Shades of Spelling – Part IV

the words Shades of Spelling in color with dark blue/green at bottom fading to lighter color at top of letters

With the arrival of Christian Christian monks in the 6th century England, they wrote down the Anglo-Saxon language, adapting the Latin alphabet to English, adding extra letters for all the sounds. The arrival of the Normans, with their French influence, affected pronunciation and spelling practices.

In his book, SPELL IT OUT: The Singular Story of English, David Crystal explains that the style of handwriting used by the medieval scribes caused certain sequences of letters to look identical. Various solutions were found to distinguish the words, but in many cases, new irregular spellings were the outcome.

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“Cursive comes from Latin currere ‘to run’ and refers to a way of writing the letters in a word in which the pen doesn’t leave the page. Scribes all over Europe soon noticed that one feature of the cursive style was causing special problems. Several letters were formed by a short downstroke of the pen, called a minim (from Latin minimus ‘smallest’). An ‘i’ (without the dot) was a single minim. A n, u, or v would be two minims. An m or w would be three. And when these letters were adjacent in a word, there were unexpected difficulties of interpretation., How to determine if a word was min (mine) win, nim (take) or time, twie (twice) or tune. Context would help determine the meaning in some cases, but not all.”

How the “i” Got It’s Dot

Several new practices were devised to help. Crystal says one of the earliest was simply distinguishing the letter ‘i’ by adding a dot on top of the minim. The practice began with Latin manuscripts in the 11th century. At first, only the ‘i’ next to other minims were dotted, but eventually all were done that way. Some scribes even added other features to the ’i,’ such as giving it an extra flourish or adding a tail, a practice that Crystal says led to the letter j.’

Is it “y” or “ie”?

The other strategy was to distinguish it by replacing it with the letter y.’ Those two letters had come to represent similar sounds, and the result was multiple spellings of words. Crystal says the similarity of sound between ‘y’ and ie’ led to a long period in Middle English when the two spellings were interchangeable. The modern forms had been established by the 18th century.

“Will I have to use a dictionary to read your book?” asked Mrs. Dodypol. “It depends,” says I, “how much you used the dictionary before you read it.”  —Alexander Theroux, Darconville’s Cat

The letter ‘y’ is used in the final position and in certain others: before an -ing ending to avoid an ii sequence (which apparently the scribes extremely disliked), and before a plural ending if a vowel preceded it.  Crystal says that’s why we have flying, not fliing and boys, not bois. “Today you see words ending in ‘i’ only in foreign loanwords: rabbi, Magi, khaki, ski, origami, and tsunami, as well in the plural of words borrowed from Italian and Latin, like spaghetti, graffiti, and stimuliAnd there are some words where you still see both endings: is it aunty or aunti, nighty or nightie, Fanny or Fannie?”

Crystal says the overlap between ‘i’ and ‘y’ is still with us and causes a great deal of present-day confusion. We have both dye (color) and die (lose life), and thus dyeing and dying.

And what about the other minims: v, n or m? Crystal says the problem remained even if the words were spelled with a final ’e,’ and that they replaced the ‘u’ with an ‘o.’ There is worry, wonder, wolf, woman. Sun and son were no longer confused. But we till seeu’ next to m’ or ‘n’ in many words today.

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French Spellings

French spellings had been grafted onto old Anglo-Saxon practices during the Middle English period by scribes who must have felt out of their depth, Crystal says. They had to make numerous decisions to make it all work and, of course, cope with the unforeseen consequences of those decisions.

“Few at the outset had any training in English, either as a language or as a writing system. Unfamiliar with English dialect differences, they would not have appreciated the spelling variations that reflected different regional pronunciations.” The scribes worked individually in small groups with no planning or coordination except for some occasional contact between the scribal centers. Crystal says the Oxford English Dictionary shows over sixty variants at that time for how to spell night!

“The scribes adapted French spelling conventions whenever they could. French is a language that relies on word-endings and gender for its grammatical relationships. And while English grammar had earlier used these features, most of them had been lost by the beginning of the Middle English period.”

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Some vowels had changed their pronunciation. But, Crystal says, if the words had different functions—different meanings or different grammatical uses—such as a noun and verb—then the scribes felt they should be spelled differently. That’s why we have yew, ewe and you. 


There are about 500 word pairs. When they are pronounced the same, we call them homophones—words that sound the same but are different in meaning: pause-paws, pores-pours, bear-bare, etc. The majority of English words that have the same sound but different uses have the same spelling: present (gift) and present (time). Charge can used for explosives, electricity, accusation, payment and others.

So why are there homophonic spelling differences in English at all? Crystal says, “If scribes were aware that two homophones had different origins and different spelling histories—as in right, rite, wright, and write—then they saw them as very distinct entities and maintained a spelling difference, thus etymology. When mousse came into English in the 19th century, people accepted its French spelling to distinguish it from moose.”

“Etymology” Is from the Greek and means the study (logia) of the “literal meaning of a word according to its origin” (etymon) … It can be a huge help in spelling. For instance, people sometimes misspell “iridescent.” … Rather than just try to memorize the spelling, if you look at the etymology—study the entrails of the word—you find that “iris, irid” is a combining form that comes from the Greek, Iris, the goddess of the rainbow and the messenger of the gods …[O]nce you know that “iridescent” comes from Iris, you’ll never spell it wrong.” –- Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.


And while scribes were introducing differences in spelling, there was a growing awareness, Crystal says, of the importance of showing similarities between words, what is technically called analogy. He believes people have a built-in ability to think analogically in language. “Young children do it when learning to speak: four-year-olds say goned and wented because they know the usual way to show past tense is to add -ed on the end.”

Crystal says analogy is the reason we have so many words ending in ‘m’ followed by a silent b.’ “In Old English, there were several words that ended in mb, with both of the letters pronounced: dumb, comb, womb, lamb. People stopped pronouncing the ‘b’ at a later date: both sounds were made with the two lips, and plainly it was felt the extra effort unnecessary.” So a silent ‘b’ emerged, but the mb spelling remained. And when tomb arrived in the 13th century from French toumbe, it followed the silent ‘b’ pattern, as did succumb, bomb and aplomb in later centuries.

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Analogy is the reason, Crystal says, we have words beginning with wh. “In Old English, there were many words that began with the two letters the other way around: hwa, hwit, hwistle. Today these are spelled with wh: who, which, whistle. Because the hw sequence didn’t follow the pattern found in all the other words where ‘h’ is used along with another consonant letter: gh, sh, th and cg. A hw looked alien, so the scribes changed it.”

Analogy is helpful because it usually reduces the amount of irregularity in spelling. Crystal explains that in the Middle English period, several common words were influenced by the French gu. “It was a regular spelling for guard, guile, beguile, guise. Old English words that had no ‘u’ in their spelling were influenced. So if guild, why not build?”

Wonky Spelling System

During the 15th century, Crystal says, people began to realize that the spelling system was becoming unwieldly. Apparently, they were fed up with the erratic habits of the scribes. But a standard scribe practice was growing in the civil service known as Chancery. “The attitudes of people like Chaucer and the Chancery scribes helped to form the climate that eventually produced the accepted form of writing that we call Standard English.” And this sense of an emerging standard was soon reinforced by the arrival of printed books.

But before that happened, there was a seismic shift in the way words were pronounced that altered the character of English spelling forever.

Poster with the words "Your words are like magic spells. Use them wisely."

(In future blogs, I’ll explore some of Crystals explanations for the spelling difficulties in English.)


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