Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Changes in the Language to the Days of Chaucer > Pronunciation and Spelling
  Influence of the Norman Conquest Middle English Spelling  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIX. Changes in the Language to the Days of Chaucer.

§ 7. Pronunciation and Spelling.


The runic alphabet that had been used by the heathen English was, soon after their conversion, superseded (for most purposes) by the Latin alphabet of 22 letters, to which afterwards were added the three characters [char] (w, called wynn), [char] (th, called thorn), which belonged to the runic alphabet, and [char], differentiated from d by the addition of a cross-bar. The last-mentioned character was used indifferently with [char], the two sounds of our modern th (in thick and in this) not being graphically distinguished. The u or v, and the i, were, in ordinary Old English spelling, used only as vowels, the Latin practice of using them as consonants not being followed. On the early coins, the sound expressed in modern French by u and in German by ü was rendered by writing a V with and I inside it. This compound character in MSS. became [char], and this was identified with the Roman y. Instead of qu, the combination c[char] was used in Old English; k occurs in some MSS., but was commonly replaced by c; z was used, though very seldom, with its contemporary Latin value of ts.   22
  It is not necessary to give in this place any account of the changes in orthography during the Old English period. About A.D. 1000, the vowels were probably sounded nearly as in modern Italian, except that [char] stood for a sound intermediate between those of a and e (i.e. the modern southern sound of a in pat), and that y, as already remarked, was like the French u. The long vowels, which had the same sounds as the corresponding short vowels prolonged, were, at an early period, denoted by doubling, and, later, by a mark (about equally resembling an acute and a circumflex accent) over the letter; but this was often omitted. The consonants had, for the most part, the same sounds as in modern English, but some exceptions must be mentioned. Several consonant letters had more than one sound, and, in the case of most of these, modern English retains the Old English pronunciation, though not always the same written symbol. Thus, in fan fan, [char]fen even, s[char]d seed, r[char]san rise (sounded “rize”), pynne thin, bro[char]por brother, caru care, cealc chalk, sc[char]eap sheep, sc[char]l school, g[char]d good, g[char]ar year, ping thing, sengan to singe, docga dog, ecg edge, the Old English sounds of f,s,p,c,sc,g,ng and cg were exactly, or nearly, those of the letters occupying the same place in the modern forms of these words. In the middle or at the end of a word, g was sounded differently according to the nature of the neighbouring vowels: in dag day it was pronounced like y the “year,” but in the plural dagas days it had a sound that might be written gh, differing from the ch in loch just as g differs from k. The letter h, when initial, was pronounced as at present; but, in other positions, it was pronounced like the German ch (either guttural as in ach or palatal as in ich, according to the sounds which it followed). It will be seen that, with few exceptions, our ancestors of the eleventh century pronounced the consonantal part of their words much as we do, even when they wrote it with different letters.   23

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Influence of the Norman Conquest Middle English Spelling  
 
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