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Changes in the alphabet and spelling in Middle English





Changes in the alphabet and spelling in Middle English. Middle English written records.

The most conspicuous feature of Late ME texts in comparison with OE texts is the difference in spelling. The written forms of the words in Late ME texts resemble their modern forms, though the pronunciation of the words was different. In the course of ME many new devices were introduced into the system of spelling; some of them reflected the sound changes which had been completed or were still in progress in ME; others were graphic replacements of OE letters by new letters and digraphs.

In ME the runic letters passed out of use. Thorn – þ – and the crossed d – đ, ð – were replaced by the digraph th, which retained the same sound value: [Ө] and [ð]; the rune “wynn” was displaced by “double u” – w – ; the ligatures æ and œ fell into disuse. After the period of Anglo-Norman dominance (11th–13th c.) English regained its prestige as the language of writing. Though for a long time writing was in the hands of those who had a good knowledge of French. Therefore many innovations in ME spelling reveal an influence of the French scribal tradition. The digraphs ou, ie, and ch which occurred in many French borrowings and were regularly used in Anglo-Norman texts were adopted as new ways of indicating the sounds [u:], [e:], and [t∫]. other alterations in spelling cannot be traced directly to French influence though they testify to a similar tendency: a wider use of digraphs. In addition to ch, ou, ie, and th Late ME notaries introduced sh (also ssh and sch) to indicate the new sibilant [∫], e.g. ME ship (from OE scip), dg to indicate [dз] alongside j and g; the digraph wh replaced the OE sequence of letters hw as in OE hwæt, ME what [hwat]. Long sounds were shown by double letters, e.g. ME book [bo:k], though long [e:] could be indicated by ie and ee, and also by e. Some replacements were probably made to avoid confusion of resembling letters: thus o was employed not only for [o] but also to indicate short [u] alongside the letter u; it happened when u stood close to n, m, or v, e.g. OE lufu became ME love [luvə]. The letter y came to be used as an equivalent of i and was evidently preferred when i could be confused with the surrounding letters m, n and others. Sometimes, y, as well w, were put at the end of a word, so as to finish the word with a curve, e.g. ME very [veri], my [mi:]; w was interchangeable with u in the digraphs ou, au, e.g. ME doun, down [du:n], and was often preferred finally, e.g. ME how [hu:], now [nu:]. For letters indicating two sounds the rules of reading are as follows. G and с stand for [dз] and [s] before front vowels and for [g] and [k] before back vowels respectively. Y stands for [j] at the beginning of words, otherwise, it is an equivalent of the letter i, e.g. ME yet [jet], knyght [knix’t]. The letters th and s indicate voiced sounds between vowels, and voiceless sounds – initially, finally and next to other voiceless consonants, e.g. ME worthy [wurði]. To determine the sound value of o one can look up the origin of the sound in OE or the pronunciation of the word in NE: the sound [u] did not change in the transition from OE to ME (the OE for some was sum); in NE it changed to [Λ]. It follows that the letter o stood for [u] in those ME words which contain [Λ] today, otherwise it indicates [o].







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