A short history of English spelling
English spelling was first developed in the 7th century, but this early version was much altered later.
The English language itself has also changed a great deal since then.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066 Norman French became the official language of England. During the next three centuries only a few monks continued to write English. Important and wealthy people even stopped speaking it. Only the lower classes carried on using it.
When England began to re-establish its own identity around 1350, after many wars with France and a succession of deadly plagues, the English language had become very different from the Anglo-Saxon of pre-Norman times, and English writing had to be rediscovered too. Early modern English writers, like Geoffrey Chaucer and William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into modern English in 1525, tried to give English a consistent spelling system, but their efforts were much undermined. Educated people had only written French or Latin before. They continued to use many of the French spellings they had become used to. Some of their mistakes later became the norm and remain so to this day, e.g. ‘double, couple, route, sure, centre, table’.
When books began to be printed in England in 1476 the newly invented spelling system was severely tampered with because nearly all the early London printers were foreign and inevitably committed many spelling errors. They were also usually paid by the line and often inserted additional letters into words to earn more money. They regularly added extra letters to the last word of a line to make the whole text look neater. ‘Had’, for example, they sometimes spelt as ‘hadd’ and others as ‘hadde’. Many of their spelling errors, whims and tricks eventually became accepted English spellings.
In 1525 William Tyndale’s English New Testament was condemned as sacrilegious by the Pope of Rome and the bishops of England. This also affected English spelling. He had already fled to the Netherlands and his bible continued to be printed abroad for many years thereafter, by people who rarely spoke English. In order to reduce the chances of censorship, even Tyndale’s authorship was often disguised. His spellings were changed too, to make reprints appear like someone else’s work. The people who bought these bibles, and also began to use them for teaching children to read and write, were generally not aware of this. Because different editions of Tyndale’s bibles had different spellings, the English spelling system became more and more chaotic. It is still carries many of the damages inflicted on it during that time.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, when many Latin and Greek words were imported into English, things got worse. The new imports of that time were nearly always allowed to keep their original spellings, because Latin and Greek were regarded as superior to English. The English rule for doubling a consonant after a short vowel, as in ‘better, bitter, thinner, dinner’, was especially affected by this, because the imports were largely exempted from this rule, even if they sounded like older English words: rabbit – habit, pallet – palace, muddy – study, silly – lily, pepper – leper.
(Latinate words which had come into English via Norman French earlier were often respelt more sensibly: button, dinner, lesson.) To show their Greek origin, many words were spelt with y instead of i: symbol, system, symmetry. Silent letters proliferated too: pneumonia, rheumatism. During this time the use of ea as an alternative spelling for both the ee and e sounds also became firmly established (speech – speak, bed – bread). This appears to have been done for no obvious reason, other than make learning to read and to spell slightly more difficult than it could be (teeth – tether, heath – heather).
By 1700 all the different influences had transformed English spelling into the phonically incoherent jumble which we still use today. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 fixed the system like a law. English has been spelt mainly by dictionary, rather than by phonic rules or common sense, ever since. Things were made slightly worse still around 1870 when the upper classes decided to start pronouncing the a in some words (ask, bath, pass) with a longer sound, as in cart. If this had been reflected in spelling, it would have enabled lower class people to learn to pronounce such words in the new way too and would have stopped being a class feature. This pronunciation
has since become the norm in standard English, but because it never changed any spellings, many
dialects continue to use the earlier pronunciation.
During the 16th century there were particularly numerous unsystematic changes to the spellings of
both the short and long OO sounds and also the OA and OU sounds, leaving all their spellings highly unpredictable ever since.
‘Cote’ changed to ‘coote’, then ‘coat’, ‘a broode’ to ‘abroad’,
‘roose’ to ‘rose’ and ‘ stode’ to ‘stood’, ‘toumbe’ to ‘tomb’,
‘dore’ to ‘doore’, then ‘door’,
‘toun’, ‘doun’ and ‘croun’ to ‘town, down, crown’ but ‘thow’ to ‘thou’,
‘over’ changed to ‘ouer’ and back again,
‘shulde’ and ‘wolde’ to ‘should’ and ‘would’.