[Editor’s note: This is the twentieth 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.]
We have seen in previous posts that printing was not a new invention in the Middle Ages but that certain improvements to existing technology turned it into a revolutionary process. The availability of mechanical printers drastically changed the speed at which manuscripts could both be produced and disseminated, and the adoption of paper for such material helped to make documents cheaper and easier to distribute. These factors encouraged the growth of record-keeping and bureaucracy, and the importance of the Court of Chancery and Chancery English continued to grow. Property records, tax-collecting and other financial records, laws, and records of crime and punishment were meticulously maintained during the 1500s.
The number of schools rose during this time, too, and they were designed to train not only religious workers but also secular clerical workers for government positions. These schools allowed for developing literacy among a larger number of people, and further spread the developing orthographic norms. Standard norms for written English were based on London English, as it was the seat of government and education; since documents moved in greater numbers and for greater distances than people could, the London standard could therefore influence the norms of a region more easily than whatever spoken dialects travelers brought with them.
In 1473, William Caxton printed the first book in English, the “Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye.” Caxton based his spelling on the Chancery Standard, but he also added his own variants. In addition, the printers he brought with him to what is now Belgium came from the Low Countries; they were unused to the English language and made numerous spelling errors (e.g. any, busy, citie for eny, bisy, cittie). On occasion, they even used Dutch spellings, like adding an “h” after a “g,” so that words like “gost” became “ghost.”
The early printers also tended to lengthen words, for two reasons. First, they were paid by the number of lines printed, so more lines meant more money. Second, the page layout often required the right-hand side of the text to line up neatly, so they added additional letters to make words fit. Many simple spellings became more complex: e.g. frend > friend, hed > head, seson > season, fondnes > fondnesse, shal > shall.
As printing began to develop and operate beyond the direct control of both the church and the government, the members of this new business class became interested in setting norms for spelling – standardization of the written form. Standardization would reduce word, spelling, and, to a certain extent, pronunciation variations between peoples of different regions, and a single process would make the printing easier as a result. The burgeoning printing profession soon evolved into the publishing profession; publishers have been and still remain important in setting written standards, not just for English, but also for all other written languages.
During the 1500s, written English underwent a major process of streamlining, including the reduction and subsequent elimination of many inflectional endings, such as the final unstressed “e”s, called “silent ‘e’s.” They were retained in the spelling system, but their purpose was reassigned to signal that an earlier vowel in a word had changed into a long vowel (e.g. in mate, name, while, etc.). This process, first studied and named by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), became known as the Great English Vowel Shift. Next, other sounds were reduced then eliminated, such as the “k”s and “g”s in the clusters kn and gn (as in knight and gnash), and some remnants of Old English’s yogh (as in neighbor and bough). This resulted in numerous “silent letters” that have no apparent rules for their presence or absence. Over a period of just a few hundred years, English vowel pronunciations changed drastically at the very same time that word spellings were becoming set in stone. As a consequence, English was left with letter-to-written vowel correspondences different from any other language, as well as variations within the language that seem incomprehensible, such as the completely different pronunciations of word pairs like divine and divinity which one would think would sound the same.
By the late 1500s, the major outline of modern English orthography was in place, and changes in written form slowed considerably, but what we were left with was a more modern language paired with a spelling system from an earlier period– essentially a normalized Middle English. With the modern printing press, local spelling variations were mostly adjusted; however, publishers in different parts of the country still used spellings that reflected their own pronunciations. While some of these caught on nationally, others didn’t, and the emerging “standard” English spelling was nothing more than a hodgepodge full of inconsistencies.
Many of the inconsistencies that arose have persisted into Modern English. In the late 1500s, for example, William Shakespeare rhymed “sword” with “word,” which made sense at the time; with constant shifts in oral pronunciation, however, they no longer do, but we haven’t bothered to update the spelling. We don’t even write our language’s name in a way that makes sense – wouldn’t “Inglish” be more appropriate? English is a muddle of its own making, and I pity anyone having to learn it as a second or third language.
[Editor’s Note: I often have to correct non-native English speakers’ rhyming poetry, as they assume words that look like they should rhyme actually do, when they really don’t. This is a very difficult concept to get across to speakers of languages such as Spanish, where every letter is always pronounced in the exact same way, no matter what the situation.]
Next up: Origins and Development of English Part 4
 Kemmer, Suzanne. (2009). “The History of English.” Rice University. Retrieved from http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Histengl/spelling.html
 The English Spelling Society. (2018). “A Brief History of English Spelling.” Retrieved from http://spellingsociety.org/history#/page/1
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.
To read Part 18 (Origins of English, Part 2), click here.