THE BEGINNINGS OF EARLY MODERN ENGLISH AND THE PROBLEM OF ORTHOGRAPHY

As at this stage there was not a generally accepted spelling system, confusion increased as the pronunciation of words slowly changed. In some cases there was a clear discrepancy between the written and the spoken word, as certain letters inserted in it were not pronounced, as in ‘debt’ /det/ – in this case it is due to its Latin etymology, debitum, dubitare -or ‘gh’ in ‘light’. Many scholars thought that English spelling was arbitrary, as its written form even varied from one writer to another. Sir John Cheke, for instance, doubled long vowels; ‘taak, haat, maad, mijn, thijn’ = ‘take, hate, made, mine, thine’. Richard Stanyhurst wrote ‘thee’ for ‘the’, ‘too’ for ‘to’, ‘mee’, ‘neere’, etc. Also it is not clear to which extent is the writing indebted to the writer or to the printer, since most printers took advantage of the variability of English spelling to ‘justify’ a line.

Even in excerpts written by just one author we can come across different spellings for the same word, as in the case of the pamphlets written by Greene, where we find ‘coney’, ‘cony’, ‘conny’, ‘conye’, ‘conie’, ‘connie’, ‘coni’, ‘cuny’, ‘cunny’ and cunnie’.

As a result, there were several attempts to draw up rules;

  • in 1568, Thomas Smith increases the alphabet to 34 letters and marked the long vowels in his work “Dialogue concerning the correct and emended writing of the English language”.

  • In 1569 and 1570, John Hart in his works “An Orthographie” and “A method or comfortable beginning for all unlearned, whereby they may bee taught to read English”, he makes special characters for -dh, -sh and -th.

bullokar-phoneme-mnemonics4

  • In 1580 there is an attempt at establishing a phonetic reform devised by William Bullokar in his “Booke at large for the amendment of orthographie for English speech”, in which he profits by mistakes made by Smith and Hart in the aforementioned works and invents few special characters but introduces the use of accents, apostrophes and hooks above and below the letters.

  • Later, in 1634, Charles Butler substitutes an inverted apostrophe for final e’s and a special character for -th, with scarce success in his work “The English grammar, or the institution of letters, syllables and woords in the English tung”.

  • Mulcaster clearly perceives all of the previous attempts as a waste in his work “Elemmentarie”, the most important treatise on English spelling in the 16th century and his virtue is moderation, being willing to compromise between the ideal and the practical. If the differences between one sound and another were too subtle, it was inevitable to use one letter for different sounds, which for him was not worse than using the same word in different senses. Also, since pronunciation changes constantly, he could not adhere to the proposals by the phonetic reformers. For him, popular approval was the final authority. Thus, he would get rid of superfluous letters (putt, grubb, ledd), would not omit necessary ones (fetch, catch), allowed double consonants only when they belong to separate syllables (wit.ting) and ended words in -ss as -sse (glasse), otherwise final -e indicating long preceding vowels (made-mad, stripe-strip) among other suggestions. He wrote “General Table”, a book with the recommended spelling for 7,000 words.

  • Ben Jonson drew from Mulcaster -as he acknowledged in the preface of his “Dictionary” in 1755, and finally established a solid basis for modern English spelling by 1650.

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