With the arrival of Christian monks to England in the sixth century, they discovered several kingdoms speaking dialects of a Germanic language brought from the Continent a century before. In order for their priests to communicate in Anglo-Saxon (what became known as English) so that ordinary people could understand them, they determined to write down the language. In writing down the sounds made by the Anglo-Saxons, the monks discovered that there were more sounds than there were letters they used in Latin.
In SPELL IT OUT: The Singular Story of Spelling, David Crystal says, “Adapting the Latin alphabet to English meant the addition of extra letters. The result was a phonetic system in which every letter was sounded.” What were they going to do about the th sounds? They were noticeable because they were used in common words like this and thing, as well as in the names of men and women. With villages spread throughout the length of England and no means of easy communication, different monastic communicates arrived at different solutions.
Where to find new letters for the alphabet
A scribe could create a new letter from scratch. He could find a ‘th’ letter from some other writing system. He could use an existing letter in a new way, maybe spelling the sound as ‘tt.‘ He could use two (or more) different letters to spell it: ‘dh.’ or add an extra mark (an accent mark). According to the earliest manuscripts, all those ideas were tried before settling on two new letters for the ‘th.’
“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a crib-house whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” ―James D. Nicoll
One came from an alphabet already devised for writing Irish: a ‘d’ that came to be called eth in the 19th century. The other was borrowed from the runic alphabet: a rune called thorn (the monks apparently no longer bothered by the pagan associations of runes). The two became widely used and quickly replaced the early spellings, one of the most distinctive features of Anglo-Saxon writing Crystal said. By the 8th century, they were used interchangeably, sometimes both used in the same manuscript.
How to Write Down Anglo-Saxon Sounds
The monks also had a problem over how to write down the sound of /w/, as in we. In Latin the sound was spelled with a “V,” but by the 7th century this letter was being pronounced with a /v/ sound. In the north of England, scribes began spelling the English /w/ with a ‘u’ –the form of ‘V’ used as a small letter in cursive writing. That was probably confusing to others because they opted for a ‘uu’ (double u). But most scribes, especially in the south of England used a new letter, taken from the runic alphabet: a rune called wyn, and this letter became the most common usage throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Crystal says it died out in the 13th century when the ‘double u’ (now joined together as a single letter ‘w’) became the norm.
The vowel the monks heard in man and at wasn’t quite like the Latin sound spelled with an ‘a.’ To them it sounded almost like the /e/ sound of a word like set. They solved the problem by writing the two letters together for the sound: /ae/.* Crystal said that modern scholars, needing a name for this new letter, looked to the runic alphabet where the /a/sound was represented by a rune called ash. (* I don’t have the ability to form the letters as they appear on top of one another.)
“Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.” ―Mark Twain
The monks stayed with the additional letters, although they made little use of four of them. There were occasional uses of ‘q’ (followed by ‘u’), but were soon replaced by ‘cw.’ There were hardly any instances of ‘k’ and ‘z.’ And ‘x’ only appeared in a few words, like axe and ox. The main difference, Crystal says, was the absence of ‘j’ and ‘v,’ which didn’t arrive until the Middle Ages.
Crystal also explained that several of the Anglo-Saxon letters were written in unfamiliar ways, showing the influence of the Irish way of writing known to the early 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. He pointed out that this was an important point as it explains some later developments in spelling.
Adapting the Latin Alphabet
But the monks were not linguists. Adapting the Latin alphabet to English worked well enough, and they thought in a phonetic way: every letter was pronounced and there were no silent letters. Some letters had more than one sound, and some sounds were shown by more than one letter. These problem cases are the source of several later spelling difficulties.
The letter ‘h’ was used to spell the breathed sound at the beginning of a word, as in hand. It was also used to spell a friction sound at the back of the mouth in such words as miht (might). The Scottish people pronounce the last sound in loch, and even in other accents when people make a noise of disgust like yuck, but stretch the final sound.
The letter ‘c’ was also used to spell two different sounds, both still in use today: the hard, ‘k’ sound in cold, and the softer ‘ch’ sound in child. Today the spelling shows the difference, but in Old English the initial consonant letter was the same for both: cald and cild. The word for king, cyning, began with a ‘k’ sound, whereas the word for cheese, cyse, began with a ‘ch’ sound. Some words used as a verb had a ‘k’ sound, while the noun variation ended with a ‘ch’ sound. Crystal pointed out that we have remnants of that today: is it disc or disk?
The letter ‘g’ was particularly a problem as it was used to spell three different sounds. When it followed a consonant, as in gnaet (gnat), it had the hard, plosive ‘g’ sound of Modern English go. The same sound was heard if it was followed by a vowel made at the back of the mouth – a, o or u – in such words as godspell (gospel) and guma (man). But if the following vowel was at the front of the mouth, i, e, ae, or y –then it was pronounced with a vowel like ‘j’ sound, as in Modern English yes. When the ‘g’ appeared after a back vowel, or between two back vowels, it had a third pronunciation: one that doesn’t occur in Modern English, but which can be heard in Modern German in such words as sagen (to say).
“Lest we forget that Shakespeare spelled his surname five different ways. None of them was S H A K E S P E A R E.” ―Ghil’ad Zuckermann, Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond
These three cases, where the h, c and g have a consonant letter having more than one sound, are a clear departure from the phonetic principle. And then there are a couple of cases of a single consonant sound being written with more than one letter. Listen to the sound that occurs at the end of word like hedge. Some scribes wrote it with a g; some doubled it: gg; and some wrote it with a cg.
And for words like ship and shove, they wrote with a combination of s + c, as in scip (ship) and scufan (shove). But the pairing of s + c was also used to spell the sequence of sounds /s + k/, as in scolu (school) and Scotland. Were they to use the /s/ or /sk/ sound?
So, three letters, h, c and g, were being used to spell a total of seven sounds. And two letter pairs, cg and sc, were being used to spell one sound each. Moreover, sc was being used to spell two different sound sequences.
The Seven Vowels of Old English
An even bigger problem was the seven vowel letters n Old English: the five we know today, plus ash (ae) and y. The last one is (surprise!) still used as a vowel letter today: we see it in my and rhyme. The problem, Crystal says, is that each had two sounds: a short sound and a long sound The word for ‘god’ was spelled god with a short sound, just as it is today. However, the word for ‘good’ was also spelled god with a long sound, much as if we were saying goad now. Similar things happened with other vowels, and there’s a vestige of this still. How do we know that hypocrite has a short y sound and hypodermic has a long one? Only by knowing the words; the two values of the letter y remain a challenge.
“Even though being a good speller has lost its ranking in school, we can hope there is one group of artisans that still finds spelling important…the tattoo artist” ―Nanette L. Avery
The dipthongs, sounds containing two vowel qualities, presented a similar problem. But the scribes used sequences of two vowel letters – most often e + a and e + o, sometimes i + e and others. Some of these words had a short sound for the first part of the diphthong and some had a long one. The length could change the meaning: sceat with a short first sound meant property; with a long first sound it meant region. This length difference no longer exists today, but you can get some idea of it if you take the modern word there, which contains a similar diphthong. Say it with a very abrupt, clipped tone of voice: There! and then in a very slow, sympathizing way: there, pronounced there-er.
Showing the difference between a short and a long vowel or a diphthong must have been a real problem for the monks when reading unfamiliar text to a congregation. The obvious way to show the difference would be to mark the length on the vowel itself, perhaps by doubling (aa) or by using an accent mark. Several languages, such as Dutch, show vowel length by doubling: a vs. aa. And today if you want to show a really long vowel sound in English, that’s what we do: argh, aargh, aaargh–the more disgusted we feel, the more vowels we use. And, of course, we use doubling a lot to show a long vowel sound, as in feet and fool. But, we don’t use it with all the vowels: no aa, ii, or uu, apart from exotic words like aardvarks, shiitake mushrooms and muumuu dresses.
Accent marks were already being used to show a word had been abbreviated. And sometimes marks showed the way the voice should rise or fall when reading aloud, something like the way we use a question mark today. Context probably would have made it clear which sense was intended. This is what we do today with such pairs of words as lead (to conduct) and lead (a mineral) or minute (unit of time) and minute (very small).
“These were weaknesses, storing up trouble,” Crystal says, “for later on as pronunciation changed and new spelling fashions emerged.” And, as he pointed out, pronunciation never stands still. Over the next four centuries, major changes took place in the way English spoken vowels and consonants worked. Spelling had to adapt if it was going to keep up with the changes.
(In future blogs, I’ll continue to explore some of Crystal’s explanations for the spelling difficulties in English.)