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Historical Foundations of Modern English Spelling

411.The alphabetic way of writing (unlike hieroglyphic, pictographic and syllabic writing) was originally based on a phonetic principle: it was designed to give an accurate graphic representation of pronunciation by using letters to indicate sounds, Mod E spelling displays many deviations from this principle. The differences between the pronunciation and the spelling of words are obvious, especially to those who are familiar with the employment of Latin letters in other languages. The reasons for these discrepancies and for the peculiarities of English spelling are to be found in the history of English sounds.

412. OE spelling was phonetic: OE notaries employed Latin characters in accord with the Latin written convention, to put down English words as best they could. They attempted to use a separate letter for each distinct sound; the sound values of the letters were for the most part the same as in Latin. Their spellings, however, were not absolutely consistent, for some letters as far as we can judge today indicated two or more sounds: the letter ʒ stood for four different phonemes, c for two; f, ð, p and s indicated two allophones each (which developed into phonemes later). On the whole, OE spellings were fairly good transcriptions of words, made with the help of Latin characters.

413.ME spelling innovations incorporated many sound changes which had taken place since the 9th-10th c., and yet spelling had generally become more ambiguous and conventional. In many instances the one-to-one correspondence of letter and sound had been lost. More letters than before had two sound values: ostood for [ɔ], [u], long [ɔ:] and [o:]; c for [s] and [k]; g for [g] and [dʒ], etc.; u could even indicate three sounds the vowels [u] and [y] and the consonant [v]. One and the same sound was commonly shown by different means: [dʒ] could be indicated by g, j or dg, [k] by k, c and q, etc. (see 360). The digraphs introduced in ME look familiar to the modern reder, since many of them are still in use, but their application in ME was rather contradictory: so that they did not make spelling either more precise or more phonetic. For instance, both ou and ow were used for[u:] and [ou]; double o stood for the open and close long [ɔ:] and [o:] alongside o; long [e:] and [ɛ:] were shown indiscriminately by ie,double e and the single letter e. The use of digraphs was a digression from the phonetic principle, for it was based on conventional association between sounds and their graphic representation (e.g. th or dg did not indicate sequences of sounds, but were used as symbols of single sounds, [θ, ð]and [dʒ]). The conventional principle of spelling was later reinforced by the fixation of the written form of the word in printing and byextensive sound changes.

414. The introduction of printing and the spread of printed books perpetuated the written forms of the words reproduced from the manuscripts. They reflected the pronunciation of the age and the accepted devices of spelling; numerous variant spellings characteristic of the manuscripts were employed unrestrictedly in the printed books of the late 15th and the 16th c.

The phoneticians and spelling reformers of the 16th c. strove to restrict the freedom of variation and to improve English orthography by a more consistent use of letters and digraphs, and by the introduction of new symbols.

They insisted upon a strict distinction between u and o when used to indicate a vowel and a consonant: [u] and [v], e.g. Early NE loue, selues, unripe, unshaken later spelt as love; selves, unripe, unshaken; upon the regular use of the final mute e to show the length of the vowel in the preceding syllable, e.g., rode, rose, and even beene, moone (though in the two latter words length was shown by double letters). They introduced new digraphs to show the difference between some open and close vowels, namely the digraph ea for [ɛ:] as distinguished from e, ee, and ie used for the closed [e:], and the digraph oa alongside o in open syllables for [ɔ:], as contrasted to oo showing a long closed [o:] Cf. ME eech, seke with [ɛ:] and [e:] and Early NE each, seek; ME hooly, boot [ɔ:, o] and Early NE holy, boat, boot. The use of double consonants became less frequent, except in traditional spellings like kiss, sell, but double letters were sometimes employed to show that the preceding vowel was short: Early NE sitten, shott, dipped (later sir, shot, dipped).

However, most of the recommendations made by Early NE scholars were never accepted; for instance, it was proposed that [θ] and [ð] should be indicated by an overturned letter t , or that the number of letters should be increased to thirty-four (Th. Smith, 1568) or else that all long sounds in all the words should be consistently shown by double letters (J. Hart, 1569).

415. The activities of the scholars in the period of normalisation late 17th and the 18th c. had a stabilising effect on the development of English spelling. The dictionaries and grammars fixed the written forms of the words as obligatory standards; numerous variant spellings of the Early NE period went out of use. Apart from the standardisation of spelling which was certainly a great achievement of that age only a few innovations were made: a few new digraphs were adopte with borrowed words, such as ph, ps NE photograph, psychology ch NE chemistry, scheme and machine, g genre.

In the 18th c. the sound changes slowed down. Standard pronunciation (later known as RP Received Pronunciation) and standard spelling were [irmly established, and the gap between the spoken and written form of the word was perpetuated. The conventional use of letters had prevailed over their original, "phonetic" use.

416. Spelling always lagged behind the changing pronunciation but this discrepancy grew in the NE period. In Early NE vowels and consonants were subjected to extensive changes, while spelling changes were few and inadequate. Mod E spelling shows the pronunciation of words in the late 14th and in the 15th c., that is before the Early NE sound changes. That is why modern spelling is largely conventional and conservative, but seldom phonetic.

Those are the main historical reasons for the gap between Mod E spelling and pronunciation and for the specifically English use of Latin letters. In order to explain modern spellings one must trace the history of the sounds and their graphic representation, especially in ME and Early NE. The following table contains a list of modern sounds and their most common spelling; it supplies information about the origin and history of sounds, which account for the spellings (it does not include the most obvious phonetic spellings of the type not, it, bed, which do not require any special historical explanation).

Table 12

417. Main Historical Sources of Modern Spellings

Sound Spelling Examples Sound changes accounting for the spelling Notes and references
Vowels Monophthongs     ME NE  
æ a cat, man a > æ 392
ɔ a after w was, want wa > wɔ 392
e ea before d, th head, death ɛ: > e: > e 383, 400
u oo before t, k foot, book o: > u: > u 383, 400
ʌ o, u come, nut u > ʌ In ME both u and o could stand for [u]. 359, 393
  oo before d flood o: > u: > 383, 393, 400
      u > ʌ  
ə -er, -re, -or reader, centre, tutor r ə > ə 397
i: ee, ie, e, ea meet, field, he e:>i: 383
    meat ɛ: > i: 383
a: ar arm ar > a: 397
  a before st,nt, ft blast, plant, after a > a: 399
ɔ: or, oar, ar after w for, board, warm or > ɔ: war > wɔ: 397 392, 397
  au, aw cause, draw au > ɔ: 359, 383
ə: er, ir, ur her, bird, turn ir ur > ə: er 397
u: oo moon o: > u: 383
ei ai, ei, ay rain, rein, day ai ei >et 359, 380
  a in open syllables make, late a: > ei 372, 383
ai i, y in open syllables time, my i: > ai 359, 383
  i before ld, nd, mb mild, kind, climb i: > ai 371, 383
  i before gh, ght sigh, night ix' > i: > ai 383, 395
au ou, ow sound, now u: > au 359, 383
ou o in open rode, no, oak ɔ: > ou 383, 386
  syllables, oa     359, 380
  ou, ow, o be- soul, row, old ou ou from OE [a/ea]
  fore ld   ɔ: > ou Early ME [a:] 371, 383
ere, eer, ear here, beer, ear e:r > iə 383, 397
      ɛ:r > iə Diphthongs and triphthongs with ə-glides arose due to vocalisation of [r] after long vowels at different stages of the Great Vowel Shift.
  ear, ere, are bear, there, hare ɛ:r > ɛə
      a:r > ɛə
ɔə, ɔ: ore more o:r > ɔə
oor poor o:r > uə
aiə ire shire i:r > aiə
auə our, ower our, power u:r > auə
ð th between vowels bathe ð ð 139, 358
  th initially in form-words the θ>S 358, 406
z s between vowels choose, easy z z 138
  s finally (unless preceded by voiceless consonants) is, days s > z 406 (cf. stops)
ʃ sh ship, flesh ʃ ʃ from OE [sk'],
        358, 402
  ssi, ti passion, action sj ʃ 404
ch, tch chin, watch tʃ tʃ 357
  ture nature tj > tʃ 404
ʒ g bourgeois ʒ ʒ 415
  si, se pleasure zj > ʒ 404
g gender dʒ dʒ 357 (cf. go [g])
s c certain s s 357 (cf. cup [k])


1. Prove, by instances of phonetic changes, that ME was divided into a number of dialects.

2. Point out some changes preceding the Great Vowel Shift which display the same directions of evolution.

3. Cf. the system of vowels in OE with that in Late ME and say in which respects it has become less symmetrical.

4. How could the vowels in OE talu, findan, hopa, prote, stolen ultimately develop into diphthongs, though originally they were short monophthongs (NE tale, find, hope, throat, stolen)?

5. What are the causes of vowel interchanges in NE keep, kept; feel, felt; wise, wisdom; leave, left; five, fifth? Originally, in OE the words in each pair contained the same long vowels.

6. Account for the interchange of vowels in NE child children, wild wilderness, bewilder (ME bewildren), behind hindrance; in OE the root vowel in these words was [i].

7. Give a historical explanation of different spellings of the following homophones: NE son, sun; meet, meat; see, sea; rein, rain; vein, vain; soul, sole; main, mane; cease, sieze; flour, flower; so, sow; law, lore; bare, bear; root, route; or, oar; rode, road. Were all these pairs homophones in ME?

8. Why does the letter e stand for [e] in bed, for [i:] in he, for the nuclei [ɪ] and [ɛ] of diphthongs in here and there?

9. Why does the letter o stand for [ɔ] in not, for [ou] in bone, [ʌ] in front and some, and for [ɔ:] when followed by r. more, port?

10. Why does the letter x stand for [ks] and [gz] in the following words: oxen axes example; execute executor executive; exercise examine exact exist?

11. Account for the sound values of the letter c in the following words: [s] in NE mercy, centre; [k] in copper, class; [ʃl in special, sufficient?

12. Explain from a historical viewpoint the pronunciation of the following words with the letter g: good, again, general, change, regime.

13. Account for the difference in the sound values of s, th, f in the following words: son, busy, wisdom, mouse, east, deserve (ME deserven [də'servən]), observe, resemble (ME resemblen [rə'semblən]), books (ME bookes ['bo:kəs]), robes (ME robes ['ro:bəs]), dresses, thousand, threat, thou, the, mouth, mouths (ME mouthes ['mu:ðəs]), they, of, fair, fence.

14. What is meant by "discrepancy" between pronunciation and spelling in Mod E? Give examples of phonetic and conventional spellings. Prove that the written form of the word usually lags behind its spoken form and indicates its earlier pronunciation.

15. Explain the origin of different sound values of the following digraphs: ea in seat, dead; ie in chief, lie; ou in pound, soup, soul, rough; ow in sow and how. Why do they indicate other sounds before r, e.g. dear, pear; pier, bier; pour, sour; lower, power.

16. Recall the development of OE [y, y:] and explain the differences in the pronunciation and spelling of merry, kilt, busy, buy, evil, bury (all descending from OE words with short [y]) and sleeve, fist, mice, sundry (descending from OE words with long [y:]).

17. Show how modern spelling can help to reconstruct the phonetic history of the words; use the following words as examples: NE drive, might, keen, mete, lead, lake, loaf, boot, about, tow, draw, applaud, cast, cart, cord, ant, warn, bird, beard, burn, certain, first, nun, none, bloody, bony, knee, gnat, often, limb.

18. Give the modern descendants of the following words, which developed in accordance with regular phonetic and spelling changes: OE hind, spēdiʒ, dūst, sceaft, sclnan, snāwan, rǣdan, hearm, sceal, wearm, cēap [k'], butere, bōc, bāt, melon, mētan, hund, hundred, hwæt, tūn, steorfan, prǣd, smoca, drifan, bona, dēop, āð.

19. Reconstruct the phonetic changes so as to prove that the words have descended from a single root: NE listen and loud; merry and mirth; deep and depth; foul and filth; husband and house; long and length; sheep and shepherd; tell, tale and talk; thief and theft; gold, gild and yellow; person and parson.

20. Account for the mute letters in late, sight, wrong, often, bomb, autumn, course, knowledge, honour, what, whole, guest, pneumonia, psalm.

21. Try to account for the appearance of mute letters in the following words: NE thumb (OE puma); NE house (OE hūs); NE delight (ME delite); NE horse (OE hors); NE limb (OE lim); NE whole (OE hāl).


Chapter XV


  2. A. What countries is English the first language? Match English-speaking countries with their national flags and capitals.
  3. Advertising and modern world
  4. An Extract from the Late Middle English works criticizing the Church
  6. Ask your friend questions in English about their content. Summarize his/her answers.
  7. Changes of Short Vowels in Early New English
  8. Changes of Stressed Vowels in Early Old English
  9. Changes of Unstressed Vowels in Early Old English
  12. Conversion is the main way of forming verbs in Modern English. Verbs can be formed from nouns of different semantic groups and have different meanings, e.g.


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Loss of Consonants | Preliminary Remarks: Parts of Speech, Means of Form-building, Main Trends of Development

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