Episode 87: The First Spelling Reformers


Following the Norman Conquest of England, the French-educated scribes encountered the English language used by the Anglo-Saxons. The new scribes discovered unfamiliar letters and strange spellings. Early Middle English documents like the Ormulum show several spelling innovations introduced during this period. In this episode, we examine how the French-trained scribes introduced new spellings for certain consonant sounds.


25 thoughts on “Episode 87: The First Spelling Reformers

  1. Funnily in German we have a merge of sc and sh -> sch. Sometimes when I hear this podcast I get this craving for interconnected podcasts for every language. XD

    • In English we have scare, shed, and school but each of those initial consonant groups is followed by a vowel. I believe the man who dug for Troy was Schlieman. We have difficulty coping with that grouping of consonants. But I do not have a shred of evidence.

    • I haven’t researched the history of the “sch” spelling in German, but Old French used “sch” and “sh” interchangeably for the /sh/ sound. Both spellings passed into Middle English for the /sh/ sound. However, today English largely reserves the “sch” spelling for the /sk/ sound (eg. school, scheme, schooner), except for certain names and relatively recent loanwords. Of course, the word “schedule” can go either way depending on where you are from.

  2. The letter yogh seems also to have been used in Middle Scots. I don’t know but I have wondered if scribes had replaced yogh with zed in some Scottish surnames at some point in the past. There are some Scots surnames with z in with pronunciations that are surprising to people non-Scots (even to some English people). Examples would be Dalziel and Menzies.

    • Yes, the yogh survived for a longer period of time in Scotland. The letter yogh resembled a Z with a long tail, so there was a tendency in Scotland to use the letter Z as a substitute (especially with the advent of the new printing press which often lacked the yogh). Many of those words still had the ‘y’ sound, but they came to be spelled with a Z. Over time, the pronunciation of many of those words shifted to reflect the spelling. The name ‘Mackenzie’ is a classic example. It was originally pronounced more like ‘McKinney’ – but the Z-for-yogh substitution changed the pronunciation over time.

  3. I enjoy the podcast. It’s so densely packed with information, I’m beginning my second time around. Although I remember you mentioned it, please explain briefly if possible why spoken and written English differ so much. Thank you

    • Hi Mary,

      Thanks for the great question! There are actually a lot of answers, so I’ll just mention a few of the major reasons why Modern English spellings seem like such a mess. English spellings started to be fixed by printers in the 1400s and the 1500s. Unfortunately, this period coincided with a wholesale change in the pronunciation of English vowels known as the Great Vowel Shift. This major vowel change, together with other sound changes, meant that the spellings no longer reflected the actual pronunciation of many words. English also borrowed a lot of foreign words and kept the original spellings. However, the pronunciation of those words was Anglicized over time. So again, there was a discrepancy between the spelling and the pronunciation. Also, in the 1600s and 1700s, many classically-trained English scholars tried to reform English spelling to reflect the original etymology of many words. So original Latin letters were introduced even though they weren’t pronounced in English (like the ‘b’ in “debt”). These are just a few of the major causes of the problems with English spellings. Also, many other languages have undergone spelling reforms over the past couple of centuries to fix these types of problems in those other languages. English has never had any such reforms.

  4. Hi Kevin,

    You mentioned the late appearance of ‘v’ in the Latin language. So I am wondering about the Roman numeral V. Did it also make a late appearance?

    • As far as I know, the Roman number 5 was always represented with a ‘V.’ It is important to keep in mind that Latin used both ‘U’ and ‘V,’ but they weren’t considered distinct letters. It was similar to the way we can represent the letter M with either an angular ‘M’ or a curvy ‘m’. So the Romans used a ‘V’ shaped symbol in spelling and numerals, but it was just considered to be a ‘U’ at the time. The ‘V’ symbol didn’t become a distinct letter until the ‘v’ sound emerged in the Middle Ages.

      • That makes me wonder if the Romans used the V a a pneumonic for the w-sounds in quinque, assuming I am remembering the Latin pronunciation correctly.

        I suppose, also, that this means that Iulius Caesar really did say ‘Weni, Weedy, Weeki’ in Pontus. Somehow this just ruins it for me.

        Great episode as usual and so data rich I will have to listen again, but I seem to have missed the s/z transition in the middle of words. Here in Australia it is civilisation and not civilization (and my spellchecker is reminding me this is wrong). Was this more of Noah Webster?

        • I’m not 100% sure about this, but I think “civilisation” (with an ‘s’) is an alternate spelling that developed in England and presumably spread to Australia. The OED indicates that the spelling with ‘z’ was the more traditional spelling which was apparently preserved within American English.

  5. Thanks for the explanation of how “hw” was switched to “wh” in English. This explains something I’d been wondering about after learning Danish, as most of the equivalent Danish words begin with “hv” (for example, white is “hvid” and where is “hvor”).

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  7. When we in the Land Down Under are spelling out a word with a duplicated letter we use the word “double” (except for vacuum). eg I would spell the the word “sweet” as “s-w-double e-t”. Even as I typed the previous line I heard myself thinking “s p e double l.” During the year 2000 I spent many months working in Ireland on a voluntary basis with an expatriate American. Whenever I spelled a word for him with that use of the double letter he would automatically type the letter w.

    • It’s funny that the name of the letter can represent two distinct spellings. Just another complication for English spellers I guess.

  8. Great episode, possibly my favorite so far! I kept coming up with questions to save and ask at the end, but you ended up answering all of them 🙂 So am I understanding correctly that the “h” ended up being the go-to letter to use in combination with another letter to represent some phonemes, because of the legacy of using “h” (+ other letter) in Latin (and then Romance languages) to indicate that aspirated sound in Greek loan words? Fun to imagine how spelling would have turned out if we’d kept the old English symbols instead – much simpler it seems!

    • Yes that’s a pretty good summary. The ‘h’ was often employed by the Romans to represent aspirated sounds in Greek (eg., ‘CH’ for an aspirated /k/ sound, ‘PH’ for an aspirated /p/ sound, etc.).

  9. I’m confused about your explanation of the French origin of the English ‘ch’ and ‘sh’. First of all, I think that there are no words written with ‘sh’ in French, except for foreign words. On the other hand, the French ‘ch’ is pronounced like the English ‘sh’ – for instance the French ‘chou’ (cabbage) sounds like the English ‘shoe’. So, I am surprised that we owe the English ‘sh’ spelling would to the French scribes. On the other hand, I believe the English sound ‘ch’ (as in ‘cheese’) does not exist in French at all – I couldn’t think of an example, at least.

    • Hi Peter. Just to clarify, I noted in the episode that the ‘SH’ spelling apparently derived from “French-trained scribes” operating in England. That isn’t necessarily the same thing as French scribes. The scribes may have been English by birth, but they had been trained in French. And it doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘SH’ spelling was used in French (which apparently it wasn’t). It simply means that they had to come up with a way to represent the /sh/ sound with letters. That sound developed within French over time from the /ch/ sound (which explains the Modern French pronunciation of the ‘CH’ spelling), but that sound change had not yet occurred within French at the time of this episode. My summary doesn’t delve into all of the details, so here in an entry from the Oxford English Dictionary which sheds a little more light on the history of the ‘SH’ spelling convention:

      “SH – A consonantal digraph representing the simple sound /ʃ/. In late Old English this sound was represented by the combination ‘sc,’ which retained its original phonetic value /sk/ only in words of foreign origin. The sound /ʃ/ did not exist in early Old French, and hence the early Middle English texts, written by French-educated scribes, show great diversity of attempts to find expression for it. The Old English notation by ‘sc’ became rare after the 12th cent. Some scribes of the 12–13th centuries used the single ‘s’ initially and finally. More frequent was ‘ss’ (used in all positions), which is found as late as 1340 ( Ayenbite). In medial and final positions ‘ssh’ was common from the 13th to the 16th centuries; Coverdale (1535) has frequently ‘szsh,’ sometimes ‘szh’ (but also often ‘sh’). The prevailing form from the end of the 12th cent. to the end of the 14th cent. was ‘sch’ (initially; in other positions it was less frequent); in the north it was common down to the end of the 16th cent. In the 13th cent. we occasionally find ‘sge,’ ‘sȝe,’ ‘sze’ for “she” (rarely ‘sȝ’ or ‘sz’ in other words), and in the 14–15th centuries some East Anglian scribes wrote ‘xal,’ ‘xulde’ for “shall,” “should”. In Middle English texts the suffix ‘-ship’ is often written ‘-chipe,’ and sometimes ‘ch’ occurs as the symbol of /ʃ/ in other positions. The combination ‘sh’ (probably to be regarded as a simplification of ‘sch’) is regularly used in the Ormulum c1200 and frequently in the Trinity College Homilies of about the same date. It is the usual symbol in the London documents of the 14th cent. and in the MSS. of Chaucer, and from the time of Caxton onwards it has been the established notation for /ʃ/ in all words except those which (as “machine,” “schedule,” “Asia,” the derivatives in ‘-tion,’ etc.) are spelt unphonetically on etymological grounds.”

      • A belated thank you for the nice answer – one with references! I had seen it earlier, but had wanted to take the time to read (and understand) it carefully… I had not realized that the French pronunciation of ‘ch’ had changed (or shanged).

  10. It’s easy to see why Orm’s idea is not so good. You might not notice it so much in a short word, but in a longer word you could have something like ‘indefensibility’ > *inndeffennsibbillitty, very long and awkward.
    But, beyond that, why mark the short sounds? The shorts are the most frequent, so they shud be unmarked.
    additionally, doubled consonants are confusing: how many English speakers know that doubled letters are not pronounced.
    The idea of doubling to mark a short also occurs in other Germanic languages. Did one language borrow the idea from another?
    Great podcast!

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