[Editor’s note: This is the twenty-first 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.]
In 1534, King Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church in Rome, founded the Church of England, and installed himself as its head. With the change in doctrine and how it was administered, the church needed new documents. The most important were the liturgies, the Book of Common Prayer, and, of course, numerous copies of English translations of the Bible.
The push for accessible versions of religious documents actually began a few centuries earlier, but it didn’t gain real traction until the church and the government adopted the basic tenets of the Reformation. Numerous English translations of the Bible were created in the late 1500s, though most were printed abroad – producing a Bible in English was regarded as heresy. The recopying of texts already full of spelling diversity, as well as the use of non-English-speaking printers, created a widespread problem for standardization. The most lasting English Bible was the King James version published in 1611; the most widespread and influential religious document of the age, it greatly influenced the written norms adopted by translators and printers alike.
By the end of the 16th century, as written language became more widespread and the general population became more literate, the highly variable state of English spelling led to demands for rules and standardization. The first person to write a book of correct spelling in Early Modern English was schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster, who, in 1582, published the first part of the Elementarie; his primary goal was to tidy things up rather than to make radical changes to the written form. His book listed about 8,000 words, far short of a modern dictionary, but a good start nonetheless. One change he proposed was to use “ie” instead of “y” at the end of a word when it wasn’t stressed, as in “gentlie.” This allowed “y” to be used as the long stressed vowel, as in “why.” Edmund Coote, another schoolmaster, published his English Schoole-maister in 1596. Unlike Mulcaster, though, he wasn’t concerned with making spelling more consistent. He simply settled on a single spelling for each word, opting for the one most used.
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755, and it proved a milestone in the development of dictionaries and other reference materials. Unlike previous scholars, Johnson recognized that change is a normal process of language, not a degradation of it. By the time of the book’s publication, the spelling system in use was quite similar to that of current Modern English, with only a few orthographic peculiarities (e.g. the spelling of “show” as “shew” and the use of the “long S” character, which we often confuse with the “f” used at that time). It is quite possible that the printers’ typefaces in that period made more of a distinction between the two letters than do the fonts of modern printing.
When the United States declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776, it led to a push towards identifying distinguishing cultural factors, and language was an obvious choice –recognizable American pronunciation features had already developed by that time. However, Noah Webster didn’t use pronunciation differences to try to develop a separate written standard. Instead, he created a dictionary containing some regional American dialect-based definitions to set the two apart. He also introduced, both in both his dictionary and in his other writings, spellings that created a distinctive American orthography without changing it too much, and therefore allowing for mutual intelligibility. He maintained most of the spelling conventions of the early 19th century British standard written form, but he added a few systematic differences: 1) He used “-ize” instead of “-ise” for verbs derived from Greek verbs ending in -izein; 2) He eliminated the “u” in the suffix -our (e.g. humor instead of humour, thus moving away from the French-derived spelling of Middle English); and the replacement of “-re” in French loanwords by “-er” (centre/center, theatre/theater).
In the English-speaking world beyond Britain and the U.S., the norms are beginning to change in some places. Canada and Australia, two former British colonies, have maintained largely British orthography over their long association with the “mother country,” but proximity to (in the case of Canada) and cultural influence from the U.S. are exerting pressure on the established norms. U.S. spelling variants seem to be increasing in these countries, despite resistance of schools and government. In other former colonies such changes are less obvious, but it is quite possible the same trend is underway.
Next up: Printing, Publishing, and Language Norms in the Digital Age
 The English Spelling Society. (2018). A brief history of English spelling. Retrieved from http://spellingsociety.org/history#/page/1
 Kemmer, Suzanne. (2009). “The History of English.” Rice University. Retrieved from http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Histengl/spelling.html
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.
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To read Part 6 (Japanese writing), click here.
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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.
To read Part 19 Origins of English, Part 3), click here.