Episode 89: ‘I Before E’ and All That

During the Middle English period, scribes developed a variety of spelling innovations to distinguish the sound of the various vowels. Some of those innovations were borrowed from French, and some were native to English.  In this episode, we explore those spelling techniques, many of which still survive in Modern English.

16 thoughts on “Episode 89: ‘I Before E’ and All That

    • Hi Gavriel,

      I tried to limit the discussion in this episode to developments that occurred during the Middle English period. I will have more to say about the vowels when we get to Modern English. I will also cover Noah Webster’s spelling reforms in some detail at that point.

  1. Something I would have liked to hear about is words ending in -ire, like “fire” and “ire”, since their pronunciation isn’t like other words with the i-consonant-e combination. Was their pronunciation or spelling different in Middle English?

    • Hi Gil,

      “Fire” was “fyr” in Old English. “Ire” comes from French and retains its original spelling. I think that both words follow the standard convention for ‘silent E’ in Modern English. Both words have a silent E on the end, and that E indicates that the letter I is pronounced as a long vowel. Of course, the pronunciation of ‘-ire’ can vary in Modern English. For example, “shire” has a long vowel, but “Hampshire” has a short vowel.

  2. Just wanted to say that History of English is a fantastic podcast. It has so much learning and to combine history and language just make for amazing storytelling and ties it down into something that is concrete and real to all of us. Thank you!

  3. Another great episode. Long African bus rides are helping me catch up!

    There are a couple of points I’d like to make. Firstly, you mentioned how a double i (without the dot) and a double u would be difficult to read in the scripts of the time. I’d like to add that these letters, as well as other letters with similar vertical lines with no ascenders or descenders that are curved at the top or the bottom (i.e. m, n and w) are called ‘minims’ by paleographers and are grouped as minims precisely because they are difficult to read. The word minim contains only minims and is thus an appropriate name.

    Secondly, you mentioned that the French accent aigu can often indicate that the é is pronounced like a long English ‘a’ vowel, as in the word café. This is correct in the final syllables of words. I think it’s worth adding that in earlier syllables (usually the first syllable), the accent aigu indicates a different vowel sound. Take the word décédé(e), the past participle of the verb décéder (to pass away or ‘become deceased’), which contains an accent aigu on all three ‘e’ letters. The é in the first two syllables is pronounced like the short English ‘e’ vowel sound to distinguish it from the ‘e’ with no accent, which is pronounced something like the English schwa (‘uh’). The final é is pronounced like the long English ‘a’ sound, thus making the pronunciation something like deh-seh-DAY. This first syllable accent aigu is very common in French (e.g. école, écouter, étudier etc), though English speakers may have confused the two. For example, some English speakers pronounce the French word élite as ‘AY-leet’, which seems to indicate an incorrect understanding of the French accent aigu (in French, it would be eh-LEET).

    I wonder if this is where monolingual English speakers’ propensity for incorrectly pronouncing the letter ‘e’ in Romance language words as an ‘a’ sound comes from. For example, many Americans pronounce Spanish words like queso, peso and Pedro as kay-so, pay-so and Pay-dro, which is not how they are pronounced in Spanish. Hopefully this is something you might address when it comes to modern English.

    • Thanks for the notes. I have been waiting for a good time to discuss the confusion surrounding the double ‘i’ and double ‘u’ in Middle English. I have already addressed the topic in a bonus episode at Patreon, but I intend to address it in the regular podcast as well.

  4. Another great episode! I love language change.

    Do you think the purpose of the double consonants of f’s and s’s (“puff”, “miss” I believe were mentioned) was to make clear there was no allophonic variation with the voiced versions of those sounds ([v] and [z]) if they were followed by a vowel or other voiced sound (e.g. “puff of air,” “Miss Emily”), like what happens with knife vs. knives, house vs. houses (verb) that have been mentioned?

    And would the purpose of the “ck” be to emphasize the hard “c” sound rather than the palatalized “ch” (like you mentioned “child” used to be spelled “cild” I think, and “wicca” is the older version of “witch”)? Or was that resolved in a different way (“ch” being implemented already?)?

    Thanks!!

    • The short answer to both questions is “I don’t know.” (That’s usually the best answer because speculation gets me into a lot of trouble.) A historical linguist could probably give you an answer, but my research didn’t offer any theories along those lines.

  5. Love the podcast! I discovered it recently and have been binge-listening my way through to the present.

    You mentioned in this episode that the technique of adding an “i” after another vowel to indicate that the vowel should be pronounced long never really caught on for the long “u” soun (except in Scotland). What about words like “suit,” “fruit,” “juice,” and “sluice”? Are they exceptions, or did they get their spellings through some other mechanism?

    • Without thoroughly researching the history of those words, I am not entirely sure if they constitute an exception. All of those words were borrowed from French, and “suit” and “fruit” were both sometimes spelled with an ‘i’ in Old French. However, “juice” and “sluice’ apparently acquired their respective ‘i’s after they were borrowed into English. I am not sure if the spelling was changed in those words to mirror pre-existing words like “suit” and “fruit,” or if they got an ‘i’ as part of this spelling convention. (Though I suppose it would be difficult to call it a ‘spelling convention’ if it was restricted to a couple of words.)

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