I haven’t seen the subject of this post get given any real treatment by Anglish enthusiasts, so I thought I’d give it a (cursory) go. And that subject is spelling.

The English spelling system has been profoundly influenced by 1066 and its aftermath. I’ll give a couple of sets of examples before moving on to talk briefly about what this all means for “Anglish”.

The Great Vowel Shift & Anglo-Norman Scribes

Let’s look at the vowel sound in sound, found, and cow.

Over a very long period of time, the vowels in English shifted around quite a lot; the so-called Great Vowel Shift. [Notes 1, 2] Old English “long” i, as in the word min ‘mine’, which was pronounced like Modern English (ModE) <ee> as in “keep”, changed to the “eye” sound it has now. min –> mine, win –> wine, lic(an) –> like. And so on. However, the spelling of the vowel stayed the same. [Note 3] That is, we do not write <main>, <wain>, and <laik>. This reflects the inheritance of ModE “long” i from Old English (OE) long i.

A similar thing happened with OE “long” u which was pronounced as “oo”; after the great vowel shift it diphthongised, coming to be pronounced as “au”, or the <ow> of ‘cow’. The OE word was cu. Likewise, Old English mus, hus, and tun, pronounced “moose”, “hoose”, and “toon”, became, can you guess? Mouse, house, and town. Notice that, unlike with OE long i, the long u did have a spelling change. Namely, to <ou>. Why?

Simple answer, really. Let’s just say: bijou, Anjou, and Petits Filous. Yes, that formidable swinehoard France was to blame. Again. Basically, the Anglo-Norman scribes spelt English as they spelt their own language; thus “u” became “ou”.[Note 4]

If this change from <u> to <ou> seems trifling and marginal, then I would just say that it is the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg that we’ll come to look at from up a little closer later in this post.

Hypercorrective Spellings (Hyperactive Monks?)

Many spellings were wrixled [Note 5], mostly to the effect of worsening the correspondence between sound and symbol, due to scribes attempting to make words look more like their (supposed) Greek or Latin forebears. In this way, “debt” acquired a <b> (despite coming from French dette), “receipt” acquired a <p> (altho the same root did not acquire a <p> in “deceit” or “receive”, none of these three words having a <p> in the French, in any case), and “admiral” acquired both a <d> and, ultimately, a spelling pronunciation /d/ sound [Note 6], to make it resemble the Latin word from which it doesn’t come; it actually comes from the Arabic amir-ar-rahl, by way of French amirail(!)

Now if this isn’t sheer idiocy, I don’t know what is. But I contest that this obsession with Latin and Greek antecedents, this fetish of the foreign, had and has its origins in the Norman Conquest and the culture-change it has ever stood for.

Anglish and Modern Old English

There are, in line with my previous analysis [Note 7], two main ways you could go with all of this (so far as Anglish is concerned). You could either go the “Modern Old English” route, or you could go a more “Anglishy” way. Let’s look at the possibilities.

Modern Old English

Here we try to undo all or almost all influence resulting ultimately from 1066 and all that . In this way, spellings may be even better at times: <qu> would be replaced by <cw>, such that we have something like <cwene>, <cwick>, and <cwoþ>. Which leads us onto <th> getting the old heave-ho in favour of <þ>; an “improvement”, perhaps, as it cleaves to the alphabetic principle of “one sound one symbol”: <þis>, <faþer>, and <wiþ>.

Some other times, spelling might not improve, but actually get worse!

Why not let’s re-instate the silent <w> in “lisp” which was probably lost from the spelling due to most <wl-> words themselves being lost from English, ousted by foreign counterparts! Thus, <wlisp>. After all, we still have the silent <w> in <write>, <wrong>, and <wretched>, a fairly analogous case.

How about shifting:

<house> and <louse> to <hus> and <lus>;

<boat>, <road>, and <stone> to <bat>, <rad>, and <stan>;

<yellow> and <yes> to <gellow> and <ges>;

<church> to <circe> and <chin> to <cinn>;

<ice> to <is>?


This is fun, actually!

But perhaps pointless.


I think simply keeping the current system as it is, with all its French influences intact, is the plainest and therefore best thing to do. I would merely remove etymological and pseudo-etymological spellings which were designed to resemble Latin or Greek. Thus, we would write <stomack> and <anker> or <ancor>, not <stomach> and <anchor>. The reason? English spelling, despite having a French side, is understood by ordinary people, and works, quite well; <ch> is, well, ch, not k [Note 8]! Problems arising in the English spelling system are mostly due to three areas, areas I will not discuss further as that is a topic for another post: (1) spellings of the sort I have been discussing, (2) reduction of vowel sounds in English, usually to schwa, and (3) a lack of adequate representation for the “ow!” sound versus the “oh!” sound; does <row> mean an “argument”, pronounced “r-ow!”, or does it mean the thing you do on a boat, pronounced “r-oh!”?

Thus, I personally take the spelling system as it is, prefering instead to alter individual spellings which do not work from a phonemic point of view due to their being, in my mind, spuriously altered or modelled along French, Latin, or Greek lines; thus, I write <dout>, <det>, <ancor>, and <receit>.

But I feel I am now sliding towards a separate post on the merits of the English spelling system, so I will stop myself there. I hope this has been an interesting beginning to the debate, if only a beginning.


Bryan Parry

April 2012



[Note 1] The Great Vowel Shift at wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift

[Note 2] The Great Vowel Shift didn’t become “completed” in all English-speaking areas, however. In parts of the UK, specifically the north, “long” u didn’t diphthongise; or to put it another way, “There’s a moose, a-loose, aroun‘ this hoose! danDAHdanAH aDANAHdana adundundunnadun!”

[Note 3] Arguably, and it is actually my view, but the non-contiguous sequence <i…e> is in fact a single grapheme; thus, the spelling of the vowel did change, from <i> to <i…e>. But this is a complication stemming from a separate issue which obscures the matter at hand.

[Note 4] Note that we write <cow> not <cou>; the reason is the same as why we write <oil>-<toil>-<toy>. Essentially, <ow> is what I call an allograph of <ou> when representing the sound /au/ used in final position: <out>-<bout>-<bow>.

[Note 5] “Wrixled” means “changed”, remember?

[Note 6] A “spelling pronunciation” is when people pronounce a word as it is spelt despite this not being the ‘true’ way of saying the word. Essentially, the usual thing that happens is people believe that the way they grew up saying this word is wrong, the correct way being in line with the spelling. Which is actually a fairly reasonable assumption, and given the stigma and ill effects associated with “poor speaking”, it’s easy to understand how such things happen. And so they hypercorrect , thus resulting in things like “admiral” and foreign-ese “receipt” (with a /p/ sound). Interestingly, I’ve even heard some native English speakers, without joking, say “receipt” with a /p/. Hmm. A hundred years from now…

[Note 7] See my blog entry “1066 Wrixled Everything”

[Note 8] Or, more precisely, the grapheme <ch>, by default, represents the voiceless palato-alveolar affricate, whereas the voiceless velar plosive is represented usually by either <c>, <k>, <ck>, or <q>.


One Response to Spellings

  1. […] draw attention to themselves. Therefore, I have only touched on spellings briefly (for example, see here). However, 1066 and all that left its mark on our spelling system, too. Many spellings were changed […]

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