13 Characteristic Features of Spelling and Pronunciation in Medieval English

(iv) In Old English, the letters “sc” were used for the sound /?/. Middle English scribes started using “ss”, “sch” or “sh” in place of the Old English “sc”. So the Old English word fisc, for example, was written as fiss, fisch or fish in Middle English.

(v) In Old English, the letters “cg” were used for the sound /d3/ but in Middle English this sequence of letters was slowly replaced by “i”, “j” or “g”. So in Middle English, the Modern English word judge, for example, was not written with eg; it was written as iuge, or as juge.

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(vi) In Old English orthography, the letter “c” represented two different sounds. It represented the velar stop /k/ as it does in Modern English and it also represented a palatal stop, which was something like, but by no means the same thing as, the Modern English sound /t?/. Middle English scribes used either “k” or “c” for the velar stop /k/ but they started using “ch” for the palatal stop. So in Middle English, the Modern English word kin was written as kinn and cool was written as col but chin was written as chinn.

(vii) In the case of cursive writings, it was often very difficult to identify at the very first glance the precise number of strokes in sequences of letters like “urn”, “un”, “uv” and “wu”. To avoid this strain, Norman scribes started writing “o” in place of “u” in such sequences of letters. So in Middle English, the Old English word cuman (come) was written as comen, lufu was written as love and sunu (son) was written as sone.

(viii) In Old English, the letter “y” represented a front and rounded vowel sound. This vowel sound was discarded by most dialects of Middle English but the letter “y” was retained as an alternative form of the letter “i”. So king and kyng were two alternative spellings of the same word with the same pronunciation and similarly bodi and body were two possible spellings of the same word.

(ix) In Old English, the short vowel /i/ and also the long vowel /i:/ were represented by the letter “e”. In Middle English “ee” and “ie” were used as alternative representations of /i:/. So in Middle English, the Old English word cwene, for example, was written as queen and feld was written as field.

(x) In many words the vowel preceding consonant clusters like “Id”, “mb” and “nd” were lengthened and in many cases lengthening meant the diphthongization of the vowel. So the Old English word did became child and the monophthong in the Old English word became a diphthong in the Middle English version of that word.

Similarly, cynd(e) became kind, climban became climb, blind (with a monophthong in it) became blind (with a diphthong in it), grund became ground, hund became hound, pund became pound, sund became sound and wilde became wild.

The rhyme in the following lines of Shakespeare’s As You Like It shows that in all probability this lengthening in the form of diphthongization took place in the case of the word wind as well but later the vowel in that word was shortened once again.

Blow, blow thou winter wind,

Thou art not so unkind.

If a sequence of consonants had three consonants in it, this process of lengthening did not apply to that word. That is the reason why the short monophthong in the word cild was diphthongized but the monophthong in the plural word cildru (children) remained unchanged.

As in the case of cildru, no lengthening or diphthongization of the vowel took place in the case of words like blundren (blunder), candle, hindren (hinder), hundred, spindle and timbre (timber) because of there being three consonants in a sequence.

The word dumb and the word lamb need to be specially discussed in this connection because they look like exceptions to that rule regarding the lengthening of the vowel before “mb”. These two words are examples of back-formation.

The word dumb is “negatively” derived from dumbnesse and similarly, lamb is derived through the same process from the plural form lambre or lambren. In dumbnesse, “mb” is immediately followed by “n” and similarly, in lambre and lambren it is followed by another consonant. As in these words there are three consonants in succession, the rule regarding the lengthening of the vowel did not apply to these words.

(xi) In Middle English, the unstressed occurrences of “a”, “o” and “u” were written as “e” and presumably pronounced as /a/. So the Old English oxa (ox) became oxe,foda becamefode, nacod became naked, wundor became wonder, lufu became love and sunu (son) became sune. Later the final “e” in words like love disappeared from pronunciation though it continued in the form of spelling.

(xii) One of the changes that took place in the phonetic structure of words during the Middle English period was the metathesis of “x”. The process started during the late Old English period and continued during the Middle English period. Because of this process of metathesis, the Old English brid, for example, was changed into bird, forst changed into frost, hros was changed into hors and Oridda changed into dirde (third).

(xiii) The Middle English period is characterized by the loss of a number of consonants. This loss of consonants took place in two different forms. In many cases the consonant continued to exist in the spelling of a word but was dropped out of the spoken form of that word.

The word twa, for example, changed into two, and the word hwa changed into whom. In some cases it was excluded from the written shape of the word as well. For example, ealswa changed into also and sweostor changed into suster (sister).

Similarly, the consonant “t” disappeared before “st” and so the Old English word bet(e)st was changed into best and latost was changed into last. The consonant “d” disappeared before s and so andswaru changed into answere and godspel changed into gospel.

These changes in spelling and pronunciation created a wide gap between the written and the spoken forms of words. In Old English every letter in a word was pronounced and so to a large extent words were pronounced as they were written.

So when Caxton started his printing press in 1476, the English language was not made any more phonetic than before. Printing started the process of fixing and stabilizing the spelling of words and that indirectly stabilized and re-inforced the gap between the written and the spoken forms of words, the gap which has ever been increasing since then and has given the English language the bad name it has for the irregularity and complexity of the spelling of its words in relation to their pronunciation. Lounsbury (1904:272) was therefore not utterly wrong when he made the following observation:

Upon the introduction of printing, indeed, English orthography entered into that realm of Chaos and old Night in which it has ever since been floundering; it then began to put on the shape it at present bears, “if shape it may be called that shape has none”.