History of Spelling
Why would a spelling course start with a history lesson? It is a good question. The simple answer is that we need to look at the history of the English language as it often gets described as being very irregular and having lots of ‘weird’ spelling words. In many ways, this is not actually true; it just feels weird to people as they don’t know the history of the language.
The English language is 75% regular, but it feels more irregular to many people because a lot of the common words we use have different types of spelling patterns. These spelling patterns only make sense when you look at the history of the language.
What this chapter will show you is the irregularity within modern English is just a product of its history. The English language has 1300 years of history to be more specific. Whereas many languages go through a reform and washout the historical changes – which means to standardise the spelling – the English language has not. In many cases, the attempts to standardise the spellings have made them more difficult as we shall see later in this section. So, without any spelling reform, the irregularity we know of is just history itself.
As you read through this chapter, ask yourself, is the language irregular and weird? Or, is the English Language rich and in-depth with history, having its own story to tell? You decide.
Britain is an island. Like many islands, it has a long history of invasions and working with other countries. Each time a new culture entered the British shores, new words were absorbed into the English language and along with those words came new ways of spelling. Across these 1300 years of language history, you can see the changes in spelling continually woven into the English spelling systems. English spelling has been continuously changing over time.
The English Language is divided into three phases.
- Old English 5th century to 1130
- Middle English 1130 to 1470
- Modern English 1470 to present
However, it is important to note whilst this three-phase divide is used to break up the timeline, changes have been continuing throughout all the phases. The English language has continuously been changing and adapting for 1300 years.
The four main contributors to the English language we will see are;
Germanic Core (Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse)
French (Norman French and Parisian)
The first record of Language in Britain was from the Celts who spoke Gaelic. It was a spoken language and not written at the time, so we have very little evidence of the old Gaelic language. When the Romans first came to the British shores in 55 BC and stayed till 43 AD, they brought with them the language of Latin. Even though the Romans and the Celts were often fierce in battle, the Celts began to absorb the Roman’s Latin language and use it within their spoken language. The Romans left the British Shores in 43AD, but the Celts had more battles to come from unexpected invaders.
The Anglo-Saxons came in the 5th and 6th centuries and brought with them what we know as old English. Historians believe they were very forceful and drove the Celts away into Scotland and Wales, where the Gaelic language continued. There are very few Gaelic words left now in English; which is why historians believe the Celts were forced out.
The common Gaelic based words still found in Modern English are:
Ass, Bannock, Basket, Beak, Beck, Brat, Brock, Carr, Coomb, Crag, Dam, Doe, Dunnock, Flannel, Gavelock, Gob, Loch
The Anglo-Saxons were three large Germanic groups: the Saxons, Angles and Jutes. So, with them came a language with a Germanic core. It is classed as Germanic as each group had a slight variation in their language but shared this everyday Germanic basis.
The Anglo-Saxons had an alphabetic system comprised of Runes. Their method was called the futhorc system. The first letters F U T H O R C being the first six rune symbols. The futhorc system came from the Elder futhark system (notice the last three letter changes) which was being used in Scandinavia at the time. This older Futhark rune system was heavily influenced by Old Norse. It’s not clear where the origins of the first runes came from, but many historians believe they were influenced by the Greek alphabet.
Four of the English days of the week, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were named after Anglo-Saxon gods. We see can the influence of Anglo-Saxon words on other modern English words too.
Miel – Meal
Laam – Lamb
See – Sea
Stoarm – Storm
Frieze – Freeze
Boat – Boat
Froast – Frost
Sliepe – Sleep
Blau – blue
As we said before, when Rome first invaded Britain, they brought with them the language of Latin and some Greek. However, as Anglo-Saxons were not a literate society (English was spoken rather than written), the written language system did not change a great deal.
Although, this is not the same story for the English spoken language. Verbally, the Anglo-Saxons did pick up some old Roman and Latin words from the Celts that remained, but their language dominated as the primary language. The Anglo-Saxon Language began to evolve the English language into what we now call Old English. As time passed on, a shift began in the letter patterns, such as the SK consonant clusters becoming a sh sound we can recognise today but it would have sounded very different.
To recap, we can see the early Old English language was a piecemeal of Germanic, Latin and Old Norse roots. However, Latin and the Roman alphabet was about to get a considerable revival in written English.
In 597, St Augustine came from Rome to Canterbury with the view to convert the pagan Anglo- Saxons to Christianity. St Augustine built the famous Canterbury Abbey which functioned as a monastery. He introduced the Anglo-Saxon monks to new Latin words and to the Roman alphabet. The monks used this alphabet and literally made the Old English language fit into this alphabet system as much as they could. However, they did not have enough letters to represent all the Anglo-Saxon sounds, so the monks added some Runes too.
This Old English style of writing in 597 was a simple system. What is essential at this time is that the letter order matched the sounds. Old English was written the same as it was spoken, letter by letter. However, it was mainly the monks writing, so old English scripts were predominantly Christian literature and contained considerable Latin roots.
In the 8th century, the Vikings began to invade Britain.
The Vikings brought many traditions and customs but also some Norse words began to filter into the English language; drag, ransack, fast, die, give and take. In all, Old English absorbed around 2000 Viking words. Whilst we know there was already Old Norse in the English language, these new Viking Norse words had variations, so a small trickle of this new language began to weave and settle into Old English.
Viking words were a lot shorter than Latin words and had more robust cluster sounds; skin, leg, skull, freckle, husband, sky, knife, gap, bloom and bull. Old English also gained a lot of its double letters from the Vikings as well, along with the ‘eye’ sound and the ‘i‘ being written with the letter ‘y‘. The Vikings also introduced the letter ‘k‘ at the start of the word such as knight, but it was pronounced in the speech back then.
In the 9th century, King Alfred began to write historical documents; some historians believe it was because he wanted to preserve the Anglo-Saxon language. He was also a very religious man. At the time, Christianity was getting stronger as a religion with influences from Rome and from France. With this influence, more Latin and Greek words were coming into the Old English Language, although mostly Latin as it was the primary language of Christianity around the world. In addition, Latin was the language of science, medicine and law (the language of the scholars). Therefore, Alfred included Latin words more often. However, the English language was about to change dramatically forever.
The Battle of Hastings
In 1066, after the Battle of Hastings, the Normans conquered England which changed the old English Germanic and Latin language forever. Once William the Conqueror was on the throne, a new nobility was introduced. The battle of Hastings had killed a lot of the English high-class men. It was reported that, in 1072, only 12 of the Earls in England were English. Almost all noblemen were Norman (French), this included most of the high positions within the church.
The Normans continued to use their own language, as many of them did not speak a word of English. Thus, French became the primary language of the upper-class society in England. As French was now an association of the ruling class, British people who were in the higher social classes thought it advantageous to learn this new French language. Thus, the distinction between those who spoke French and those who spoke English was not ethnic but social.
French words were also absorbed into Old English for all official business matters – even if you did not speak French. Words such as judge, jury, evidence and justice became common in official matters. Whilst this period of transition was happening, Latin was still mainly used in the church. There became a kind of pairing within the language; Old English and Germanic had words that had the same meaning as the Latin and French words.
Words like cow, sheep and swine came from English – speaking farmers, while beef mutton and pork came from French-speaking farmers. In all, the English language absorbed 10,000 words from the Normans during this time. However, they also included the Norman ways of spelling words too. We can see how complex this all became.
Normans added the OU spelling of the sound ‘u‘.
House was initially hus then became hous.
Mouse was mus, then became mous.
The Normans also changed the letter u to an o in some of their writing because they were writing cursively and they said the u and v look too similar. This change can be seen in words like come, some, son and love. However, this spelling pattern wasn’t consistent across all words of this type, so we still have words like dumb and rum where the u and v were not changed.
Another sound that was changed this time was ‘cw‘. The Anglo Saxon way of writing cween was changed to the Norman way of Queen. The ch sound is Norman too; child and cheese in old English was cild and cese.
English became a language of the socially inferior class, which was all the common people outside of the cities. However, even though French was the main language in the cities, like all things in this story, change was just around the historical corner.
At the end of the 13th century and towards the end of the 100 Years War, the English language began to rise again. The upper class continued to speak French but now only for social customs such as business transactions and administrative convention rather than day to day speech. The English language began to advance once more, yet it never returned to the English language it was, it still incorporated a lot of the French words.
As French moved to be something now mainly studied by scholars and the language of learned English people, it became more imperfect and as the English language continued to adopt more French words, it also adopted the imperfections. Nonetheless, the English language absorbed thousands of French words and their associated spellings.
By 1363, English was back as the dominant language. A new era known as the era of Middle English began. This era of Middle English brought about changes in the grammar and the vocabulary of speech. Two important things happened here that created these changes:
- The loss of many old English stock words.
- The adoptions of thousands of words from French into Latin.
Additionally, English lost many of the vocal inflexions that it had before, so some of the pronunciations started to change. Whilst English was still a language that was spelt as it sounded, there was no common standardised way of spelling words. Hence, as English and French mixed into this new language, it was prevalent to have variations in the spelling systems and for that to be accepted as normal.
One last thing to note about the whole middle English time (1066-1400) was that the silent ‘e’ at the end of the words was pronounced. So many words would have an ‘ay’ sound at the end. Come would have been ‘coomay‘. The k was also still pronounced in words such as knight. If you knew the alphabet and you knew all the sounds, English was a lot easier to write back then and with no formal spelling system, you could use any letters you chose and no one would judge you for it.
However, the difficulty with English at this time was due to it being a very dialectal language. London English was different from Middle English; you wouldn’t have to travel that far from where you live to not understand what was being said at all.
In the 15th century, two further dramatic changes happened. One was an attempt to standardise the English language, moving away from the dialectal language. The second impact was the development of the printing press.
The clerks of the Chancery in London had the job of preparing the King’s documents, most of the documents and official records were mainly in Latin and French. At the end of the 15th century, the Chancery (on instructions from the King to write more documents) decided that they would introduce the Chancery standard English which was based on the London dialect. However, the Chancery standard spelling and use of words were not consistent by far. It was a mixture of French and English words, but there was no conformity of when those words should be used. Many of the spelling irregularities that we have in modern-day English now stems back from this time in history.
In some cases, the French word was converted into the Latin or Germanic word
boeuf became beef
bastille became battle
Other words stayed in the French form, such as table, double and centre.
The English language was still mainly a spoken language at this time (in its own various dialects) and not written that often. Even with the Chancery standardised English attempts, people who could write still chose how they wanted to spell a word; typically depending on their dialect. It was very common to see the same words spelt four or five different ways in the same document and no one cared. One English playwright was renowned for spelling his own name in seven different ways.
William Shakespeare gave the English language 2000 new words he just made up, along with some phrases. We can thank William Shakespeare for words such as eyeball, puppy dog, dauntless and lacklustre. Shakespeare did something else with the English language too; he made it very conceptual and metaphoric. Phrases like a fly in the ointment, cruel to be kind, tough love, foregone conclusion and the world is my oyster became common sayings. Shakespeare enabled the English language to become as symbolic as it is now. Shakespeare also added his own variations in spellings; he spelt words however he chose on any given day!
In 1476 William Caxton, who was originally from Belgium, brought over his invention of the printing press. Due to this invention, the inconsistency of the English language was frozen forever.
Caxton wanted to sell books; he realised for the English people to be able to read the books they would have to have one way of reading, which meant one single way of spelling words. In a prologue in one of his books, he published a comedy story that captured the difficulty of a national English language at that time.
A northern man wanted to buy some eggs from a local southern woman. So he asked her for some egges. She replied to him that she could not help him as she doesn’t speak French. The northern man was frustrated as he doesn’t speak French either, so turned to a bystander for help. The helpful bystander told the southern woman that the northern man wanted to buy some eyren. The northern man got his eggs. The comedy factor in this story is that both the northern man and the southern woman were English and did not live that far from each other.
In the north, English people would say ‘egges‘ from old Norse
In the south, English people would say ‘eyren‘ from Old English.
Caxton’s printing also had the difficulty that some words were pronounced with one dialect but spelt with another part of the country’s dialect. The English language was in very much of a muddle. Caxton knew he couldn’t sell books or printing material in this spelling mess.
Initially, Caxton started to base his standardisation of the English Language using the Chancery Standard in London. In his attempts to fix the irregularity of the spelling patterns, Caxton and his assistants went to work on some spellings he thought was irregular.
Any – eny
Busy – bisy
Cittie – citi
However, the very nature of printing meant that Caxton added more confusion into the English language. Firstly, a lot of his technicians were Dutch; this is where we get the letter ‘h’ after the letter ‘g’ such as gost into ghost. Another factor of printing is word length, but to explain this one fully, we need to talk about the change in the English language known as the great vowel shift.
The great vowel shift took place between 1300 and 1700, so we can see it was not an overnight change but a significant change over time. In the early 1300’s, English and Latin used to be based on merely short and long vowels. The short vowels would be pronounced as a simple sound, like the ‘a’ as in cat and the long sound would be the ‘a‘ as in car. The short and long vowel sounds are what most of the language was based upon. Then came the great vowel shift which we won’t talk about too much (simply because I don’t fully understand it), but words changed and had a completely different sound of their own. Long vowels were long, and there was an adding of the extra ‘e’. This then gave the vowel sounds a sound of their own as in the ‘a‘ in the word name. The new sound caused by the ‘e‘ is a sound that only belongs to this period, it wasn’t there before.
Back to Caxton, whilst he wanted to standardise English with his new printing press, he frequently dropped the long vowel sound and the letter that created it, for a better eye-pleasing view on the printing page. Additionally, scribes at the time were paid per inch for their work so they (and sometimes Caxton ) would add letters to make the words create longer sentences to get more money. So, it seems whilst Caxton wanted to standardise the English way of spelling, he wanted to standardise it in a way that worked best for him.
Hed – head
Another contributing factor to this confusion was the printing of bibles. Most bibles were printed abroad due to the fears of persecution, as it was illegal to replicate the Bible in those times. This act of replication was often seen as heresy, so the bibles were printed abroad and thus picked up many variations for spelling. Unfortunately, when people want to look at a fixed certain way of spelling the word, they would often reach to a Bible as a reference. If they didn’t have a bible (which would have been uncommon), they would use one of Caxton’s prints instead. So we can see, one time errors, changes and slight adaptions became frozen as it was repeated. However, words still held their base meanings and core roots from history, we must not forget that.
How we pronounce the word really began to deviate from how the world was written. The English language started to drop the letters at the start of words but kept the spelling the same, such as the word knife. The sound ‘k‘ became redundant, but the spelling remained. Many scholars started to argue for the reform of the English language.
There were huge debates about having a single way of spelling that did not divert away from how words sounded. However, there is a cost to this reform. To have a single form of spelling means you bleach out all the historical significance within the spellings themselves. For some, this lack of history will be a loss. For others, they wanted to clean up the mixture of Germanic and Old English, Norse and Latin, and some other influences within the modern English language.
The officials wanted a settlement of a single system that was both predictable and rule-based. Whereas some languages have gone through this period of reform, there was never a consensus of agreement within the English language. So, the reform never happened, but it’s not without trying.
In 1568, Thomas Smith’s proposal was a spelling system that was more phonetic therefore it needed to include a 34 character alphabet.
In 1580, William Bullokar’s proposal was to keep the existing changes but drop unnecessary consonants and to decide whether all long vowel words would have silent ‘e‘s or not. He also objected to something called etymological based spelling which is where the spelling was altered to show where a word originated. Etymological based spelling was found in a lot of words that are believed to have come from Latin.
An example of this is often the silent ‘b‘ added to words.
Debitum (Latin) dete (old English) debt modern English.
Dubitere (Latin) doter (old English) doubt modern English.
Early dictionary writers in the 16th century such as Richard Mulcaster in 1582 and Edmund Coote in 1596, just wanted to tidy up spelling and settle on one spelling system. However, neither influenced English and spelling greatly.
In 1755 Samuel Johnson was very influential, but he just wanted to eradicate a lot of the homophones which unfortunately created more uncertainty about spelling, such as stile as in to climb over a stairstep and style as in how it looks.
None of these academics really wanted reform, they just wanted to choose what they thought of as the most common spellings; every time somebody did this, they seemed to make it more difficult.
There have been small changes since Johnson, for example, there is no longer a ‘k‘ in musick or frantik, however not much else has changed. English remains one of the most varied of all spelling systems that are based on the alphabetic principle.
In the 17th century, sciences and medical people started using Latin for their academic works, but then all began to convert to English. They then had the job of naming the things they were discovering; acid, gravity, electricity and pendulum were needed for physics. New words for the human body were needed; cardiac, tonsil, ovary and sternum to name a few. All these words came from Latin and Greek.
So what is the history of spelling actually teaching us? Is it teaching us that spelling is a complete mess – it’s all irregular and it doesn’t make sense? Or is the history of the English language showing us how we can make spelling make more sense to a child? Especially a child who cannot remember the variations of how words are spelt.
Hopefully, you can see the answer is the latter. All learners remember stories more than facts and each seemingly weird word has a story to tell. We will return to this idea of ‘using’ the history of spelling again as we work through spelling techniques in other chapters.
English is a historical language that spans over 1300 years; modern English spelling variations are just a product of this history. When we can learn where words originate from, we can understand why they have that spelling. It helps us to remember the spellings, as it gives us something meaningful we can attach that word to – the words story. No other language has got as many semantic anchors as the English language. Words and their spellings can become more meaningful when you look at where they came from; the spelling patterns will make more sense.
Perhaps we could even stop saying the English language is weird and irregular. We could instead say modern-day English has a story to tell. 29% of our words are from Latin, 29% from French, 26% from old Germanic languages (including Old English, Middle English and Old Norse), 6% from Greek and 10% from other language families due to England’s history of exploring other countries.
So you can see, a significant aspect of the English language is due to the lack of reform. The morphology of spelling has been preserved over the phonetics of spelling. We will explore morphology much later in this course, but for now, we will just say morphology is the smallest piece of meaning within a word. The morphology breaks the words into concepts and meanings, such as the word ‘breakfast’ comes from the two words (and concepts) breaking and fast. It means to break the fast.
Montgomery (2007) explains how historical origins being preserved over sounds causes things like sheep herder to be spelt as shepherd rather than sheperd or shepperd. In the initial stages of spelling, sheep was probably pronounced as shep.
You may be able to see this is where this spelling course is going to take us, much further beyond the phonic techniques that are part of the national curriculum. We need to make spelling come alive in different ways beyond the sounds of words. This course is by no means downplaying the role of phonics and systematic phonic instruction, it is instead supporting you to have a greater dyslexia-friendly toolkit.
This course will teach you how to support struggling spellers in various ways. However, one thing you must always hold in the back of your mind is that English is not weird. The English language has a story to tell and we can find that story just by looking at the spelling of a word.
Bragg, M., 2011. The Adventure Of English. New York: Skyhorse Publishing Company, Incorporated.
Montgomery, D., n.d. (2007) Spelling, Handwriting And Dyslexia.
YouTube: Type in ‘why is English so goddam weird’.