The Art of English Spelling

{A simplified text based on David Crystal’s Spell It Out, Profile Books, 2013}

Do you consider English spelling difficult?

Off korse, wee kud spel diffrently an’ t’wud stil be possibl to reade. But there’s no use procrastinating about it. Here’s why:

Since Medieval times, scribes toyed with different spellings (in order to be faithful to pronunciation of words they heard). By the XV century they were trying their best to write things like ‘steak’; they would write it ‘steike, ‘steyke’, ‘styke’, ‘steke’, ‘steak’ or ‘steake’, “until eventually ‘steak’ prevailed”. (David Crystal, 2012)

(Either way they must have been pronouncing it either steique or else staik)

There were quite a few words that were concurrently spelled differently. Crystal gives examples:

  • moun, mone, moone, moune, moon
  • naam, nayme, naym, name 
  • queene, quean, quiene, queen

So, scribes thought they should try and be more consistent with spelling (despite the lack of the Internet) by applying principles. Two prevalent rules they were implementing throughout the ages were as follows:

1) Double a consonant after a short vowel sound. 

But today this would mean we would have had to write: troubble, threadding, wannting, cookker, comming, lovving, havving, revving, dogg, catt, rattoxx, axx, ramm, tinn, robb and stopp etc.

At the time there was giv or givv, and lov or lovv, or low, even. With this doubling rule, you would sometimes see ‚moth’ written mothth and fishing as fishshing and so on and so on.

Then there was ‘hachch’ (or ‘hacch’, or ‘hach’) for hatch, ‘machch’ (or ‘macch’, or ‘mach’) for match.

So, enter rule No. 2, which went something like this:

2) Just add a silent ‘e’ on the end of a word to mark a short vowel where there are two vowels preceeding it. 

So: booke, hooke, neere (near), and heere (here), but also doe (do).

And so you start to see why lovv or loovve became love today, and ‘have’ (not havv or hav).

First double the consonant and then add ‘e’, you see?

Soon, the compromise was to add an ‘e’ where the vowel is long (or a diphthong) to differentiate. ‘Hop’ from ‘hope’, ‘sit’ from ‘site’, for example. Furthermore, since there might be confusion with some words, like ‘toe’ and ‘too’, ‘the’ and ‘thee (you), there had to be “exceptions” made to the rule, to make a distinction, e.g. ‘too’, ‘to’ and ‘two’.

Truly, only a handful are still a bit harder to tell apart (without the context).

Dove, live, does and row (homographs). It was only a matter of time before this would hav to chaunge. 😀

Anyhow, suddenly we had more exceptions than rules, which pissed off more than a few Scots. There’s been, nevertheless, much improvement over 4 or 5 centuries and the first real English dictionary wasn’t until 1604.

Consider these words, which were all once spelled two ways:

  • carr, blurr, torr, ruff, upp, off, inn 
  • car, blur, tor, ruf, up, of, in  (<– heed the problem with the last two?)

Yet, I couldn’t image words like ‘wall’, ‘all’, ‘hall’ or ‘tall’ with only one ‘l’ (Can’t blame the Anglo-Saxons there!)

With the arrival of French Norman scribes, they would eventually introduce ‘th’ ‘qu’ ‘sh’ and ‘gh’ (compromises), and words like…

Ship will have changed, from scip; child will have changed, from cild; and miht simply became might.

If we didn’t have words spelled with the ‘th’, we’d still have two consonant letters ð (eth) and ϸ (thorn) – sometimes they’d be used interchangeably – but also ʒ (yogh, a kind of ‘g’) and ᴩ (wynn, which was replaced by ‘w’).

(Can’t blame the Normans for wanting a reform! Admittedly, words beginning in qu– or ending –que are charming.)

Words that were of Old English or Germanic origin kept the double-consonant, and words from French or Latin (eventually) reverted back to their root, except when the tonic-stress changed, as with ‘cabbage’ (from Old French ‘caboche‘) and ‘bonnet’ (from Old French ‘bonet‘). Here, the double-consonant remained (with short vowels).

Anyway, aren’t you glad that words like gohd, foht, bloht, guid are spelt they way they are today? I doubt you would’ve guessed these were god, foot, blood and good, respectively. That’s why it’s good we have food, wool, foot, fool etc. (which don’t follow either of those ‘rules’) and thank goodness we’re consistent with see and sea or piece and peace, for that matter.

What about these words: healf, heorte, beod, piic, muus (or mus)? Be glad they’re: half, heart, bed, pike and mouse. (Though we’d surely understand ‘maus’ and ‘haus’.)

The French didn’t like the idea of words ending in –s (that wasn’t plural), so we now have:

  • service, since, dance, fence, truce, price, face

Why, we even have ‘juice’ and ‘advice’ (you can blame the French for those two).

Slowly but surely we saw words spelled like they are today:

  • name, tale, gate, safe, page, base
  • side, wife, like, mile, time, mice and ice (or you’d have ‘is’)
  • these, theme, scene, swede
  • rode, yoke, hole, home, nose
  • rude, lute, duke, rule, June

Finally, hete became ‘hate’. So just be thankful that English is the way it is and don’t detest its spelling peculiarities.

It’s nice to know the etymology of words, and whether they come from Germanic or Romance languages, but sometimes you just have to memorize these until they become imprinted in your mind.

Source: Thoughts, Intuition, Questions

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Luka R.

3 thoughts on “The Art of English Spelling

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