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.

19 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.

  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”).

  6. Pingback: אקלקטיקה אהובתי » ענייני שפה: סקירת פודקאסטים תקופתית

  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.

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