With the arrival of Christian monks in England in the 6th century, they discovered several kingdoms speaking dialects of a Germanic language brought from the Continent a century before. In his book SPELL IT OUT: The Singular Story of English Spelling, David Crystal explains that in writing down the Anglo-Saxon language, the monks had to adapt the Latin alphabet to English, which meant the addition of extra letters for all the sounds. And many of our spelling conventions originated with the writing habits of the Norman French scribes.
Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination. — Mark Twain
End of an Era
When William the Conqueror and his Normans invaded England in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon era in English history came to an end. Crystal says that Old English continued to be written until around 1150, but slowly a new linguistic identify evolved known as Middle English. He said it was a development characterized by major changes in grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling.
“Thousands of new words entered the language from French and Latin. By the end of the Middle English period (1450), the size of the English lexicon would have doubled to around 100,000 items. And each of these new words had to be spelled and show whether a vowel was long or short. The ‘long vowel’ solution was to add a silent ‘e’: hop is short; hope is long. The ‘short vowel’ solution was to double the next consonant: hopping has a short vowel sound; hoping has a long one. If you sound out those and sit/site, sitting/siting, in each case the silent ‘e’ sound is the clue that the preceding vowel sound is long; the double consonant letter is the clue that the preceding vowel sound is short. These are two of the basic principles of English spelling.”
Arrival of the Normans
One of the things to keep in mind was that the Normans were originally Vikings who had settled in France (Normandy; thus Normans). They held all the important positions: government, judicial, church, education, and had a huge influence on the language.
There were already changes in pronunciation because of the various dialects spoken in different parts of the country. These changes increased tremendously with the arrival of the French Normans.
“One of them,” Crystal says, “was the inflections of Old English—word endings which showed how words related to each other in a sentence—gradually died out. And thanks to the change in pronunciation between Old and Middle English, the silent ‘e’ was emerging as the favorite way of marking a long vowel, especially with a preceding ‘a’ or ‘i’: for example, in name, tale, gate, page, wife, mile, mice.” But, Crystal points out, there were examples of a silent ‘e’ showing length in relation to all the vowel letters: these, scene, rode, yoke, hole, lute, rule.
Doubling of Vowels
However, as Crystal says, a silent ‘e’ couldn’t solve all instances of long vowels. “Iif there was no final consonant, for example. The French scribes favored a second way of marking length: doubling, at least for some vowels: tree, queen, sleep. They avoided doubling ‘i’ and ‘u’ because those spellings would be difficult to read. Such spelling are rare today, and come to us in loanwords from other languages where the spelling reflects the source language, as in aardvark and bazaar.”
But words with the oo sound are not regular: So what happened? Crystal says that in some cases, “the long vowel remained (moon, school, food, etc.) and in some cases it shorted: (look, good, foot). But in all instances, the 00 spelling remained so that these spellings now reflect a pronunciation of a thousand years ago.”
Then there was the third type of problem created by the way pronunciation changed between Old and Middle English. Crystal says, “This left us with one of the biggest spelling pains today: see and sea, piece and peace. Why are these different?”
Different Spelling Conventions
You can hear the difference if you sound them out. Variations in spelling were tried out before settling on an ingenious solution. It had to do with how they were pronounced: high or low in the mouth and, “therefore, Crystal says, “sounding like other words that were spelled with either an ‘i’ like police and intrigue or with spelled with an ‘a,’ as in man. So they took the peece spelling and replaced the second ‘e’ with an ‘a’: peace. They didn’t have to change both words; just changing one of them would make the difference. Which is why we have pairs such as meet and meat, or reed and read.”
Inevitably, the system had to be tweaked to keep pace with changes in the language. The adverb too (as in We went there too) had developed from the preposition to in Ango-Saxon times, spelled the same way. But it got confusing, Crystal says, and gave the example of: to much charity that could be read as too much charity. He says, “It also reflected the stress patterns: to is usually unstressed; too is stressed. And the feeling that doubled vowels reflected a stressed syllable also accounts for some other spelling practices then: doo, doe and do, as well as thee and the, were all originally used until the use of adverbs with a double vowel in the 16th century.”
The scribes wanted a sort of minimalism in spelling. That’s why we have baking distinguished from backing, never bakking. So, Crystal says the principle seems straightforward: double a letter only when you have to, such as when you add an ending or to avoid two words looking the same. “That is why we have batting distinguished from bating, ridding from riding, pinning from pining, etc.”
Doubling the Consonants
New words coming into English from French followed the same pattern. The French baggage arrived in the 15th century, Crystal says, but English speakers shifted stress to the first syllable and then doubled the consonant to show the vowel was short: baggage, like bonnet, jolly, etc. “And the principle worked the same if the short vowel sound was already being spelled with two vowel letters: then don’t double. That’s why we have sweating, threading, trouble, etc. Minimalism also included another strategy: don’t double a consonant letter after a short vowel if there are already two consonant representing two sounds.”
If you can spell “Nietzsche” without Google, you deserve a cookie. — Lauren Leto
A joined letter ‘w’ arrived with the Norman scribes, and this soon displaced the old Anglo-Saxon letter wynn. At the same time, they made more use of the letter ‘v.’ The problem quickly became evident if they followed the doubling rule: in handwriting, lovving could be mistaken for lowing. Solution? Make ‘v’ an exception. And ever since, Crystal says, the language has avoided double spellings – as in gloves, live, dove, have, etc.
Just Add a Final “E”
But, how to distinguish between a ‘u’ and a ‘v’? Crystal says, “In order to avoid the confusion, they decided to add a final ‘e,‘ which they thought would show that the ‘v’ was a consonant. So words like give and above ended up in their modern form. Only a few words, mainly foreign loanwords, are spelled with a final ‘v,’ as in Molotov and Kalashinilov.”
Crystal points out that you can see the origins of one of the modern spelling irritations now. “The adjective live (as in live animals) has a long vowel, following the regular spelling rule. The verb live (as in to live) has a short vowel, following the exceptional marking of letter ‘v.‘” Americans also have to cope with the short vowel of dove (the bird) coexisting with the long vowel in the past tense of dive (I dove into the pool).
“But,” as he points out, “nothing is impossible in spelling. And with numerous later French loanwords, we see a double-consonant, plus-a-letter combination at the end of a word: brunette, gazelle, finesse, omelette, cigarette, etc.”
(In future blogs, I’ll explore some of Crystals explanations for the spelling difficulties in English.)