English spelling origin (OT?)

Mark A Mandel mam at THEWORLD.COM
Wed Dec 11 15:18:48 UTC 2002

On Wed, 11 Dec 2002, Thom Harrison wrote:

#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.

I think Chaucer and his contemporaries must have had a very different
*concept* than ours of the nature of spelling. To us, it's a combination
of rules with some generality ("b" is almost always [b], "th" either
theta or edh), arbitrary items to be learned by rote ("siege" and
"seize"), and things in between. To them, I suspect it was a set of
rules of thumb for producing a graph that would point the reader to the
word the writer had in mind.

#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."

I've heard a second line (or 3rd and 4th):
        or when pronounced [ei]
        as in "neighbor" and "weigh"

But that doesn't cover "height" or "sleight". ISTM that this exception
is more accurately (though less mnemonically) stated as
        or when followed by silent "gh"

-- Mark A. Mandel

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