More on Spelling

David Metevia djmetevia at CHARTERMI.NET
Sun Apr 20 16:09:13 UTC 2008

I don't know if this will add to the discussion or add to emotion, but I
ran across this quote today on English spelling.

"In spelling, the [English] language was assimilating the consequences
of having a civil service of French scribes, who paid little attention
to the traditions of English spelling that had developed in Anglo-Saxon
times. Not only did French qu arrive, replacing Old English cw (as in
queen), but ch replaced c (in words such as church--Old English cirice),
sh and sch replaced sc (as in ship--Old English scip), and much more.
Vowels were written in a great number of ways. Much of the irregularity
of modern English spelling derives from the forcing together of Old
English and French systems of spelling in the Middle Ages. People
struggled to find the best way of writing English throughout the period.
... Even Caxton didn't help, at times. Some of his typesetters were
Dutch, and they introduced some of their own spelling conventions into
their work. That is where the gh in such words as ghost comes from.

"Any desire to standardize would also have been hindered by the ...
Great English Vowel Shift, [which] took place in the early 1400s. Before
the shift, a word like loud would have been pronounced 'lood'; name as
'nahm'; leaf as 'layf'; mice as 'mees'. ...

"The renewed interest in classical languages and cultures, which formed
part of the ethos of the Renaissance, had introduced a new perspective
into spelling: etymology. Etymology is the study of the history of
words, and there was a widespread view that words should show their
history in the way they were spelled. These weren't classicists showing
off. There was a genuine belief that it would help people if they could
'see' the original Latin in a Latin-derived English word. So someone
added a b to the word typically spelled det, dett, or dette in Middle
English, because the source in Latin was debitum, and it became debt,
and caught on. Similarly, an o was added to peple, because it came from
populum: we find both poeple and people, before the latter became the
norm. An s was added to ile and iland, because of Latin insula, so we
now have island. There are many more such cases. Some people nowadays
find it hard to understand why there are so many 'silent letters' of
this kind in English. It is because other people thought they were

David Crystal, The Fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot,
and left, Oxford, 2006, pp. 26-9.


The American Dialect Society -

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