A Severely Abbreviated History of English

Part of our Spelling Series:


“The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like.” – Pygmalion, Bernard Shaw

The other day, my daughter (who is just now beginning to homeschool her first-born) and I were talking about teaching children to read.  One of my very favorite things to do.  She said she remembers me teaching her the sounds of the letters, but that when we came to the exceptions, I would say something like, “This time it doesn’t say that.”  No explanation.  But, remember, that was all right because we “get it.”

The more experience I got with teaching, the more I realized how much I didn’t know.  And the more I realized that many people have a need to know.  Like hanging garden tools in the shed, giving students reasons and history gives them pegs on which to hang the modern spelling rules.

The more I learn, the more horrified I become whenever I hear a teacher say about our language, “I know it doesn’t make sense, you just have to learn it.”  Because, you do have to learn it, but it does make sense.  Most of it.  If you look far enough.  

I have always loved etymologies, and those blurbs inside brackets in the dictionary are what got me started wanting to know.  Word histories are a history of English, which I find endlessly fascinating.  One of the first things I had to find out, once I got serious, was how far back I had to go to get to the source.  Ooowee!  Quite a ways.  But when we’re talking about English that resembles something we might actually understand, it’s not nearly as far back as you might think.   

Old English was the language spoken from about 500 A.D. (see, at least we’re in the A.D.s) until the Norman invasion in 1066.  Not that everyone suddenly quit speaking Old English just because the Normans won, but it did start making a mess of the language by bringing in French, which brought in quite a bit of Latin.  Here are a couple of the opening lines from Beowulf, written around 1000 A.D.  

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

So, we’re not going to go back quite that far.

Please keep in mind that this is a very basic explanation.  The experts would probably come to my house brandishing pitchforks if any were to read this.  

For the next 500 years or so after The Invasion, the language evolved into what we now call Middle English.  I’m pretty sure they weren’t calling it that back then.  And the Normans were probably calling it unkind things indeed.  

Here is an example from the opening lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Taleswritten in 1386.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

Keep in mind that this is still before the invention of the printing press in the middle of the 1400s.  Books are copied by hand, slowly, laboriously, and communication is slow.  Scribes are still trying to decide the best way to represent the sounds of the language with the letters in common use.    Sounds varied from one region to another.  So, who gets to decide what “proper” spelling is?  Well, the printers get a lot of credit (or blame) for that. Once books started to become more uniform and available, spelling standards started to solidify.  Started to.  They’re still far from final.  

But one of our biggest problems with spelling today is that, with the advent of the mass production of books, spelling crept slowly toward standardization, but speech did not.  The gap between spelling and pronunciation widened with the centuries.  But it can’t have taken long.  As early as 1712 Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver’s Travels fame, was calling for a once-and-for-all spelling standard for English.

Samuel Johnson published his dictionary in 1755. His work was one of the most influential in regularizing spelling and pronunciation. In his introduction he says that he “chose spellings based on a word’s derivation,” but was often “obliged to sacrifice uniformity to custom.” Some doubtful words had to be left to his own preference. By that time people had been reading and copying the spelling of Chaucer, Sidney, Spenser, Milton, and Shakespeare for over 100 years.

And we must not forget the influence of the popular Bibles of the time.

Perhaps this will sound familiar:

“In the beginnyng God created the heauen and erth The erth was uoyde and emptye/and darcknesse was upon the depe/ A the Spirite of God moued upon the water.”  

Matthew’s Bible, 1537


“In the beginning God created ỹ heauen and the earth.  And the

earth was without forme & voyde, and darkenes was vpon the depe,

& the Spirit of God moued vpon the waters.

The Geneva Bible, 1560


“In the beginning God created the Heauen, and the Earth.  And the earth was

without forme, and voyd, and darkenesse was vpon the face of the deepe:

and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.”

King James Bible, 1611

And yet . . . How came we to spell thus?  Stay tuned next time when you’ll hear Auntie LuLu say, “I before E, except in a heist on a weird, feisty, beige, foreign neighbor.”


Spelling Series Articles:

A Severely Abbreviated History of English

How Came We to Spell Thus

Let’s Get Started

The Next Step: Blended Families


-ible, -able Endings