Shades of Spelling – Part III

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

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. Some were invented, some were borrowed from another writing system, or used an existing letter in a new way. All were tried and led to the confusion in spelling we have today, especially since pronunciations changed over time and new spelling fashions emerged.

“I don’t see any use in having a uniform and arbitrary way of spelling words. We might as well make all clothes alike and cook all dishes alike. Sameness is tiresome; variety is pleasing.”
Mark Twain

Because English is a language where words often depend upon the length of a vowel sound for their identity, one of the most urgent tasks facing the early writers was to show the difference between a short and a long vowel in the spelling. Various strategies were available to show the long vowels, said David Crystal in his interesting book, SPELL IT OUT: The Singular Story of English Spelling.

Here Come the Normans

He explains that the Anglo-Saxon era in English history came to an end with the Norman invasion of 1066. Old English continued to be written until around 1150, but slowly a new linguistic identity evolved known as Middle English. It is 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 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 hopping/hoping, sit/site, sitting/siting, in each case the silent e sound is the clue that the preceding vowel is long; the double consonant letter is the clue that the preceding vowel sound is short. Crystal says these are two of the basic principles of English spelling.

“Anyone who knew the word slattern was worth cultivating as a friend.”
Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Changes in Pronunciation

There were also many changes in pronunciation. One of them was the inflections of Old English—word-endings which showed how words related to each other in a sentence—gradually died out. Another was that people stopped pronouncing long consonants, thus the scribes used the ‘extra’ letters to show preceding vowel sounds. In some cases, they didn’t even have to change the spelling. If there already was an ‘e,’ as in hate, they simply kept it. And a word in Old English bidden (ask), with a short vowel sound and a long consonant sound, slipped naturally into Middle English bidden, with a short vowel sound and a short consonant sound. However, there were also many cases where the spelling continued to be variable or unclear. Crystal says that the story of Modern English spelling really starts here.

How to spell an unfamiliar word, say something that sounded like foop, fope or fupe. It was not possible to predict which method would eventually be used for a particular word. Similar sounding words probably had a lot to do with it. For example, hearing the word for a new type of fish in the 15th century meant it might have been spelled hake, heak, haak or haik. But similar rhyming words such as bake, make, take must have been influential, Crystal muses, so that the eventual word was spelled hake. In the 12th century, there were no dictionaries and the first attempts to compile spelling lists didn’t appear until 400 years later. (link to dictionary blog)

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, safe, page, wife, like, mile, mice. But there are examples of a ‘silent e’ showing length in relation to all the vowel letters: these, theme, scene, rode, yoke, hole, rude, lute, duke,  rule.

Poster with words: Sometimes I forget how to spell a word so I rewrite the whole sentence to avoid using it.

However, a ‘silent e’ strategy couldn’t solve all instances of long vowels; if 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, seek, sleep, sweet.

No Doubling of Vowels?

The scribes avoided doubling for ‘i’ and ‘u’ because ii and uu  spellings would be difficult to read. And aa never survived, probably because the ‘silent e’ spelling had more quickly established itself as the norm. Such spellings are rare today, coming to us in loan words where the spelling reflects the source language, as in aardvark and bazaar.

But words with the oo sound are not regular: boot does not rhyme with foot. So what happened? In some cases, the long vowel remained (which is why we have moon, school, food, etc.), and in some cases it shortened: in the south of England becoming look, good, wool, foot. The vowel stayed with lip-rounding in these instances. In the case of blood and flood, the long vowel shortened and the lip-rounding disappeared too. But in all cases, the oo spelling remained, so that these spellings now reflect a pronunciation of a thousand years ago.

Language is more fashion than science, and matters of usage, spelling and pronunciation tend to wander around like hemlines. ― Bill Bryson

Crystal remind us that ‘in the south of England’ is important because in several modern accents, such as in the north of England and in Scotland, the long-vowel pronunciation of words like boot does rhyme with foot, and sometimes a regional spelling draws attention to the difference, as with Scottish guid rather than good.

Pronunciation Changes Between Old and Middle English

Then there was the third type of problem created by the way pronunciation changed between Old and Middle English. And, Crystal says, this left us with one of the biggest spelling pains of today: see and sea, piece and peace. Why are these different?

It had to do with the pronunciation: you can hear the difference if you sound them out. But that didn’t mean they were spelled the same. Variations were tried: peece, pese, peyse and others. But the scribes finally hit on an ingenious solution. Crystal believes they sensed that the vowel in piece was close to other vowels made high in the front of the mouth, which were spelled with the letter i, like police and intrigue. Similarly, they sensed that the vowel of peace was close to other vowels made low in the front of the mouth, which were often spelled with the letter ‘a,’ as in man. So they took the peece spelling and replaced the second ‘e’ with an ‘a’: peace. And the idea caught on. They didn’t have to change both words; just changing one of them would make the different. Which is why we now have pairs such as meet and meat, or reed and read.

For me, reading has always been not only a quest for pleasure and enlightenment but also a word-hunting expedition, a lexical safari.”  ― Charles Harrington Elster

To, Too, Two

But inevitably, the system had to be tweaked to keep pace with the changes in the language. For example, the adverb too (as in We went there too) had developed out of the preposition to in Ango-Saxon times. It was originally spelled the same way. But this was confusing: to much charity could be read as to much charity or too much charity. And so the practice grew in the 16th century of spelling the adverb with a double vowel.

This 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 of the time. Doo, doe and do, as well as thee and the, were all originally used until the shortened version won out, probably Crystal says, because people are always ready to find ways of shortening the most frequently used words (something he says we see today in texting: c for see and u for you, thx for thanks).

Minimalism in Spelling

The scribes wanted a sort of minimalism in spelling, thus avoiding heavy-looking spellings. In the early Middle Ages, there was an influx of Scandinavian loan words: get, leg, kid, but, hit—some of the most common words in the language. How they were treated had a fundamental impact on the graphic character of English.

“What’s wrong with Louis?” asked Ron. “Is he sick or something?”
“Yes,” said Jenny. “He’s got a real bad disease. And it’s spelled L-O-V-E.”  ―Louis Sachar, Wayside School Gets A Little Stranger

In some cases, the shorter spelling wasn’t established until the 16th century. But eventually the simpler spellings did prevail for an important set of words—those ending in p, b, t, d, g, m, and n—letters which represent the plosive (hard) and nasal consonant sounds. Its very unusual for these sounds to be shown with a doubled consonant, though there are some exceptions, especially in names (Chubb, Finn, Lapp) and some exotic loan words, such as djinn. Words like watt, mitt and mutt look like exceptions until, Crystal says. we remember how they arose: watt is from a name (James Watt) and mitt and mutt are shortened forms (mitten, muttonhead).

The letter ‘k’ is missing from the list of letters representing plosive sounds. It had never been much used in Old English, and kk apparently didn’t appeal to the Norman scribes either. For the spelling that came to be used for the ‘k’ sound after a short vowel was ck. That’s why today we find baking distinguished from backing, never bakking.

Crystal says that the scribes must has sensed a difference between the above sounds and the ‘friction’ consonant sounds spelled with f, s, and z, as well as the ‘liquid’ sounds spelled with ‘l’ and ‘r.’ That’s why we have cliff, ruff, stuff, kiss, mess, spell, doll, purr, whirr. Words ending in a z were rare at the time (buzz), but later words followed the same pattern: fizz, jazz.

The ’little’ words were left alone—the grammatical words which show the structure of a sentence: on, in, up, if, of and at. They all have short vowels. Off is an exception, but that word originated as a variant of the word of, and the extra letter was needed to distinguish the two meanings.

Double Only When You Have To

So, 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’s why we see batting distinguished from bating, ridding from riding, pinning from pining, robber from rober, inn from in, etc. It took several hundred years for this principle to work its way through the system, but its importance was clearly appreciated. New words coming into English from French followed it. The French bagage arrived in the 15th century, but English speakers shifted stress to the first syllable and then doubled the consonant to show the vowel was short: baggage. That’s why we have bonnet, cabbage, jolly and many more.

“If she can’t spell, why is she a librarian? Librarians should know how to spell.”  ― Ramona Quimby as written by Beverly Cleary, Ramona’s World

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, and so on.

Some of the pronunciation of words between Old and Middle English included dipthongs that became single vowels later, though they kept the earlier spelling. Bread is an example: the dipthong was gone, but the word was pronounced much as it is now. However, the old two-letter spelling remained and helps us distinguish between bread and bred.

The same desire to keep spelling looking as light as possible motivated a second strategy: don’t double a consonant letter after a short vowel if there are already two consonants representing two sounds. This was a very common pattern in English: jump, soft, risk, wind and many more. So that meant writing wanting rather than wannting or wantting or wanntting.

So, there’s a straightforward principle of doubling with just a few easy-to-follow and sensible adaptations, But, Crystal says, it didn’t stay that way. the Normans had different ideas.

poster with words: Of course words are magic. That's why they call it spelling.

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

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