All About English?
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All About English?. Spelling in English. Phonics Before the 1500s. What happened with English spelling?. Orthography: a method of representing the sounds of a language by written or printed symbols (spelling)

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All about english

Spelling in English

Phonics Before the 1500s

  • What happened with English spelling?

  • Orthography: a method of representing the sounds of a language by written or printed symbols (spelling)

  • Today’s English spelling is quite funny. Why do we talk about /´naıthυd/ and write complicated letter combinations like ‘k-n-i-g-h-t-h-o-o-d’? Obviously there are major differences between English pronunciation and English spelling. eHistLing Vol. 1

  • Originally, Old English was phonetically sound. The letters and the sounds matched.

  • Changes began with the Latin alphabet, which came with the Romans. Monks attempted to write, but there were not enough letters to represent all of the Old English sounds. Therefore, some runic symbols <æ>, <þ> and <ð> were added, as well as letter combinations such as <sc>.

All about english

Spelling in English

  • With the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the addition of the French language, French letter combinations were introduced. Old English letter combinations (<qu> replaces Old English <cw>) or single

  • letters (Old English <h> becomes <gh>). The greatest change concerning vowels is found in long vowels that were replaced by double letters (Old English fōd is written as food). The keeping of the original spelling is common for words borrowed from not only French, but other languages, as well.

  • In the Middle English Period, after the Norman Occupation, written and spoken English developed in different ways. Some of spoken English followed the rules of the Great Vowel Shift, while written English still kept the symbols of what were long vowels before the shift.

  • Talk about confusing! English spelling was no longer phonetic and it wasn’t set in stone…people just spelled things whatever way they wanted to!

All about english

Spelling in English

Would a volunteer please go to the board? Class, how many spellings can you come up for the words you or your? What other words have multiple spellings?

Here is an example of a letter written by a 14 year old boy to his parents 1539:

Ryht honorable and my most dere and singler goode lorde

and ladye / in my most humble man[ner] I recõmaunde me unto yow

besechynge to have yor dailye blessynge / and to here of yor goode

and prospus helth / fore the conservatione of which / I praye

dailye unto almyghty godde. I certifye youe by theys my

rude l[ett]res that my Maister and my Ladye be in goode helthe /

to whome I am myche bounde. ffurthermore I beseche

yor lordshipe and ladieshipe ever in goode / longe / and

prosperus helthe wt honor. ffrom Woburn the

first daye of Julye

By yor humble and

owne Son George


How many different spellings did you find of you/your?

All about english

Spelling in English

Here is a letter from Sir Kingston to Lord Lisle in 1533.

my lord toadvertyse you of newes here be nonne 3it or now that be

abowt the pesse (= peace) in the marches of scotland & with goddes

grace all shalbe well & as 3it the kynges grace hathe

hard now word from my lord of Wynchester & so the

kyng hawkes evry day with goshawkes* & other hawkes

that ys to say layners,* sparhawkes* and merlions* both affore

none & after yf the wether serve I pray you my lord yf

ther be hony gerfawken* or yerkyn* to help ^me to both yf it

may be & for lak of bothe to have wun & to send me

worde of the charges ther of & then your lordshyp dose meche

for me I & my wyfe both ryght hartely recõmaunde hus

unto my gud lady & we thanke my lady for my token for it

cam to me in the church of the blake freres (= friars) & my wyf

was desposed to have offerd it to saynt loy (= St Eligius) (th)at hyr horse

shuld not halt & he never went up ryght syne (= since) I be(see)che your

lordshyp to have me in your reymembrance to master porter

& my lady & to master mershall & my lady …

* Goshawks, lanners (southern European falcons), sparrowhawks, merlins (small falcons), gyrfalcons (large falcons),

and jerkins (male gyrfalcons), respectively.

All about english

Spelling in English

Consider how honour, father and silly have been spelt (as given in the OED, listed alphabetically):

Old English fæder, fædyr, feder

12th century fader, fæder, feder

13th century onur, honour, fader, faderr, fadre,

honur, honure fæder, feder, feader,

vader, væder, veder

14th century onour, onoure, onur, fader, fadir, fadire,

honour, honoure, honowre, fadre, fadur, fadure,

honur, honure fadyr, faþer, vader

15th century onnere, honnour, honnoure, fader, fadir, fadire, syly

honor, honour, honowre fadur, fadure, fadyr

16th century onnere, honnor, honnour, fader, father cillie, silie, sillie, silly

honnoure, honor, honour, sillye, sylie, sylly, syllye


17th century honor, honour father sillie, silly, sillye, sylly

18th century honor, honour father silly

19th century honor, honour father silly

20th century honor, honour father silly

All about english

Spelling in English

  • English needed a major spelling lock-down.

  • Many people tried and failed to establish rules for spelling. They all failed. Finally…

  • In 1596, a man named Coote helped provide a standardization of English spelling, based on what was current orthography. This was not a spelling reform, which would change spelling. Instead, he selected the most commonly used versions of words found in print, and simplified and standardized writing for a large amount of people.

  • Richard Mulcaster, author of Elementarie (1582), had the biggest and successful attempt to make spelling rules, due to his not going overboard.

  • Therefore, by 1650, spelling was somewhat set in stone.It was fixed.

All about english

Spelling in English

  • So when the most popular early dictionaries were written by Nathaniel Baley and Samuel Johnson, the conventions were already established. In Johnson’s Preface he admits: “I have often been obliged to sacrifice uniformity to custom; thus I write, in compliance with a numberless majority, convey and inveigh, deceit and receipt, fancy and phantom.” He was stuck with what was already standardized spelling.

  • Noah Webster changed some of the British spellings, like <honour> and <favour> into <honor> and <favor>, making the new spelling popular in American English by publishing them in his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.Webster also omitted the final <k> in <musick> and <publick>.

From the book (pdf) Spelling Reform

  • At this time, words continued to enter English through borrowing. Another way for words to enter the language was through Inkhorn Terms.

  • An Inkhorn Term is the introduction of words that were ‘termed’ at the ‘inkhorn’ (think quill and ink, the kind that had to be dipped), usually from Latin or Greek and used in scholarly works.

All about english

Spelling in English

  • Some people didn’t approve of Inkhorn Terms. Thomas Wilson in Arte of Rhetorique (1553) objected to inkhorn words, and used some in his Burlesque letter, trying to cleverly make fun of them. Ironically, many of the terms that he was mocking disapprovingly stuck and exist now.

  • English spelling is one of the major disadvantages of English as a lingua franca. (Another would be English’s large amount of idioms, but we won’t be talking about that.)

  • Some people are still trying to begin an English spelling reform that would spell words phonetically, instead of the chaotic hodge-podge we have now. If you are interested, you can check some of them out on the internet by typing “spelling reform” into Google or another search engine.

All about english

Geography in English

Local and World Dialects

  • The first thing I should mention is that Modern English comes from the West Saxon dialect of Middle English, due largely to the amount of printing presses in this region. (London)