The History of English Orthography

Dec 14, 2011 by

 BY VAISHNAV ARADHYULA (“Languages of the World”)

It was the first day of seventh grade Spanish class, and the word “ghoti” was written on the blackboard. “Ghoti,” Señor Robles explained, spells fish. In English. “The “gh” makes an f-sound, like in tough. The ‘o’ is pronounced like it is in women, and the “ti” makes a sh-sound like in motion. “English has more silly rules than any other language,” he continued, “so don’t complain if you encounter such a rule in Spanish.”1
Although the digraph “gh” (a digraph is a pair of letters representing one sound2) never makes the “f” sound at the start of a word3, he had made his point— spelling in English is quirky and notoriously difficult.*
English was not always this way. In the 5th century, when Anglo-Saxon invaders brought a West Germanic language with them to England, they employed a phonemic spelling system with a runic script. Even as the Germanic language combined with local Norse and Celtic dialects to develop into Old English (which was still unintelligible with Modern English), the writing system continued to be phonetic into the 11th century.4
The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 changed the circumstances significantly and prompted the evolution of Middle English. The Norman invaders spoke a dialect of Old French (more precisely, an Oïl language), and imposed a Latin script upon their English subjects. The Latin script, however, was not as capable as the pre-existing script at phonetically conveying the Old English Language.4, 12  This caused several difficulties. Since the Latin script couldn’t entirely express all Old English sounds, many Old English words could be spelled in different ways— the word and, for example, could have also been written as ond.4 As Middle English developed under Norman rule in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, the incompatibility of the Latin alphabet with certain Anglo-Saxon phonemes continued to cause confusion and inconsistencies in spelling. Even Chaucer, the famed 14th century author of Canterbury Tales, would often spell the same word differently in his works.5,8 Many silent letters in Modern English can be also attributed to phonetic infidelity during this script-switching. The Modern English word knight derives from the Old English cniht. While the k and h in knight are silent, the c and h were pronounced in Old English, which corresponds to the pronunciation of knecht, the German word from which cniht is derived.4
Old English also underwent significant French influence under Norman rule. For example, the Old English vowel was killed off since it was not commonplace in the French orthography. As a result, Old English words with a long were spelled as in Middle English, and Old English words with a short were spelled with an . Thus, thrd became thread, and crft became craft.12 Other instances of French influence include the use of “c to make the “s” sound before vowels (e.g. center, city, ice), the substitution of qu for cw (e.g. queen replaces cwen), and the introduction of the diphthong (e.g. choice).12
Perhaps the most seismic change to English spelling and pronunciation was the Great Vowel Shift, which began in the mid 1300s. By the time the shift concluded in the early 1500s, English orthography had taken on a recognizably more modern form. While the exact impetus behind the shift is still unclear9, its vast effects on the English language have been well documented.10 The Great Vowel Shift, as the name implies, involved a upward shift in the pronunciation of vowels— five vowels shifted upward, and two became diphthongs.7,8,11,12 These changes are illustrated in the following tables:
Middle English
Modern English
—> /ai/
—> /i:/
—> /e:/ (later –> /i:/)
—> /e:/
—> /au/
—> /u:/
—> /o:/
Middle English
Sounds Like Modern
y,i “myne, sight”
e, ee “me, meet, mete” (close e)
e “begge, rede” (open e)
a, aa “mate, maat”
u, ou “hus, hous”
o, oo “bote, boot” (close o)
o “lof, ok” (open o)
To accommodate these large-scale changes in vowel pronunciation, many English spellings changed during the Great Vowel Shift as well. However, these new spellings were not necessarily phonetic like in Old English. For example, the <ou> (pronounced like oo in the modern word boot) in the Middle English word doun shifted to <au>; as a result the Modern English word for doun is down. Similarly, when the <e> in the Middle English word del shifted to <i> (pronounced like the <ee> in the modern word meet), the new Modern English word became deal.12 Perhaps the most infamous cases of new spellings failing to match new pronunciations are the dreaded “ough” words. In original Old English script, the sound corresponded to a fricative represented by the character γ. After the introduction of the Latin  script and the evolution of Middle English, the γ kept its fricative sound but was spelled as <gh>. During the Great Vowel Shift, the fricative sound was dropped, but the <gh> remained.12 For example, the Middle English word coghe, pronounced with the fricative <gh>, became cough in Modern English.12
            The Early Modern English following the Great Vowel Shift continued to evolve, but at a less rapid pace that its predecessors.  In the late 1500s, several scholars began to re-spell certain words in an effort to highlight their Greek and Latin sources. While in some cases the re-spelling was phonologically accurate (e.g. the Middle English word teatre was re-spelled as theatre to better match the Latin theatron), in other cases these re-spellings further distanced spelling and phonology. Often, these re-spelled words created silent letters. For example, samon was changed to salmon with a silent l in order to resemble the Latin salmonis.12       
            While some minor medications continued to be made, the English language had largely stabilized into its modern form by the early 1700s, largely due to the advent of the printing press and publication of dictionaries (most famously Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755).12 In recent years, however, the English Language has continued to grow through loanwords and new words to describe new technologies. This ensures that spelling in English will continue to be challenging for years to come!
* Incidentally, there is another pronunciation of “ghoti”– complete silence (“gh” silent like in
light, “o” silent like in people, “t” silent like in valet, and “i” silent like in business).3
2.      Microsoft Encarta Dictionary
9.      Millward, C. A Biography of the English Language. Cengage Learning, 2011
11.  Tutschka,V. Great Vowel Shift: From Middle to Standard English. Erfurt University, 2009.
12.  Freeborn, Dennis. From Old English to Standard English, 3rd ed.

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