Let’s be honest: It’s practically impossible to be a “good” speller in English. The way words are spelled in English just don’t match how they are pronounced. Why, English language, why?
Well, we can start by blaming William Caxton and the printing press.
Diving into the historical context
Let’s begin at the beginning, though: England, 1476. Norman French presence was in decline as the Bubonic Plague gripped England—yes, that’s right, we said the Bubonic Plague—as well as all of Europe. The Norman French aristocracy in England was over. For the English, it was time to reclaim their identity, which had everything to do with revitalizing the English language.
When the French ruled, they had influence over everyone, from peasants to royalty, from workforce to art. And as a language, French had been superior to English. People adored it: speaking it, writing in it, and generally being associated with it (enchanté, dahling). It brought new sounds, novel words, and exotic pronunciations that English absorbed as it struggled to find footing in French society on domestic land.
The Great Vowel Shift
The “Great Vowel Shift” started in 1350 to transform Middle English, and it wasn’t finished until it produced Early Modern English in the 1600s. And so, we thought we were done, we had the final pronunciations of the English language.
But wait! Throughout the 1700s, the shift now wanted to affect Modern English as well. People were told about new pronunciations. They started saying long vowels higher and more fronted. The vowels that were already high became diphthongs, and if they were already high and front, they diphthongized up from a lower initial position.
What does this mean, though? Let’s make it more concrete with examples:
- Long ī [i:] (like knee) changed to the diphthong [ay], like eyeSample of words affected: bite, light, night, knight, mice
- Long ē [e:], long [ɛː] (similar to way and when) changed to [i] (like knee)
Sample of words affected: beet, beat, meet, meat, meek
- Long ā [a:] (like ah), changed to the diphthong [ey] (like way)
Sample of words affected: mate, lake, same, name
- Long ū [u:] (like moo), changed to the diphthong [aw] (like cow)
Sample of words affected: out, about, mouth, cow, mouse
- Long ō [o:] (between core and could), changed to [u] (like moo)
Sample of words affected: boot, soon, mood
- Long o [ɔː] (like core), changed to the diphthong [ow] (like the oa sound in coat)
Sample of words affected: coat, float, boat, note
The final “e”s were pronounced in Middle English. So were the “a”s in the “oa” cluster. But, after prolonged contact with French, and heavier stress on the first vowel from “The Great Vowel Shift,” both the “a” and the final “e” eventually went silent.
A simpler English
Modern English was also simplifying—fast.
Previously, Old English, (or “OE”) before the Normans, had been like German. Three genders—masculine, feminine, neuter—for both nouns and adjectives, plus singular and plural forms. Also, the sentence structure was freer in “OE.” You know how we can’t say, “Ball I hit,” or, “The cow the moon jumped over,” without confusion? In “OE,” there were endings on everything, letting you know it was the cow doing the jumping, the moon being jumped over. These endings are called morphemes—or morphological inflection, or, simply, inflection. They made word order matter less in English, so in “OE,” words could be reordered without jumbling the meaning. Morphemes told us what was doing what, and to who(m).
Later in Middle English, the endings fell off from intense, ongoing contact with French and its parent language Latin, as well as a whole host of other reasons. The loss of inflection meant word order became more fixed and more important for conveying meaning. And, it just kept getting less subjective from there.
The printing press and all things English
By the time of the printing press, the people of England wanted to distinguish themselves in the Western world. They had outlasted 300 years of French rule, and now wanted English and English customs to thrive.
But what was English exactly? It wasn’t clear. After surviving the Old English period of constant raids and Scandinavian rule, then the more sophisticated imperial Norman French, several identities made up the English people.
William Caxton published for the demand. He produced works in Latin, and works he translated himself, of legendary stories like Aesop’s Fables, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (twice). There were also love stories, stories of morality, the Bible, and a lot more. He confronted linguistic dilemmas no one else had considered before the printing press. To smooth out the differences he saw between the English dialects of the time, he created a standard spelling so everyone could read and understand it.
He based the standard spelling on his own dialect, East Midland, which included London. It was a natural choice since he was most familiar with it. But, it meant his dialect was the one distributed throughout England and continental Europe.
Frozen in Middle English
Middle English was an almost “coming of age” for England, the precursor to Shakespeare and the English Renaissance. It was unstable, changing constantly, a time of finding and refining the culture. But, its spelling was standardized before the cycle of changes finished, so English writing froze even as it continued to evolve as a spoken language.
How we spell today is like a fossil of that time. So English spelling, you could say, is frozen in Middle English.