That's spelling, in other words! Here is a swift gallop through the major changes in how we spel ower wordes.

When OE was first written down by Roman missionaries, they used the 23-letter Latin alphabet. This was the same as our modern alphabet, except that there was no distinction between J and I or U and V, and there was no W. (These letters were added during the ME period.)

 However, there were not enough letters to cope with OE, which contained nearly forty vowels and consonants. Some extra symbols were borrowed from the runic alphabet to represent sounds which were noticeably different  from Latin (e.g. th), but it was still necessary for some letters (e.g. c and g) to represent more than one sound, and to represent some sounds by combinations of letters (e.g. sc, the equivalent of present-day sh)

The influence of French scribes was brought to bear after the Norman Conquest: qu replaced OE cw (e.g. queen); gh replaced h (e.g. night and enough); ch replaced c (e.g. church); ou replaced u (e.g. house).

 Because u was written in a very similar way to v, n and m, words containing a sequence of these letters were very difficult to read: u was therefore often replaced with o (e.g. come, some, love, one and son). ( Note also the habit of many lawyers’ clerks of adding superfluous letters, because they were paid by the inch.) 

By the beginning of the fifteenth century, English spelling was a mixture of two systems: OE and French. There were at this time many ways of spelling words, reflecting regional variations in pronunciation. The introduction of printing in 1476 started the notion of a single system as standard: William Caxton chose for his printing house the system which reflected the speech of the London area. As a result, the spelling of many words became stable for the first time, and the notion of a ‘correct’ spelling began to grow.

However, while spelling stayed relatively stable, pronunciation did not. During the fifteenth century the sounds of London speech were undergoing the greatest change in its history: the six long vowels completely altered their pronunciation. One example is name, which in Chaucer’s time was pronounced to rhyme with calm. Before the advent of printing, scribes could have reflected the changes of the Great Vowel Shift, but now such changes were no longer acceptable. As a result, modern spelling in some respects reflects the pronunciation of Chaucer’s time.

In the same way, some letters ceased to be pronounced during the fifteenth century, e.g. k in knee, know and knight, the e at the end of such words as name and stone, but the spelling continued to reflect the older punctuation.

In the sixteenth century there was a fashion for showing the etymology of a word through its spelling, and several of these spellings became standard, e.g. the b in debt (from  Lat. debitum), subtle and doubt (dubitare) and the g in reign (from regno) ; these letters had neither been pronounced nor present in the spelling in ME. In some cases, the pronunciation  changed to match its new spelling: the l in false and fault is now pronounced.

At the same time, some spellings came to be ‘tidied up’ through a process of analogy, e.g. the gh found in night and tight being added to delight and tight.

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries a new wave of loan words arrived from such languages as French, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. They retained their original spellings, and some of the strangest spellings, especially of endings, date from this period, e.g. bizarre, brusque, canoe, cocoa, gazette, moustache and intrigue.

One of the first attempts to reform the system was by John Hart in his 1569 publication An orthographic containing the due order and reason how to write or painte the image of Manne’s voice most like to the life or nature: argued in effect for a phonemic system. 1668 Bishop Wilkins published his Essay towards a real Character and a Philosophical Language. Eighteenth century attempts to “fix” the language had an adverse affect on spelling reform. Johnson’s preferred spellings in his Dictionary are almost invariably what we have today (smoak for smoke being a notable exception).

1953 The Simplified Spelling Bill was passed: the simplified orthography, in the form of Augmented Roman, was deemed suitable for use in schools, and later became known as the Initial Teaching Alphabet.

© CD Selwyn-Jones