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Main historical sources of the Modern English spelling

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Historical Foundations of Modern English Spelling

The alphabetic way of writing (unlike hieroglyphic, picto- graphic and syllabic writing) was originally based on a phonetic principle: it was designed to give an accurate graphic representation of pronunciation by using letters to indicate'sounds. Mod E spelling displays many deviations from this principle. The differences between the pronunciation and the spelling of words are obvious,

ME spelling innovations incorporated many sound changes which had taken place since the 9th—10th c., and yet spelling had generally become more ambiguous and conventional. In many instances the one-to-one correspondence of letter and sound had been lost. More letters than before had two sound values: o stood for [ ] , [u], long [ : ] and [o:] ; с — for [s] and [k]; g — for [g] and [d ], etc.; и could even indicate three sounds — the vowels [u] and [y] and the consonant [v]. One and the same sound was commonly shown by different means: [d ]could be indicated by g, j or dg, [k ] — by k, t and q, etc.

Both ou and ow were used fr [u: ] and [ou ]; double о stood for the open and close long [ : ] and [o:] alongside o: long [e:] were shown indiscriminately by ie, double e and the single letter e.

The conventional principle of spelling was later reinforced by the fixation of the written form of the word in printing and by extensive sound changes.

The phoneticians and spelling reformers of the 16th c. strove to restrict the freedom of variation and to improve English orthography by a more consistent use of letters and digraphs, and by the introduction of new symbols.

Linguists insisted upon a strict distinction between и and v when used to indicate a vowel and a consonant: [u] and [v], e.g. Early NE loue, selues, vnripe, unshaken later spelt as love, selves, unripe, unshaken; upon the regular use of the final mute e to show the length of the vowel in the preceding syllable, e.g., rode, rose, and even beene, moone (though in the two latter words length was shown by double letters). They introduced new digraphs to show the difference between some open and close vowels, namely the digraph ea for [перевернутая 3:] as distinguished from e, ее, and ie used for the closed [e:], and the digraph oa alongside 0 in open syllables for[ : ] , as contrasted to 00 showing a long closed [0:]. Cf. ME eech, seke with [перевернутая 3:] and [e: ] and Early NE each, seek-, ME hooly, boot [ : , o] and Early NE holy, boat, boot. The use of double consonants became less frequent, except in traditional spellings like kiss, sell, but double letters were sometimes employed to show that the preceding vowel was short: Early NE sitten, shott, dipped (later sit, shot, dipped).

Apart from the standardisation spelling ,only a few innovations were made: a few new digraphs were adopts with borrowed words, such as ph, ps — NE photograph, psychology ch — NE chemistry, scheme and machine, g — genre.

In the 18th c. the sound changes slowed down. Standard pronunciation (later known as RP — Received Pronunciation) and standard spelling were firmly established, and the gap between the spoken and written form of the word was perpetuated.

Mod E spelling shows the pronunciation oi words in the late 14th and in the 15th c., that is before the Early NE sound changes. That is why modern spelling is largely conventional and conservative, but seldom phonetic.


Those are the main historical reasons for the gap between Mod E spelling and pronunciation

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