Wednesday, 25 May 2016

English Spelling And History

Two things annoy me about how we write in this country.  One of them is our insistence on refusing to count in duodecimal.  We count in tens, like most of the rest of the world, and we have decimal currency and metric units, again like the rest of the world.  This is purely and simply disabling and there's no real reason for doing it.  People don't complain that much about numerical notation even though there is basically no justification for making arithmetic harder for everyone.

The other thing is of course English spelling.  English spelling is far from phonetic and makes literacy much harder for ourselves and people trying to learn English.  Moreover, for some reason the slightly more logical American spelling system is considered infra dig by most Brits, which is quite annoying in itself considering how much people complain about spelling.  However, unlike the use of base ten for numbers, English spelling does have some value and I think I've probably written about that elsewhere on this blog so I won't go on about it here.  The history of English spelling is quite interesting and carries with it the history of the English-speaking people, so it's an educational resource in that, and other, ways.

English writing begins before the English language even existed.  Around the beginning of the Christian era, Germanic tribes in what is now Northern Italy came into contact with the writing of the Rhaetic people, who may have spoken a language related to Etruscan or possibly a Celtic or Italic language, and adapted it for their own language.  Germanic was also written in an Etruscan-like script on the Helmet of Negau, possibly added later, in the form transliterated into our modern Latin alphabet as "HARIGAST TEIWAZ" - possibly "Harigast the Priest".  The word teiwaz lives on in today's English as the first syllable of the word "Tuesday", and means "god".  It's cognate with the Latin deus, the Greek θεός and the Sanskrit devas, all of which again mean "god".

The first widespread script used for Germanic languages was the Elder Futhark:

This was used to scratch inscriptions on the likes of bones, wood and stone, and resembles to some extent earlier rock carvings found in the prehistoric Germanic area.  The earliest Germanic writing found in Britain is in this script.  This is the fifth century deer bone found in Caistor, Norfolk, which has the word raihan written on it, thus:

This means "row" as in the thing you do with oars. At the time it would've been a reduplicative verb, meaning that certain forms referring to events in the past would have done so by repeating the stem, and coincidentally this type of verb survived longer in East Anglia than elsewhere in the seven kingdoms established by the Germanic invaders of the English heptarchy.  There are a couple of interesting things about this spelling.  One is that it uses a different character for "I" than usual, indicating that the proto-Germanic "AI" had a particular kind of pronunciation by this point.  The "H" also has a single bar, unlike the later Old English rune for the same letter, and this single-bar form is also found in Scandinavia.  This artifact dates from within three decades either side of the officially recorded arrival of the ancestors of the English in this land.  Before the arrival of Hengest and Horsa, however, there were already Germanic people living in Britain as part of the Roman army, including Saxons.

For the next century and a half, Old English was written using Anglo-Saxon runes, an alphabet known as the futhorc:

The last rune, stan, is said to be spurious for some reason.  There are not a huge number of inscriptions in this text although runes themselves continued to be used later as symbols for the words they stand for, and in fact I still use runes today when I'm writing something in public I don't want people to be able to read, for instance ideas for confidential matters involving people I know to pray for when I'm in church or medical notes, and the word "rune" originally meant "secret".

At this point in time, spelling was very simple:  you just wrote down what you heard.  Several different dialects of Germanic were spoken in the Heptarchy at the time, meaning that there was different spelling in different parts of the British lowlands, but this spelling represented the different pronunciations and accents rather than real variants in spelling which didn't correspond to a logical plan of some kind.  Reading was always out loud at the time, so it consisted of simply pronouncing the letters written on the page, and this continued well into the Middle Ages.

It appears also that there were still native Latin, and of course Celtic, speakers in lowland Great Britain at this time, the former of whom, if literate, would've been using the same alphabet as we do again today, but not much is known about them.

In 597, Augustine came to Kent and is said to have established the King's School in Canterbury, although to my mind there is a suspiciously long gap between that event and the earliest records of the place.  In doing so, he would've brought the Latin alphabet here and is the ultimate reason this blog entry uses it.  At around the same time, Irish missionaries entered more northwestern parts of Great Britain and introduced the same alphabet there.

Anglo-Saxon writing is dominated by West Saxon, since at that time and for a while after, the Kingdom of Wessex was dominant among the Anglo-Saxons.  The spelling and pronunciation of English was again pretty close.  There are, incidentally, ways of establishing how languages were pronounced before the advent of recorded sound but I can't be bothered to go into them here.  Just take my word for it.  West Saxon spelling is pretty clearly based on Latin but there were a few sounds in it which didn't exist in Latin and weren't even close.  Two of these were written using the relevant runes, namely þ (þorn) for the sound now represented as "TH", and ƿ (ƿynn) for "W".  That said, in some writing W was already written "UU" and "TH" was even written like that in some places.  Another sound, A as in today's southern pronunciation of "cat", was written using the Latin digraph for the diphthong we now pronounce as "I", that is, æ, also known as æsc - ash - after the name of the rune.  A further letter, ð, eð,  appeared later to indicate the softer "th" sound.

West Saxon didn't have a particularly strong influence on later English compared to other dialects, so today it seems idiosyncratic, particularly in its use of "eo" and its longer-vowelled sister.  However, this isn't really a spelling anomaly as far as anyone can tell, except that I suppose it's possible that people with other accents might sometimes have felt the pressure to "talk posh".  Coincidentally, "eo" has re-entered the English language due to a change in the pronunciation of "L", and is now found, for example, in the word "melt".  There is a little deviation from pronunciation also in the "ea" and long "ea" sounds, which started with æ when spoken.

Then we got invaded by the Danes of course, but that doesn't seem to have made much difference to spelling.  Some people think that English might actually be completely Scandinavian, but the Danes and the English in any case spoke languages similar enough to be kind of understood by each other and may have developed a patois to make themselves understood, from which modern English is descended.  After a period during which they controlled much of the Midlands, including Leicester, they left as a political power, though not necessarily the people themselves, and for the next hundred years or so we all sort of spoke English again.  However, one of the changes was that the sound represented by Y, which was previously like the French U today, started to be pronounced as "ee" and short I, identically to the letter I.  This led to the familiar old-fashioned looking confusion between Y and I and spellings like "hys" and "ys" for "his" and "is".  Another difference was that by this time, the English spoken in the Midlands was becoming more important than West Saxon.

Then, of course, the Normans invaded.  This meant that English became the language of the oppressed poor and they were largely illiterate.  The spelling of English then went two ways.  In the South, it started to be written using French spelling, meaning for example that the previous long U, though still pronounced "oo", was now written "ou" as in the French <<tout>>.  This eventually became our "ow" sound.  Meanwhile, in the Midlands and North English carried on being spelt as it was pronounced, more or less, I'm guessing because the Normans had less influence there.  The runes were used less, possibly because they had pagan overtones to the Normans, and were replaced by "TH" and "W" to some extent, though the old thorn survived in shorter words, and even today is recognised in phrases such as "Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe", where the supposed "Y" is in fact thorn.

During the twelfth century, some kind of spelling reform seemed to be attempted, possibly by just one monk called Orm.  He complains about how people are mispronouncing English and attempts to indicate short vowels by doubling the consonants after them and leaving them single after long vowels, using accents to show long vowels at the end of words and using yogh (ȝ) for the "J" sound of G and the newer letter "g" for the hard G.  This didn't catch on but it does serve to indicate a clue as to how Orm's English was pronounced at the time.

Another innovation from this period is the use of "wh" for "hw".  It's thought that this, along with the likes of "th", emerged from the French habit of using "ch" to indicate a sound which at the time sounded like our modern "ch" and therefore also a bit like the hard C.

England was basically a Norman colony by this point, but as time went by, ever more territory was lost in France and the focus of English monarchs became England.  This led to the return of English as the vernacular, until in 1362 the Statute of Pleading became law.  This allowed English to be used in court due to the loss of good knowledge of Norman French.  However, the English Crown only dropped the claim to France at the start of the nineteenth century, by which time France was a republic anyway.

English began to be written much more often at this point.  A drift can be seen in London English from a southern dialect to a Midlands one, meaning that the so-called "Queen's English" as heard today is originally not southern at all.  Southern English is more or less extinct nowadays, although there are a few remnants of it in words such as "vixen" and "vat", and the use of Z sounds in the Southwest instead of S at the beginnings of words.

What happened next is a bit of a mystery.  At some point soon after Chaucer, all the long vowels in English began to change pronunciation dramatically in a process which continues today.  The long U, by then written "ou", and the long I, began to change their pronunciation into diphthongs which in a sensibly spelt language would be written "au" and "ai" respectively.  This destabilised the whole system of long vowels, leading to a shift in all of them.  This is known as the Great Vowel Shift and may have been caused by the movement of people southwards after the Black Death killed much of the population of northern England, a process which also led to the increase in wages in the South and the Peasant's Revolt at the Poll Tax in the late fourteenth century.  The practical result of the vowel shift is that the way we write our vowels is dramatically different from virtually all other languages.

Most people were of course still illiterate in the fifteenth century, although being the century the printing press was invented, the production of books suddenly got a lot cheaper.  The Reformation also led to more people reading the Bible in English and William Caxton began to standardise English spelling again.

Later in Tudor times, the English began to explore the New World and establish colonies there.  Early American writing shows very little standardisation in its spelling.  Another effect of colonisation was that many new words entered the English language, for instance the names of fruits and vegetables new to European knowledge.  These were spelt differently and thus more variant spellings entered English although the ground had been laid for this possibility through the fact that the nature of our language had already been opened to foreign influence via Danish and Norman French many centuries before.  Many other languages, for instance Mandarin Chinese, lack the flexibility to allow foreign loanwords to any extent.

Later attempts were made to Latinise spelling, sometimes introducing dubious silent letters such as the B in "debt", which is related to the Latin debit but was never really present in the English spelling of the word, which used to be "dette".  Another non-historical example was the spelling of "could", which introduces an L by analogy with "should" and "would" which was never there at all historically.  Changes in pronunciation also meant that many letters, such as the K in "knight" and "know", ceased to be pronounced but stayed in the spelling, although in those cases they do serve to distinguish between those words and the identically pronounced "night" and "no".

American independence led to a split into two standard dialects of English, one spoken in the Commonwealth and the other in North America.  Canada uses an intermediate version of the spelling system, associated with Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System used to classify library books.  His advocacy of spelling reform can be seen in the spelling of his own name, which he altered from "Melville".  Dewey was in fact much more radical than what survived in American spelling.  For instance, he spelt "philosophy" with two F's, and tried to introduce the macron, a horizontal line over long vowels still used in pronouncing dictionaries.  Although these didn't catch on, other ideas of his were adopted and survive in today's American English.

Speaking of American spelling, users of British English in the twenty-first century frequently find themselves hesitating regarding the way we spell words because the internet exposes us to so much American material.  There are now more words ending in "-ize" than there used to be in British English for this reason.  I would also contend that just as there was a time before English spelling was standardised, we may now be leaving this phase in the history of the language due to the common variant spellings of English found in places like social networks, text speech and internet fora.  Whereas we are very attached to the way English is spelt, I suspect this may soon become a thing of the past, and we will probably return to the idea that we spell as we hear the words in our heads when we write.  There's nothing new about this.  Also, unlike other countries we have never had an official body to standardise the language, which again reflects our history as a collection of cultures.

So there you go.  That's basically my account of the history of English spelling and as you can see it also constitutes a bit of a history lesson.  I can't guarantee everything is correct in this, so you may want to look into it yourself.  I just thought it would be a helpful and hopefully interesting educational resource, which is why it's on this blog.