The History of English Spelling

Syelle Graves, read by Mignon Fogarty,
May 26, 2017
Episode #570

history of english spelling

You may have noticed that in English, most word spellings don’t correspond exactly to the way they are pronounced, which can be frustrating and make some people cry out for a spelling “update”—but doing that would not benefit anyone. We’ll explore this topic in two parts: Part I is about the history of English spelling and spelling reforms, and Part II is about the reasons to keep our writing system just as it is.

The main reason that spelling doesn’t match pronunciation very well is that most of our spellings come from a time from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, and back then, many people couldn’t read or write well, or at all, so attempts to standardize the way people spelled took time and were difficult to enforce. Even Shakespeare spelled his own name different ways, on occasion. (4)

St. Augustine Started Writing in English

According to linguists Anne Curzan and Michael Adams, St. Augustine and his followers began writing with the Latin alphabet in England around the year 597. The alphabet had 23 letters for around 35 English sounds, so some letters were used for multiple sounds (kind of like today!). Later, when the Norman French invaded England in 1066, some French spellings were introduced, which is why, for example, city is spelled with a C, like cité in French. When scribes at the time needed to create a vowel sound there was no letter for, they sometimes doubled consonants after the vowel, or added an adjacent, second vowel, such as “ee” or “ ea,” to reflect the multiple sounds represented by one vowel, but they did so inconsistently. Remember, back then every document in the world was written by hand, and duplicated by hand, too! [Update: Anne Curzan generously responded to our request for examples. She wrote, "Here are a couple of examples from Scragg's A History of English Spelling showing the influence of Anglo-Norman scribes/scribes copying Anglo-Norman: the <ea> in meat and the <tt> in witty." Curzan, A. (June 25, 2017). personal communication.]

At Times, Spelling and Pronunciation Did Match

At this time, words like knight really were pronounced the way they are spelled, with the K sound at the beginning and the throaty sound you hear in Hebrew for the GH. The I sound was more like the sound in “bit.” So, back then, knight the warrior and night the opposite of day were not homophones, like they are today, but they still rhymed. 

Later on, over a few hundred years and ending during the seventeenth centuries, people started pronouncing almost all the English vowels differently. This change is noticeable to scholars—partly because it occurred just after spellings had started to become standardized—so there's actually a name for it: the Great Vowel Shift. By the end of the shift, words like mouse and house that had been pronounced like “moose” and “hoos,” started sounding like the we say them today: mouse and house. But since spelling had become more standardized, the spellings stuck even after the pronunciations changed. (2)

Gutenberg Began to Standardize Spelling

One of the key elements that allowed spelling to eventually become fixed was the printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century. Around that time and later, a spelling reform of sorts took place because printed works and their various haphazard spellings were becoming much more widely distributed. (4). But, those efforts brought new spelling problems, because they were based on the whims of a small number of men in positions of authority who revered Greek and Latin. Renaissance scholars took it upon themselves to change spellings not to be more like pronunciations, but instead to be more like the classical languages, creating the silent letters in words like debt, and even adding silent letters that we eventually started to pronounce! For example, the Middle English word for falcon was “F-A-U-C-O-N,” but scholars stuck an L in there to look more like the Latin word, and speakers now pronounce the L. (2) That’s also why receipt has a P, and indict has a C (it used to be “I-N-D-I-T-E”!). (4)

Webster Made Some Spelling Changes

Later, in 1898, Noah Webster successfully made some changes to U.S. spellings, hoping to strengthen the cultural divide between the British and the Americans. For example, he took the U out of honour, and took the British spelling of realise (R-E-A-L-I-SE-) and changed the S to a Z. But, many of his proposed changes were rejected because certain spellings were already too well-known and widespread. For example, he wanted to drop the E at the end of determine, which didn’t work out too well, as we know. (2) From today’s standpoint, it doesn’t really seem appropriate to actively make spelling changes to divide speech communities. Additionally, we can all agree that it might be easier for the English-speaking world now if people had rejected Webster's changes, especially for school children who move from the U.S. to the U.K. and vice versa, and are still in the middle of learning to read and spell. In the U.S., most of us learned to spell glamour with that British U, and we are all doing just fine with the U there. 

The Germans Tried Spelling Reform

You may have heard of the attempt at spelling reform in Germany in the nineties. The government did pass a spelling reform law, but there were numerous court cases and legal challenges against it! (6, 1). Even a decade after the reform, many newspapers wound up following some of the new rules, but not others, leading to more gray areas in spelling conventions, instead of fewer. (5)

One take-away from all of this is that meddling and reforming writing systems that are already established typically adds confusion—confusion that only sorts itself out after time has passed, and doesn’t do much good in the short-term, unless there truly is no standard to begin with, in which case, of course, people would need a standard to be established. Even though some of the reforms from hundreds of years ago were chosen arbitrarily, that is still not a reason to further meddle now, especially when we are able to disseminate the written word in mere seconds. Next time, we’ll explore more about why that is.

That segment was by Syelle Graves who has two master's degrees in linguistics. You can read more about her at syellegraves.com


1.Cowell, A. (1997, July 31). All the sturm und drang! It's not just umlauts. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/07/31/world/all-the-sturm-und-drang-it-s-not-just-umlauts.html.

2.Curzan, A., & Adams, M. (2012). How English works: A linguistic introduction (3rd ed.). Longman.

3.Ehri, L.C. (2005). Learning to read words: Theory, findings, and Issues. Scientific Studies of Reading 9(2), 167–188.

4.Fromkin, V., Hyams, N., & Rodman, R. (2014). Introduction to Language (10th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth.

5.German orthography reform of 1996. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_orthography_reform_of_1996

6.Johnson, S. (2005). Spelling trouble? Language, ideology, and the reform of German orthography. Multilingual Matters. http://bit.ly/2qpoRyv

You May Also Like...