In his delightful and informative book, SPELL IT OUT: The Singular Story of English Spelling, David Crystal explains many of the quirks and anomalies of spelling English words. He says that with well over one million words in English, affected in myriad ways by 1300 years of history, the task of attempting to find order in the chaos might seem impossible.
“To understand the complexity of English spelling, “we first have to understand when and how the language was originally written down. So our story begins with the Anglo-Saxon monks. The system they devised was a good one, but it had weaknesses, and these are the source of many modern spelling difficulties.”
Origins of the English Writing System
Crystal says that the origins of the English writing system lie in the alphabet the Romans used for Latin. When the Christian monks arrived in England in the 6th century, their priority was writing down the Anglo-Saxon language. They found a land largely ruled by Anglo-Saxons, scattered in many small kingdoms, speaking dialects of a Germanic language brought from the Continent a century before. They had to deal with all these kings, establish churches, and train local helpers. The priests needed to compose prayers in Anglo-Saxon so that ordinary people could understand them.
Some signs of writing already existed: the Romans left inscriptions on walls, buildings, coins, and other objects during almost 400 years of their occupation. But, they were Latin words.
It is a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.—Andrew Jackson
Some of the early Anglo-Saxon settlers did know how to write: they had brought a runic alphabet (pictographs, like Egyptian hieroglyphics) with them from Europe. These were used to write names or charms on swords and other objects, as well as on gravestones and buildings. Runes were magical and mysterious. The word rune means “something hidden” or “secret.” Crystal says as Christian monks, they felt they could not use the runes as the symbols were too strongly associated with magic, dark forces, and the pagan practices they wanted to erase.
The Roman alphabet, on the other hand, had all the right associations: it had been used for centuries by Christians. Monk missionaries had been producing beautifully illustrated, handwritten manuscripts with Roman letters in Ireland before the Vikings began their raids there in the 600s. So all they had to do was write down the sounds of Anglo-Saxon using Roman letters. At the time, there were twenty-three characters in the alphabet: A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z.
A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one—Balthasar Gracian
The Distinctive Sounds of Anglo-Saxon (or English)
But, Crystal explains, the monks listened carefully to Anglo-Saxon (or English as it came to be known) and realized that some of the sounds didn’t exist in Latin! There were two sounds that caught their attention: consonant sounds made by the tongue between the teeth (what we call th sounds today, as in this and thin). As Crystal says, the origins of spelling difficulties in English lie in the fact that there are far more sounds in the language than there are letters.
“The first thing they had to do was establish how many distinctive sounds there were: find all the words that change their meaning when just one of their sounds is altered (pip, pop).” His point is that you would need an alphabet the same size as the sounds, but there are only twenty-six letters. “That, in a nutshell,” Crystal says, “is the problem of English spelling.”
The result was a phonetic system where every letter was sounded. But what about those th sounds? Scribes could use an existing letter in a new way, use an accent mark, create a new letter or borrow the th sound from another writing system. All those were tried in the earliest manuscripts before settling on two new letters for the th sounds.
They used what had been developed for writing Irish and a ‘d’ that came to be called eth in the 19th century. And, since the monks no longer seemed bothered by its attached mystical properties, they borrowed a rune called thorn. Crystal says, “These are one of the most distinctive features of Anglo-Saxon writing, and by the 8th century, they were used interchangeably, sometimes both in the same manuscript.”
Several of the Anglo-Saxon letters were written in unfamiliar ways, influenced by the Irish way of writing known to the earlier missionaries. “The letter ‘s’ was usually elongated, almost like a slash mark. And the letter ‘g’ was written with a distinctive ‘3’ shape, which in the Middle English period needed its own name and came to be called yogh.” Crystal pointed out that this was an important point as it explains some later developments in spelling.
“The monks thought in a phonetic way, with every letter pronounced, with no silent letters. Some letters had more than one sound, and some sounds used more than one letter These are the source of several later spelling difficulties.”
Lest we forget, Shakespeare spelled his name five different ways. None of them was S H A K E S P E A R E. — Ghil’ad Zuckerman, Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond.
An even larger problem was the seven vowel letters in Old English, according to Crystal. The five vowels we know today, plus ash (ae*) and ‘y.’ The last one is (surprise!) still used today as a vowel letter in my and rhyme. “The problem,” Crystal says, “is that each had two sounds: a short sound and a long sound. Similar things happened with other vowels, and there’s a vestige of this still: how do we know hypocrite has a short ‘y’ sound and hypodermic has a long one? We do so only by knowing the words.” (ae*: I don’t have the ability to write the letters over one another as they originally appeared.)
Long and Short Vowels
Dipthongs, sounds containing two vowel qualities, presented the monks with a similar problem, but they used a sequence of two vowel letters. “Showing the difference between a short and a long vowel or a dipthong was a real problem for the monks when reading unfamiliar texts to a congregation. Sometimes they doubled the vowels.” Crystal gave an example of something we still do today: if you want to show a really long vowel sound in English, we add more vowels: argh, aargh, aaargh, or y-u-u-u-ck! The more disgusted we are, the more vowels we use.
Sometimes accent marks were used as abbreviations, sometimes to show the way the voice should rise or fall when reading aloud. Context probably made a difference, as it does today when using such words as “lead (to conduct) and lead (a mineral) or minute (unit of time) or minute (very small). These were weaknesses storing up trouble,” Crystal says, “for later on as pronunciations changed and new spelling fashions emerged.” And as he pointed out, pronunciation never stands still.
(In future blogs, I’ll explore some of Crystal’s explanations for spelling difficulties in English)