Development of English Orthography

  • Period: 400 to Jan 1, 1400

    The letter 'thorn'

    The letter 'thorn' (uppercase Þ, lowercase þ) was used throughout Old English and most of the Middle English period. The modern digraph ‘th’ started becoming more common during the 14th century as a replacement for 'thorn'. A digraph is a combination of two letters representing one sound. By the middle of the 15th century, the use of ‘th’ was predominant. The letter 'thorn' is no longer used in Modern English.
  • Period: 400 to Jan 1, 1300

    The letter 'eth'

    The letter ‘eth’ (uppercase Ð, lowercase ð) was used in Old English and in some of the Middle English period. It was used interchangeably with the letter ‘thorn’. It disappeared altogether by 1300 and has no modern equivalent, although the letter ‘thorn’ has the modern equivalent of the digraph ‘th’.
  • Period: Jan 1, 600 to Jan 1, 700

    Alphabetic writing system adapted

    In the 7th century, the alphabetic writing system, based on the Roman alphabet, was brought to Anglo-Saxon England by Christian missionaries and church officials. This system, like other similar systems was based on spoken sound segments, which were represented by written characters. In this way, elements of a sequence of sounds could be ‘captured’ by a linear sequence of marks, which could then be ‘sounded out’ to recapture the message by means of its sounds.
  • Period: Jan 1, 600 to Jan 1, 800

    Initial lack of standardisation

    Times are approximate. Initially, there were no fixed rules or conventions for written representations of language. This led to "greater divergence of the written forms from the spoken string." Dialect variation added to this problem. People's own local pronunciations often affected the characters they wrote. Spellings varied largely, and there was no standardisation.
  • Dec 25, 1066

    The Norman Conquest

    The Norman Conquest was the invasion (and subsequent occupation) of England by an army of Norman, Breton, and French soldiers led by William the Conquerer. It ended in late 1066. It had a great impact on the English spelling system. English was no longer the dominant language used in legal and government documents. The standardisation of English was stopped.
  • Period: Dec 25, 1066 to Jan 1, 1154

    Aftermath of the Norman Conquest

    After the Norman Conquest, many scribes were French-trained. They had their own unique norms for representing sounds. For instance, the letter ‘c’ was used in French to spell an /s/ sound, as in ‘cyclone’. In the Roman writing system, this letter was used to spell a /k/ sound, as in ‘cat’. This is why today, a single letter (e.g. ‘c’) can be used to represent a variety of sounds (e.g. /s/, /k/).
  • Period: Jan 1, 1150 to Jan 1, 1470

    The letter 'yogh'

    The letter ‘yogh’ (uppercase Ȝ, lowercase ȝ) was used in Middle English. Norman scribes eventually replaced it with the digraph ‘gh’, as they weren’t in favour of non-Latin characters.
  • Jan 1, 1430

    English reinstated as official language of England

    In 1430, English once again became the official language of England. However, up to this point, the scribes and clerks of court had only written in French or Latin, and as a result had trouble switching to English. Today, mainly as a result of these difficulties, many words of French origin still use French spelling. Examples include 'table', 'adore' and 'adolescent'. This is responsible for many of the inconsistencies found in Modern spelling, e.g. 'label' and 'table, and 'floor' and 'adore'.
  • Jan 1, 1450

    Invention of the printing press

    The invention of the printing press meant that written documents could be printed relatively easily, and as a result, they became cheaper and their use more widespread. It is from this point on that standard written norms based on London English were developed. The process of standardisation of English spelling was accelerated thanks to the adoption and use of the printing press.
  • Jan 1, 1476

    Caxton sets up a press in Westminster

    Date is approximate. William Caxton set up a printing press in Westminster, which helped in the standardisation of English spelling. This may have also been responsible for some of the irregularities of English spelling. According to this article, he brought printers from Belgium who knew little English, and made several spelling errors (e.g. 'any' instead of 'eny'.)
  • Jan 1, 1477

    Caxton's printing press (continued)

    Caxton's printers were paid by the line, so they tried making words longer in hopes of earning more money in the long run. Several words with otherwise simple spellings became complicated and longer. 'Frend' became 'friend', 'hed' became 'head', and 'seson' became 'season'.
  • Period: Jan 1, 1500 to

    First Bibles were published

    During this period, people wanted to know what exactly was written in the Bible, instead of just hearing it from priests. This was translated by William Tyndale, who had to keep moving between foreign countries to avoid being found by enemy spies. His writings were printed by non-English speakers, and were much reprinted. Repeated copying from increasingly corrupt copies meant that bible spellings became increasingly varied. Many people learnt to write from the Bible, adapting these variations.
  • Jan 1, 1536

    Tyndale burnt at the stake

    Sir Thomas More’s spies finally managed to track William Tyndale down and had him hanged and then burnt at the stake in 1536. To disguise his authorship, printers began to change his spellings even further. As a result, English spelling became chaotic, and its rules ambiguous. This further contributed to the need for the standardisation of English.
  • The English Schoolemaister is published

    Teachers began compiling spelling lists for their students. Dates are approximate. Edmond Coote published his highly influential spelling list, 'The English Schoolemaister', in 1595. He got rid of extra letters that had been added by printers (e.g. 'hadde' became 'had', and 'worde' 'word'). However, his aim was not to make the spelling system easy to master, but to come up with a single spelling for each word. He opted for the one most commonly used.
  • Samuel Jackson starts work on dictionary

    In 1755, Samuel Jackson started work on his 'Dictionary of the English Language'. It was a milestone in the standardisation of English spelling.
  • Oxford English Dictionary is published

  • Period: to

    The advent of texting

    Since the first text was sent in 1992, there have emerged a large number of conventions for abbreviations and non-standard spelling. The use of these conventions is widespread. Examples of common abbreviations include 'lol', 'ttyl' and 'omg', and non-standard spelling includes 'kewl' instead of 'cool' and 'noice' instead of 'nice'.
  • Current spelling standardisations

    British and American English are the two main standardisations of English spelling used today.