A brief history of English spelling

The first English writing system using the Roman alphabet was developed in the 7th century, after St. Augustine brought church Latin to the saxons in Kent in 597. The language and spelling have both changed a great deal since then. They did not start to resemble current usage until 1348, when a series of plagues helped to end French domination over England and the English language. The system from which current English spelling conventions have developed was the one used by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who died in 1400.

Sadly, the orthography he used began to be diluted even during his lifetime. English became re-instated as the official language of England around 1430, after the 100 years war with France ended, and many of the scribes and clerks of court, who had hitherto written only French or Latin, had trouble switching to it. Their difficulties are chiefly responsible for most of the still surviving French spellings in words of French origin (table, double, centre) and spelling inconsistencies, such as ‘label - table’, ‘bubble – double’, ‘enter – centre’. Most words of French descent have been respellt to show their changed, anglicised pronunciation (e.g. ‘beef, battle, budge, count, government, mountain’ - from ‘boeuf, bouger, bataille, compter, gouvernement, montagne’), or respelt unfathomably (peuple – people).

Chaucer’s spelling system became even more seriously corrupted after 1476, when Caxton returned to London after 30 years on the Continent, to set up the first English printing press. To help him in this enterprise, he brought with him printers from Belgium who spoke little or no English and therefore made numerous spelling errors (e.g. ‘any, busy, citie’ for ‘eny, bisy, cittie’).

They were also paid by the line and fond of lengthening words to earn more money, or to make margins look neater. Many words with earlier simpler spellings became more complex and longer (frend – friend, hed – head, seson – season; fondnes – fondnesse, bad – badde, shal – shall).

The biggest dilution of English spelling patterns, however, occurred in the 16th century, during the printing of the first English bibles. They were printed abroad, because English bishops supported the Pope’s ban on translating the holy writ from Latin into native languages. After Martin Luther’s public questioning of the Pope’s infallibility in 1517 in Germany, many English people began to want to know exactly what the bible said, instead of just hearing about it from priests in their Sunday sermons. William Tyndale translated it, but he had to leave England to do so.

Tyndale lived in hiding, moving between Germany, Holland and Belgium, because spies in the employ of Sir Thomas More were constantly trying to track him down. His writings were therefore also printed abroad by people who spoke no English.

They were also much reprinted, because English bishops kept having them searched out, bought up and brought back for public burning outside St. Paul’s cathedral in London. With repeated copying, from increasingly corrupt copies, bible spellings became more and more varied. Yet they were the first and only book that many families ever bought, and learned to read and write from too.

When Sir Thomas More’s spies finally managed to track Tyndale down and have him hanged and then burnt at the stake near Brussels in 1536, printers began to change his spellings even more, along with his name, in order to disguise his authorship. By the second half of the 16th century English spelling had consequently become very chaotic, with hardly anyone knowing what its rules were. Elizabethan manuscripts consequently became full of different spellings for identical words, on the same page, even including the Queen’s own writings and the first authorised bible of 1611.

The spelling mess created during the first 100 years of English printing, mainly by foreign printers without any knowledge of English, led to calls for the standardisation of English spelling. The first steps towards this were taken by teachers who began to compile spelling lists for their pupils. One of them, Edmond Coote, published his in 1595 and called it ‘The English Schoolemaister’. It saved others the trouble, became very popular and also highly influential.

Coote cut many surplus letters inserted by printers (e.g. hadde – had, worde – word). He was greatly assisted by the pamphleteers of the English Civil War (1642-9) who liked words to be shorter in order to pack as much information onto a page as possible.

Unfortunately, they did not get rid of all surplus letters, and most of those which escaped their 17th C culling survive still (e.g. have, well, fuss, friend, build). Coote also paid no heed to the regularity of English spelling or ease of mastering it. His main aim was to help establish a single spelling for each word, opting for the one most often used.

When Samuel Johnson began work on his famous dictionary of 1755, quite a few English words still had more than one spelling, such as ‘there, there, thare, their’. He decided to link several hundred alternative spellings to differences in meaning, as was already beginning to happen, and thereby helped to make learning to spell English even more difficult. Mercifully, he did not apply this to at least 2000 others, such as ‘arm/arme, mean/mene’.

Masha Bell March 2011