Skip to main content

Write what you know, read what you don't.

Yester-day, Today and tmrw – An enquiry into the Evolution of English Spellings

Have you ever felt irritated at Microsoft word for needlessly underlining in red to point at some mistake in the otherwise correct spelling? Have you ever wondered what led to the separation of English into American and British, other than geography? Well, the answers to these questions can be discovered by tracing the evolution of English spellings! So read on!
The English language is an amalgam of old German (e.g. bread, milk, butter) brought to England in the 5th century by the Saxon invaders, and Latin, from the Norman French (e.g. castle, table, beef).
The English language bears little semblance to the organized and logical pattern of its parent languages. The reason behind this haphazard nature of English spellings is not the influences of a wide range of other languages such as German, Latin, French, Greek etc. The irregularities in the English spellings stem from personal whims, indifference to logical consistency, printing errors, great reverence for Greek and Latin, and total lack of regard for ease of learning.
The English language has been eclipsed by the utter lack of regard for alphabetical consistency. Back in the 9th century the scribes were averse to the usage of multiple small strokes next to each other, like in ‘love, vvonder, mother, month’ (instead of ‘lvv, vvvnder, mvther, mvnth’), substituting ‘o’ for ‘u’ when short /u/ occurred next to ‘v‘, ‘vv‘ (double u), ‘m‘ and ‘n‘. This practice has come to be known as ‘minimum stroke avoidance’.
The current English spelling conventions have been inspired by the fairly consistent orthography of Geoffrey Chaucer, but even that became diluted after English was re-instated as the official language of England, following the end of the Hundred Years’ War with France. As a result of this, the scribes had to shift to lowly English from Latin and French. The difficulties faced by these scribes is the main reason behind the survival of French spellings in English words like in ‘table, double, centre‘ (unlike label, bubble, enter).On the other hand , some words were respelt according to the English rules to show a change in pronunciation (e.g. ‘boeuf, bataille, compter’ to ‘beef, battle, count’).

The first English printing press was set up in 1476 by William Caxton. Ironically, it had printers from Belgium who knew little or no English and made inevitable spelling mistakes (e.g. ‘any, friend, citie’ for ‘eny, frend, cittie’. Also, earlier the printers were paid by line which made them unnecessarily lengthen the words to make more money or to simply make the margins look neater(fondnes – fondnesse, bad – badde, shal – shall).

With the translation of Bible , and its printing by those who didn’t know English, the nature of English spellings fell further into disarray. It was a common sight to see different spellings of the same word on the same page, even in the writings of the highly educated like Elizabeth I.

To rescue the English spelling from the mess created, all within the first 100 years of English printing by the foreign printers, who didn’t have the faintest idea of the English language, the standardisation of English spellings became imperative . This was initiated by the distribution of spelling lists to the pupils by their teachers. One of the most influential early spelling books was Edmond Coote’s, The English Schoolemaister’, published in 1595.

As these spelling books developed into what we now know as dictionaries, most notably Samuel Johnson’s widely influential dictionary in 1755, quite a few English words had multiple spellings like ‘thare, there, thair, ther, their’.In order to avoid losing this variety, he accorded different spellings to different meanings! Mercifully, he did not do this with all the many hundreds of words which had more than one spelling in his day, such as ‘arm/arme, mean/mene’. He made a random selection of combination of letters without any rhyme or reason, guided by his personal tastes such as stroke – cloak; rope – soap along with many other unimaginable irregularities.

On the other side of Atlantic in the 19th century, the US lexicographer and former teacher, Noah Webster, began handing out spelling lists of his own, which later earned him a fortune. He advocated spelling reform to ease in the learning of the language, empathizing with the difficulties faced by his own students. He satisfied his reformist zeal by making some American spellings slightly different from the British ones such as changing ‘standardise’ and ‘labour’ to ‘standardize’ and ‘labor’.

Today, the whims of individuals are not strong enough to bring about changes in spellings, but a recent phenomenon of SMS language has already started to affect our spelling patterns in the virtual sphere. The compulsive need to express thoughts within 140 characters has led to the transition of great to gr8 and before to b4, the inclusion of numerous abbreviations such as ‘ty’ (thank you) and ‘ttyl’ (talk to you later). Even old and reputable newspapers such as the Times of India have started to use ‘i’ instead of the grammatically correct ‘I’ to denote personal pronoun.

A couple of centuries back the norm was to write ‘to-day’ and now it is ‘today’. Greater and greater number of abbreviations like Govt. are taking shape and becoming a part of the journalistic jargon or the colloquial language. Moreover, the inclusion of the concise and grotesquely informal SMS language in school curriculum and business contracts might be just round the corner. It has now become difficult to distinguish language change from language decline.

What might be change for one generation might be decline for the other. Like the times, the language too will change.

English is a funny language, and with time is bound to get funnier!


Share this!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • dictionary
  • English Dictionary

Double click on any word on the page or type a word: