English spelling origin (OT?)

Thom Harrison THarriso at MAIL.MACONSTATE.EDU
Wed Dec 11 14:48:21 UTC 2002

The "ck" spelling in English words is actually the indirect descendant of
vowel lengthening in open syllables between Old and Middle English.  Vowel
lengthening in words like "bake" (Old English "bacan" with a short a) was
blocked in syllables that ended in two consonants.  In fact, original long
vowels were shortened in closed syllables, yielding pairs like "five" and

When long consonants ceased to be pronounced, the double-letter spelling
eventually became a sign of a preceding short vowel in words like "hidden."
c had been used in Old English for the affricate in "edge" (Old English
"ecg"), as well as the long cc in Middle English "cuccu," "cuckoo."

ck becomes the spelling of what was originally long [k:].  Once it becomes
the sign of a preceding short vowel, it is apt to show up it words like
"quick," which does not seem to have had a long consonant at all (Old
English "cwicu") but which somehow escaped open syllable lengthening.
Perhaps there is something here that escapes me, but my resources now are

Middle English spelling was reasonable and generally phonetic, but wildly
inconsistent.  Anyone using an authentic text for Chaucer has noticed that
he seems never to spell the same word the same way twice.  Modern English
settled onto spelling the same morpheme the same way no matter how it was
pronounced, so that we have pairs like "sane" and "sanity" (with an
inconsistency even here with "vain" and "vanity").

The spellings mentioned above apply to English words, of course, and one
must take into account the fact that about half the vocabulary of English is
French.  The "i before e except after c" rule is a rule which works very
well for French words like "receive" and "relieve," but not at all well for
English words like "neighbor" and "weigh."

The sources for research on English spelling tend to be scattered, but a
place to start is a history of the language.  I took a look at an old
edition of the Pyles/Algeo History of the English Language.

Sorry for such a long post.

Thom Harrison

-----Original Message-----
From: Dennis R. Preston [mailto:preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU]
Sent: Wednesday, December 11, 2002 7:54 AM
Subject: Re: English spelling origin (OT?)

At 6 she is probably ready for the horrible revelation that
grapheme-phoneme correspondence in English is not perfect (just tell
her that for now). When she is 8, you can begin the historical
lectures (about where the "c" came from, where all those "wh"s came
from, etc...).


>A relayed question from a friend's six year old daughter, who had missed
>word on a spelling test and thus sentenced herself to have to write out the
>spelling words for the rest of the week and retake the test:  "quick"
>spelled as "quik."  "But Mommy, why is that wrong?  They would both be
>pronounced with the same sound."  I haven't the vaguest idea where to
>research this.
>Dave Hause, dwhause at jobe.net
>Ft. Leonard Wood, MO

Dennis R. Preston
Professor of Linguistics
Department of Linguistics & Germanic, Slavic,
      Asian & African Languages
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1027
e-mail: preston at msu.edu
phone: (517) 353-9290

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