[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J29, 2001 pp34-37]
[See other journal articles by Valerie Yule.]

How People Spelled When They Could Spell as They Liked

by Valerie Yule.

Valerie Yule researches in spelling, literacy and imagination. See her webpages (an index page on spelling with multiple links) and (an index page for literacy ideas and materials in progress).

If people could spell as they liked, what sort of chaos would result? What happened when they could? People actually could spell as they liked before the late 18th-century dictionaries of Johnson and others. This was before the snobbery and "conspicuous consumption" common in 18th-century society, as well as the 19th century's emphasis on elite correctness. These combined to set English spelling in concrete, less than two hundred and fifty years ago. How earlier writers wanted to spell makes an interesting study, relevant to spelling reform now. The results are not quite what we might expect.

This study of "how people spelled when they could spell as they liked" is based on long reading in those earlier periods, supported by an analysis of samples of print, from around 1370 to 1670. The samples are not of the same length, and they are so short and limited that the findings can only be indicators. There is a rich supply of material that was printed or handwritten from the late middle ages onward to examine.

Spelling Before Dictionaries.

From the time of the Anglo-Saxons, perhaps even until Chaucer's day, writers in English may have "spelled as they spoke." After the invention of printing, an interesting thing happened. Books and pamphlets multiplied phenomenally - everyone who could was reading like mad, and it sometimes seemed that they were all writing, too. According to my observations, the spelling habits of these people could probably be graphed. The less education and reading a person had, the more likely their spelling in their letters and other personal writing would be more closely fonetic, representing their own local speech. With more education and wide reading, the more likely that the chief determinant of a writer's own spelling would be the spelling in the books and pamflets that they read, even if this spelling did not reflect their own speech - and even if many of the commonest spellings they used were already capricious, answering to nobody's way of talking by that time. In their personal letters, however, all writers were liable to spell with more personal abandon.

Writers tended to conform with general usage in spelling the vocabulary they used frequently, but resorted to their own phonetics when they were not sure or were not familiar with any widely accepted spelling of a word. Pitman's stenographers used to be like that, too. Most of their originally-fonetic squiggles were heavily rote-lernt and then used by unthinking habit, but fonetically encoded when necessary.

One reason for this lack of "spelling as you speak" could have been the lack of a Received Pronunciation. There was none even in Johnson's time, as he complained. There was no prime way of speaking among all the dialects even of London. So it could be wiser, from Aberdeen to Tiverton, to share as common a spelling as possible, in order to communicate. Printers from Caxton on also put in their bit to support more standardised spelling - it suited them better to have some automaticity, when the hot metal had to be placed letter by letter.

These habits in the public spelling of English were setting even in Chaucer's time. Chaucer used many spellings, both regular and irregular, that we still use today - altho he would sometimes vary from them. The following words and their spellings are familiar today:

"in age was dwelling a dale this of which I my tale day that she last simple for and by of such as God two (a few lines further on, spelled "tweye") three large sheep sooty many sauce never no morsel passed made never to drank neither served most milk were enclosed land crowing his peer than abbey nature knew degrees ascended amended comb redder coral."
The discerning reader can fill in the spaces, since there is sufficient vocabulary to recognise this as the beginning of the Nonne Preestes Tale.

Here are irregular spellings (in the sense of unpredictable) that are still with us, from the letters of Thomas Cartwright around 1590:

"many trouble although reason come obedient voice whom who slaughter peace are most conscience words experience knowledge absurd declare prove sword used passionate third ascend have any beauty certain none worth possible people colour occasion weight prophecy measure breath receipt"
Note that writers still varied greatly from the inconsistent standards while these were slowly developing.


The word lists below come from samples from the following printed books, although backed by my recollections of reading old books and mainly 17th century handwriting.

Consecutive samples have been taken from:

--Chaucer, (1340-1400)
--Thomas Sackville (1536-1608)
--Christopher Marlowe (1563-1593)
--Samples from the letters of Thomas Cartwright, hand-written around 1590, first edited and published in 1951, so there is no question that the spellings were influenced by the printers of the time - as they could be with the other samples of print.
--Edmund Spenser (1551? -1599)
--Scots ballads (dates of writing down are uncertain)
--Scots prose 1662 and 1670
--Leveller pamphlets - English Civil War 1646-1649 (exerpts from seven pamflets)

Old & New Spelling Habits.

Spellings from these texts differ from modern spelling in various characteristic ways. The word lists illustrate some prominent differences, as well as some surprising correspondences between old and new.

This brief comparison suggests points that any spelling reform might need to accommodate:

(1) Morfemic spelling - that is, compound words have been spelled by their word-components, rather than as single words. The old writers had to endure less changing of letters in spelling when words were amalgamated; e.g., "manyfold," not "manifold."

(2) Spellings that are shorter than today. So many antique spellings are longer because of the additional spoken inflexions and fondnesses for doubled consonants. Nonetheless, the older writers also seemed to employ the same principles as the Surplus-Cut spelling-reform scheme. They omitted letters that did not aid meaning or pronunciation. Exampls of every one of the streamlining principles of Surplus-Cut spelling appear in all eight samples - there were no cuts that went against those principles. "Streamlining principles" appear in all eight writings.

(3) Many ancient spellings are closer to present speech than their spellings today. Unnecessary complications bother lerners and spellers today - notably extra and unpredictable letters in vowel spellings: "o" instead of "u" for the short vowel foneme /u/, "u" for /w/, simple CVC constructions for final syllables turned into CCV, and "quite mad" changes to construct spellings like "choir" and "tongue."

(4) Following the 18th-century obsession with genteel manners, we have been taught to be absolutely correct with our spelling, even more than with our morals. The old writers could be cavalier, and in letters particularly. (Cartwright's varying spellings of the same word could jostle each other on the same page.)

(5) Many spelling reformers insist that it would be easier for learners and spellers to spell the final sound in plurals and verbs "s" or "z" according to whether natural articulation made that sound /s/ or /z/. None of these early writers ever did. Not even a "woz." However, there was more fonetic discrimination between -d/ and -t/ in participles, which is less obvious grammar.

(6) Across the board, spellings that varied from our spellings today tended to be actually closer to how we pronounce the words, apart from inflexions.

1. Morphemic spelling.

Chaucer: byside, fyry, housbond, slayn, trewely
Sackville: slayne, layd, woe begon, wurthyest
Marlowe: dayly
Cartwright: cryed, dayly, denyed, duety, gloryouslye, manyfold, middestruely, truethe, wisedom
Spencer: doen (done), prayses, theyr
Scots ballads: spyed, wellcum, wellcum
Scots prose: dyed, middest, rejoyce, tryals, payed
Levellers: chair-man, dayly, defyance, denyal, trible (cf dubl), tryall, wisedom

2. Shorter spelling.

Chaucer: agast, agu, al, arys, bad (bade), berd (beard), bifel, blis, blisful, blody, bord, bour, chuk, cok, colerik, com, contree, cotage, cours, Cresus, dich, dout, ech, erly, fether, flour (flower), ful, fyn, fyr, groning, herd, lak, laxatyf, lege

Chaucer 2: litel, lyf, lyk, malencolye, maner, merier, mery, neded, nigard, peple, Pharao, resonable, romed, sleper, sleping, smal, solas, somtyme, syk, tarie, therfor, vois, wal, wel, wo, wyf, wyn, whyt, slayne, layd, woe begon

Sackville: agast, al, appered, approched, blud, bluddy, brest, breth, carkas, corps, delites, dredfull, drery, ful, gastly, gladsom, glas, godhed, gyltles, hart, hel, knobd, lothly, lothsome, ruful, savor, sorowing, spred, strayt, thre, tyl, unstedfast, wel, wil, woful

Cartwright: becom, brused, chuse, clense, comon, comunion, delite, doctrin, fal cal al, frends, ful, grudg, hart, holesome, immediatly, knowledg, maner, obstinat, oportunity, stif, thorow, undoutedly, unfained, straite, waied (weighed), wheras

Marlowe: brest, delite, faining, kis, moovd, opposite, peble, shal, shels, wandring

Spencer: bels, croking, delite, drery, dwels, fethered, gon, hed, ly, mischivous, roring, scatterd, spels, spred, sumd, yel

Scots: dyed, middest, rejoyce, tryals, befor, chuse, comunion, disciplin, doctrin, doubl, handl, immediately, peopl, requir, sumond, therof, therin, twelv, wher

Levellers: chair-man, dayly, defyance, denyal, trible (cf dubl), tryall, abreviations, adjurnable, al, badg, brests, chuse, disolvable, endevors, grevances, garding, greatned, heightned, entred, grosly, judg, lingring, opressions, hav, rendred, sel, selvs, shal, shufle, sutable, wil

3. Other spellings closer to modern speech than present spellings

None in the Marlowe sample

Chaucer: eet, Egipt, gentil, meel, middel, repleet, yeer
Sackville: candels, cristall, crummes, eckoed, iye, mantels, stomake, wurdes
Spenser: doo, dore, neer, obay, perle, quyre, yvory
Cartwright: sswaged, clyme, doo, eschue, perswasions, reconsiliaton, renued, suffise, tounges
Scots ballads: cumpanie, cuntrie, nobil, cumpanie, Inglish, luving, mault (malt)
Scots prose: dait, evrie, disswaded, meerly, onely, perswaded, theevish, yeeld
Levellers: arreers, axel, beleeve, center, cleer, cloaths, compairing, compleat, completely
Levellers 2: deer, gyant, neerly, onely, perswaded, supream, yeers

4. Varying spellings on the same page.

None in the samples from Marlowe and Scots ballads; Scots prose - the only close variation was tym/tyme"
Chaucer: blak/blake, dreem/dremes, seide/seyde, seith/sey/seyn, shal/shul, wys/wyse
Sackville: assined/assynde, worthy/wurthyest, yel (but dwell)
Spenser: doen (done), doo
Cartwright's letters: beauty/ beiuty, buisnes/ busines, curat/ curate, extorcioners/ extortioners, hainous/ haynouse, obay/ obey, sheepeheardes/ shepheards/sheephearde (all within 6 lines), shuld/shoulde, solemne/solempne, physition/phisition. thretning/threatned (within 3 lines), vnfained/unfained, wel/well
Leveller pamflets: endevors/endevours, grevances/ grievances, publique/ publike

5. t- endings to verbs.

None in Chaucer, Spenser, Cartwright or Scots samples
Sackville: approcht dipt whypt slypt prest coucht opprest stretcht
Marlowe: reacht past brancht sipt stript
Leveller: opprest releast stopt

6. s/c/ variations - None in Marlow, Scots ballads or Leveller samples

Chaucer: compleccion, congregacioun, pacience, tribulaciouns
Sackville: pearst (pierced)
Cartwright: contricion, gratious, mencion, pacient, substanciall
Spencer: chace, disperst, noyce, sence, sences
Scots prose: caice, antient, antients, gratious, councellor

7. Obsolete distinctions of medial and final vowels.

Only Chaucer - broun doun renoun toun hewed (hued)

8. Other variations from present spelling.

Chaucer: abyde, adversitee, agayn, allas, beste, bigan, bihold, binethe, bisyde, byte, castel, casuelly, certeyn, citee, coude, daunce, deel, depe, dere, devyse, eres (ears), exercyse, fere, fy, fynde, grone, hevene

Chaucer 2: hir, kepe, lilie, necessitee, orgon, phisyk, pryme, saugh(saw), speke, superfluitee, swete, throtet, yme, vanitee, venimous, whyde, wikkednesse, wommanwyse, wyves, yow

Sackville: ayer, bemone, boyles, fyer, guyde, hugye hugie (huge), Iryshe, miserie, ougly (ugly), plaste (placed), portche, quyeteshoar, shoen (shone), skale (scale), skrip, slepe, speache, syxe, whurld, wyde, yong, yelding

Cartwright: appeereth, approchinge, bloud, deceaved, doon, ghoast, greeued, greeuous, hee bee mee, idyotes, outwardli, oyle, oyntement annoynted, prophane, publique, souldier, tirant, vertuous, yeilding, yow

Spencer: blew (blue), bynd, coche (coach), damzel, Eccho, yeeld, lillies, mattins, mayden, sprinnckled, trew, vertues, wemens, wize

Marlowe: asswage, blew (blue), deceaves, eies, nimph, roiallye, vaile, vailing, yron, monie, beneith, cauld (cold), heir (hwew?), meit, steids, wheit, yeir

Scots ballads: ayd, bettir, bi, castell, deir, desyre, dreirie, dyed, Erles, grene, gude, luke, mercie, mete, nevir, pitie, speik, teirs, tuik (took), blude

Scots prose: bussiness, colledg, dyocess, oyl-colours, publick, subtil, vertue

Levellers: apparent, balance, carkasse, comptrouled, fellons, humaine, hazzarded, imbezelled, indempnitie, kernill, lyable, moneths, possitively, totall, mallice, evill, parrish, priviledges, probabilitie, randezvouz, saies, seised, shee, souldiers, soveraign, stiled, stincking, tyred, vertue, wee

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