Historians say that there is not much difference between the language used in Old English compared to the English that we speak today. pe cildra biddap þe, eala lareop, þ Þu tæce us sprechan forþam unζelærede But how much of the above text do you understand? Does it even look like English to you? This writing above is one of the earliest English documents to be found. It was written by a monk named Ælfric in approx. 1000 AD.
Old English texts were written on parchment or vellum. The Old English alphabet as used in the text we just saw is in fact similar to the one you probably learned in nursery school. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z a æ b c d e f g h i k l m n o p r s t þ đ u w y Look at the red alphabet. This is the Old English alphabet. Are there any letters missing from the one we use today? Are there any letters you don’t recognise?
What are the main differences in the letters from the old alphabet compared to the new? • A few of the letters were different in shape. • They did not have capital letters. • Several modern letters were not present. You may have noticed that the letters J and V were missing. The modern J was usually spelled with a g, as was V with their f. • The letter W was written using p, a letter named ‘wynn’. This symbol, not to be confused with the letter p is a runic symbol. This comes from the Anglo-Saxons. • Þ was another runic symbol named ‘thorn’. It represented the sound ‘th’.
The other letter you may have recognised that we no longer use is æ, a letter known as ‘ash’. This came from Latin and would have sounded something like a mixture of our ‘a’ and ‘e’ today. • The number system was also different to that we use today. Roman symbols were used. • Obviously, without any standardised grammar or spelling guides (e.g the dictionary) the spelling always varied between different scribes. • A single scribe would even have different ways of spelling the same words.
Middle English Spelling Middle English Spelling has an extra-ordinary diversity to that found in Old English
Language and writing change during this period • Mainly down to historical, linguistic, and social factors • The sociolinguistic impact of the French invasion. • The continuation of the processes of sound change which began in Anglo Saxon times. • And, the considerable growth and movement in population during the medieval period, especially in the South-East of the country, all helped to influence the shape of the writing system. • This change is quite dramatic. There is marked contrast between the diverse and idiosyncratic forms used at the beginning of the period and the highly regularised system of spellings which begins to appear in the 15th century, in the work of the Chancery scribes and William Caxton.
The Chancery Line • Systematic record-keeping of some of the royal Chancery records was an essential part of the monarchy’s attempt in the 12th century to develop more effective government. • The importance of the Chancery is its role in fostering the standardisation of English, in handwriting, spelling, and grammatical forms. • The ‘Chancery hand’ developed in Italy in the 13th century, and spread to London via France. From c. 1430 a vast number of documents emerged. • Careful analysis of the manuscripts in the Early Chancery Proceedings has shown that the clerks imposed a great deal of order on the wide range of spellings which existed at the time, and that the choices they made are very largely the ones which have since become standard. The genealogy (history) of modern Standard English goes back to Chancery, not Chaucer.
Might is Right • The various spellings of might clearly illustrate the way grammatical, dialectal, and scribal variants complicate the study of Middle English texts. • The diagram below shows some of the spellings which are listed in one standard collection of early extracts: mihhte maht mahte micht mist mayht mithe michtis myht
Norman Influence • As the period progressed, the spelling changed. This was down to the Norman scribes listening to English they had heard around them, and beginning to spell it accordingly to the conventions they had previously used for French, such as qu for cw (queen for cwen). • These scribes also brought in gh (instead of h) in words such as night and enough, and ch (instead of c) in such words as church. • Other changes of interest were that they used ou for u (as in house) and they also began to use c before e (instead of s) in such words as cercle (‘circle’) and cell. • It is interesting to know that by the beginning of the 15th century, English spelling was a mixture of two systems, Old English and French. These consequences and more still plague English learners still.
Ye Olde Letters • How did the become ye in Ye Ikde Frogge Shoppe and other such institutions? • Of the four Old English letters, only thorn (þ) continued to be much used throughout the Middle English period, eventually being replaced by th. • Scribal practice altered during that time, and the symbol took on a new shape, becoming so like a y. Some writers even added a dot above the symbol to help distinguish it. Grammatical words such as the, thou, and that used this new shape. • The writing of þe ‘the’ as ye continued in some manuscript styles until the 19th century, by which time most people had forgotten the original letter shape and the ‘th’ sound it once represented. • They saw the letter as a y, gave it the expected modern value, and pronounced thw wrod as ‘ye’.