Changes in alphabet and spelling in Middle and New English

As we remember, the Old English spelling system was mainly phonetic. Strictly phonetic spelling means that every sound that every sound is represented by only one distinct symbol and no symbol represents more than one sound. However, the 13th and 14th centuries witnessed many changes in the English language, including its alphabet and spelling. As a result of these modifications the written form of the word became much closer to what we have nowadays.

In Middle English the former Anglo-Saxon spelling tradition was replaced by that of the Norman scribes reflecting the influence of French and often mixing purely phonetic spelling with French spelling habits and traditions inherited from old English. The scribes substituted the so-called “continental variant” of the Latin alphabet for the old “insular writing”. Some letters came into disuse, replaced by new means of expressing the sounds formerly denoted by them – thus the letter þ (“thorn”) and p (“wen”), being of runic origin, unknown to the Norman scribes, disappeared altogether. Some letters, already existing in Old English but being not very frequent there, expanded their sphere of use – like the letter k. New letters were added – among them j, w,v and z. many diagraphs – combinations of letters to denote one sound, both vowel and consonant – appeared, mostly following the pattern of the French language.

The following letters disappeared:

Þ, ð [ð/θ] replaced by th: þat – that

З [g, j] g зod – god

or y Зear – year

æ [e] e lætan – leten (let)


p[w] w


the following letters were introduced:

g for [g] in god and [d ] in siege

j for [d ] in words of French origin: joy, judge

k for [k] instead of c before front vowels and n:

drincan – drinken, cnawan – knowen.

v for [v] instead of f as a separate phoneme:

lufu – love [luva] until the 17th century reform v was an allograph of u, the two letters often being interchangeable: over – ouer, love – loue.

q for [k] (followed by u) in quay

or [kw] in cwen – queen to replace Old English cw

z for [z] as a separate phoneme: zel (zeal) although sometimes [z] is still rendered by s: losen (lose), chesen (choose).

The following digraphs appeared:

consonant diagraphs:

ch for sound [t ] cild – child

dg [dЗ] bryc – bridge

gh [χ] riЗt – right

th [ð, þ] þencan – thinken

moðor – mother

sh [∫] scip – ship

ph [f] in words borrowed from Latin:


ch [k] in words borrowed from Latin:



vowel diagraph – to show the length of the vowel:


ea [e] mete – meat

ee [e] fet – feet

oa [o] fot – foot

ie [e:] feld – field

ou/ow [u:] hus – hous, tun – town


Some changes were made for ease of reading and for a better visual image of the word:

k instead of cboc– book

y i by, my

w u now

In the final position for better visual separation of words better

Besides, y and w were considered more ornamental than I and u at the end of the word, allowing to finish it with an elegant curve.

o instead of u cumen – come

on3unnen – begonne

sunu – sone

lufu – love

munuc – monk

Close to letters consisting only vertical strokes, such as u/v, n, m

The New English periodwitnessed the establishment of the literary norm presupposing a stable system of spelling. However, the spelling finally fixed in the norm was influenced by many factors, objective and subjective in character, preserving separate elements of different epochs and showing traces of attempts to improve or rationalized it.

In New English with the revival of learning in the 16th century a new principal of spelling was introduced, later to be called etymological. It was believed that, whatever the pronunciation, the spelling should represent to the eye the form from which the word was derived, especially in words of Latin or Greek origin. Thus, the word dett borrowed from French dette was respelled as debt, for it could be traced to Latin debitum, dout borrowed from French douter – as doubt from Latin dubitare.

However, the level of learning at that age was far from perfect, and many of the so-called etymological spellings were wrong. Here it is possible to mention such words as:

ME ake (from OE acan) result as ache from a wrongfully supposed connection with Greek achos;

ME tonge (from OE tunge) respelt as tongue on analogy with French langue, Latin lingua;

ME iland (from OE igland) respelt as island from a wrongfully supposed connection with Frenchisle, Latin insula;

ME scool borrowed in OE from Latin and always written with sc- (OE scool) respelt as school, because in Latin the sound [k] in words of Greek origin was rendered as ch;

ME delit borrowed from French delitcame to be spelt with the mute diagraph –gh- on analogy with lightdelight, etc.

At the same time, the major phonetic changes of the period and first of all, the Great Vowel Shift, found practically no corresponding changes in spelling. This resulted in the present day system where one sound can be denoted in several ways, for instance:






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