘mahte’, ‘mihhte’, ‘mizte’, ‘mighte’, and ‘myght’.  Thousands of words had variants.

Imagine you are a scribe living in Lincoln in the early 1400s.  Your daily work consists of composing or copying documents of all kinds for administrative, legal, religious, literary, and other clients.  You have to spell words as best you can.  You are on your own, apart perhaps from some fellow scribes — who are in the same position you are.  If a word comes up that you do not know, there are no dictionaries to turn to, to decide on a spelling.  You have to write the word down as you think it ought to be spelled.  You may sound it out first.  The likelihood is that the spelling will reflect features of your local Lincolnshire accent.  (pp18-19).

Imagine this happening, says Crystal, over centuries, all over the country.  The Middle Ages had seen a marvelous flowering of regional dialects.  When even small geographical distances were barriers to communication, texts were being written, even within a few dozen miles of each other, that reflected local sounds, words, and grammar.

At the end of the Old English period, there were about 50,000 words in the language.  By the end of the Middle English period, in the fifteenth century, there were 100,000, including unfamiliar foreign words. 

It is in writing, which does not give the recipient the simultaneous feedback of oral conversation, that we most need standardisation.  Standards help ensure that my communicative intentions will meet your requirements and expectations.

Caxton had to make his own decisions, but standardising language did not happen overnight.  It would take more than three hundred years.

England was becoming increasingly centralized, with London as a national capital.  It is in 15th century writings from London institutions, especially the court of Chancery, that we see the first signs of an emerging standard.  The wide dissemination of a few important texts (works of Chaucer, and Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible) after the arrival of printing assured that the linguistic features of one dialect — that of the east midlands, especially of the London area — began to predominate. 

Why did it take so long?  Standardisation presumes linguistic stability, and in Middle English it wasn’t there.  Tens of thousands of new words were arriving, from French, Latin and elsewhere.  Grammar, spelling, and pronunciation were also changing.  Old inflections were dropping away.  English was beginning to rely on the order of words in a sentence to express meaning.

The problematic rules of spelling that developed were the consequence of having a civil service of French scribes, who paid little attention to the old traditions of English spelling that had been evolving since Anglo-Saxon times.

Not only did French ‘qu’ arrive, replacing the Old English ‘cw’ (as in ‘queen’), but ‘ch’ replaced ‘c’ (in such words as ‘church’ — Old English ‘circe’), ‘sh’ and ‘sch’ replaced ‘sc’ (as in ‘ship’ — Old English ‘scip’), and much more.  Vowels were written in a great number of ways. 

Much of the irregularity of modern English spelling derives from the forcing together of Old English and French systems of spelling in the Middle Ages.  People struggled to find the best way of writing English throughout the period — and without much success…  Even Caxton didn’t help, at times.  Some of his typesetters were Dutch, and they introduced some of their own spelling conventions into their work.  That is where the ‘gh’ in such words as ‘ghost’ comes from.   (p 26)

And  the Great Vowel Shift, a series of changes affecting the long vowels of English, began in the early 1400s, just as Caxton began printing.  Before the shift, a word like ‘loud’ would have been pronounced ‘lood’, ‘name’ as ‘nahm’, ‘leaf’ as ‘layf’, ‘mice’ as ‘mees’; those were vowel pronunciations still in line with the European languages on the continent.  

The vowel shift was probably completed within about two generations.  Obviously, this rapid pronunciation change presented enormous problems for the emergence of a standardised system of spelling.

According to Crystal, the country was now ready for a standard, and it even had a favorite dialect to use (London’s).  But Caxton and the printing press just began the process.  There were many, many more controversies to come.

Curious? Read the book.  It is an easy read by an eminent language maven, who was puzzled by the huge popularity of books on English usage by Lynne Truss and others. 

Crystal writes in the prologue, “This is the story of the fight for English usage — the story of a group of people who tried to shape the language in their own image but, generation after generation, failed.  They looked at the language around them, and didn’t like what they saw.  ‘Fight’ is not my metaphor, but theirs.”

What keeps these issues alive, and is it healthy? he asks.  He says it can be — but only if we step back from fundamentalism and adopt a more rational linguistic perspective.  The book is organised at first along historical lines; it then begins to present a story of usage in terms of grammar, punctuation, spelling, pronunciation.  In the final chapters he focuses on factors which have shaped the educational situation we are in today.

Crystal has also written “Stories of English”, a truly comprehensive account of the history of the language. 

“The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left”, by David Crystal, 2006, is published by Oxford University Press.  ISBN 978-0-19-920764-0

tutoring in Columbus  OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or          aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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