[Editor’s note: This is the nineteenth of an ongoing series that examines the rise of writing – and therefore reading – around the world. We will be looking at the major developments and forces that shaped the written languages we use today. Links to all the previous posts are listed at the end of this one.]
The Anglo-Saxon foundation of Old English started to transition to Early Middle English in 1066, as William of Normandy conquered the British Isles. This event and its aftermath changed the entire social and governmental structure of the country, and it had a profound effect on spelling and word usage. The primary effect was that English usage, both spoken and written, was greatly reduced; consequently, there was no longer a need for any sort of standardization. And without schools and monasteries instructing the masses in Old English, the barely literate populace simply spelled both the old and the new words the way they sounded, producing a large number of different results.
Throughout the Early Middle English Period (1150-1300), the Norman dialect of French rose to become the language of the nobility, and to this day, the British parliament still uses Norman French for certain official purposes. The two languages – the Norman and the Old English (Englisc) – merged over time, but we’re still burdened with the fallout of that event: words like “comprehend” and “respire” have their roots in Latin by way of Norman French, while their more common synonyms like “understand” and “breathe” are the “original” English words, which have a Germanic origin.
A second effect was that, after the conquest, many of the scribes were either French or French-trained, and their norms for sound representation were very different from the English. The letter c, as an example, was used in French to indicate an /s/ sound in many loanwords coming from the Latin; the letter c in the Roman writing system represented a /k/ sound, but it changed from a /k/ into an /s/ before front non-low vowels. One can see this in the Latin civitas /kiwitas/, which then evolved into French cité, from where we get our word city. A similar sound change as Latin evolved into the Romance languages gave rise to the use of the letter g for both a /g/ sound and a /dȝ/ sound (such as the g in “goat” vs. “gesture”). Like the /k/ split, the orthographic mismatch of the letter /g/ and the sounds it stood for migrated into English with the introduction during Middle English of large numbers of French loanwords that contained the new /dȝ/ sound.
As well as introducing new vocabulary to the English language, the Normans also changed the spelling of some words. For example, the Old English hwaer, hwil and hwaenne became where, when, and while, even though the “hw-” spelling more accurately reflects how the words are pronounced. There were also some areas that used spellings that didn’t reflect a word’s pronunciation but, instead, its etymology (i.e. “debt” gained its silent “b”, reflecting its origins in the Latin debitum). In addition, the Old English genitive -es survives in the –’s of the modern English possessive case, but most other case endings disappeared during this time, including most of the dozen or so forms of the definite article (“the”).
The Norman Conquest also brought about a change in the standard dialect. The seat of the royal court and the government moved to London. As a result, the new pronunciation norms were derived from London English and not from Wessex as had been the case before. Many manuscripts were re-copied into the London dialect, with new spelling norms adopted based on London pronunciations. Heading into the 14th century, English writing continued to reflect a variety of regional forms. The best known writer of this period, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote in the in the emerging London dialect, though some of his characters, such as those in “Reeve’s Tale,” spoke using a northern form. In the English-speaking areas of lowland Scotland, an independent standard arose based on the Northumbrian dialect, and it would later develop into what came to be known as the Scots language.
So how did Middle English read? Here’s an excerpt from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales:
A monk ther was, a fair for the maistrye
An out-rydere, that lovede venerye;
A manly man, to been an abbot able.
Ful many a deyntee hors hadde he in stable
Around 1430, in what is known as Late Middle English, the Chancery Standard of written English, also based on the East-Midlands London dialect, began to appear in official documents that, since the Norman Conquest, had generally been written in French.. Clerks who used this standard were usually familiar with both French and Latin, which undoubtedly influenced the recording forms they chose. Bureaucrats in England slowly adopted the Chancery Standard for most official purposes, excluding those of the Church and legalities, which used Latin and Law French (and some Latin), respectively.
Next up: Origins and Development of English, Part 3
 Kemmer, Suzanne. (2009). “The History of English.” Rice University. Retrieved from http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Histengl/spelling.html
 Ayancan, George Millo. (2018). “Old English Writing: A History of the Old English Alphabet.” Retrieved from https://www.fluentin3months.com/old-english-writing/
 Wright, L. (2012). “About the evolution of Standard English.” Studies in English Language and Literature. Routledge. p. 99ff.
 Fischer, O., van Kemenade, A., Koopman, W., and van der Wurff, W. (2000). “The Syntax of Early English,” p. 72.
To read Part 1 (Sumerians), click here.
To read Part 2 (Egyptian hieroglyphs), click here.
To read Part 3A (Indo-European languages part 1), click here.
To read Part 3B (Indo-European languages part 2), click here.
To read Part 4 (Rosetta Stone), click here.
To read Part 5 (Chinese writing), click here.
To read Part 6 (Japanese writing), click here.
To read Part 7 (Olmecs), click here.
To read Part 8 (Mayans), click here.
To read Part 9 (Aztecs/Nahuatl), click here.
To read Part 10 (Etruscans), click here.
To read Part 11 (Meroïtic), click here.
To read Part 12 (Runes and Futhark), click here.
To read Part 13 (Musical Notation), click here.
To read Part 14 (Printing, Part 1), click here.
To read Part 15 (Printing, Part 2), click here.
To read Part 16 (Printing, Part 3), click here.
To read Part 17 (Origins of English, Part 1), click here.