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

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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.

§ 8. Middle English Spelling.


The striking change in the written language of England during the twelfth century was, to a considerable extent, a matter of mere spelling. As was pointed out in the preceding section, soon after the Norman conquest children ceased to be regularly taught to read and write English, and were taught to read and write French instead. When, therefore, the mass of the new generation tried to write English, they had no orthographical traditions to guide them, and had to spell the words phonetically according to French rules. They used ch instead of the old c, when it was pronounced as in cirice church. The sound of the Old English sc in sceamu shame, which did not exist at that time in French, was rendered by ss, ssh, sch, or sh. The French qu took the place of cp. The f between vowels (pronounced v) was replaced by u or v (these being still, as long afterwards, treated as forms of one and the same letter, used indifferently for vowel and consonant). The Old English symbol $$ was dropped, its place being taken by a or e. The sound of the Old English y, in the dialects where it survived, was expressed by u; and that of the Old English long u was written ou, as in French.   24
  Of course these changes did not take place all at once. It is not to be supposed that no one ever read an Old English MS., and there was, for a long time, some mixture of the traditional spelling with the new one. Some few English sounds admitted of no tolerable representation in the French alphabet; and for the expression of these the native characters were retained in use. The letters, [char], [char] and [char] were used, though often blunderingly, even by scribes who, in other respects, were thoroughly French in their spelling; though often we find their sounds awkwardly rendered by t, th, ht, or d, and u. And in the twelfth century, though the continental variety of the Roman alphabet was generally used for writing English, it was found convenient to retain the native form [char] of the letter g for those two of its sounds that the French g lacked, namely, those of gh and y (as in year). A new letter was thus added to the alphabet, and, though it came to be written [char], exactly like the contemporary form of z, it preserved its name “yok” until the fourteenth century. It may be remarked in passing that the ambiguity of pronunciation of this letter has misled modern writers into calling the author of the Brut “Layamon” instead of “Laghamon”; the incorrect form, however, has become too well known to be displaced. In addition to the two original values of the “yok,” it very early obtained a third use, being employed (without indicating any change of pronunciation) instead of the Old English h in certain positions, as in kni[char]t, ibro[char]t, rou[char], for which the older spelling was cniht, gebroht, ruh. But, in the fourteenth century many writers substituted y or i for [char], when pronounced as in [char]eer (year), and gh in all other cases. In the thirteenth century, the letters [char] and [char] went out of use, the former being replaced by the northern French w. The letter p was retained; but, although it was still called “thorn” in the fourteenth century, it seems in Chaucer’s time to have been regarded as a mere compendium for th, which generally took its place except initially. It may be noted that Thomas Usk, in the acrostic sentence of his Testament of Love (1387) spells pin (thine) with the four letters THIN. The adoption of a number of French words like ioie (joy), in which i was pronounced like the modern English j, introduced the consonantal use of this letter into English orthography.   25
  The Old English initial combination hl survived (written lh) in some dialects down to the fourteenth century; but hr was very early reduced to r. For the Old English hw, Middle English writers substituted wh, though the h was, at first, often omitted in this combination, as in other positions, by scribes of French education. The northern spelling qua, quilk for Wha, whilk (who, which) arose from a dialectal pronunciation of qu as wh, which still survives locally in a few words.   26
  From the twelfth century onwards, the letter y, when used as a vowel, was treated as a mere alternative form of i   27
  The Ormulum is written in a peculiar phonetic spelling devised by the author himself. This is based, to a considerable extent, on native tradition, though the handwriting is of the continental type. There are, however, some of the new features. Orm uses ch and sh as we do now, and retains the Old English form of g for the two sounds which the French g had not. A device peculiar to himself is the appropriation of different shapes of the letter g to the two sounds in god (good) and egge (edge). But the most noteworthy characteristic of his orthography is the method of indicating the quantity of the vowels. The shortness of a vowel, in a syllable ending with a consonant, is shown by doubling the following consonant, as in Crisstenndom. When the short vowel ended a syllable in the middle of a word, Orm marked it as in t[char]kenn, and very often (though not always) indicated a long vowel by one, two, or even three “acute accents” over the letter. This elaborate and cumbrous system found no imitators, but, as preserved in the author’s autograph MS., it is one of the most important aids that we possess for ascertaining the English pronunciation of the time.   28

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  Pronunciation and Spelling Development of Sounds  
 
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