Early modern English pronunciation and spelling

By Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor, OED

In the late-fifteenth century printers began printing books written in the form of London English which had already become a kind of standard in manuscript documents. Between 1475 and about 1630 English spelling gradually became regularized. There are noticeable differences in the look of printed English before the mid-seventeenth century, but after that date it is largely the same as modern English, the major difference being the use of the long s (∫) in all positions except finally.

Pronunciation change and the Great Vowel Shift

By the sixteenth century English spelling was becoming increasingly out of step with pronunciation owing mainly to the fact that printing was fixing it in its late Middle English form just when various sound changes were having a far-reaching effect on pronunciation.

Chief among these was the so-called ‘Great Vowel Shift’, which can be illustrated (with much simplification) from the three vowel sounds in mite, meet, and mate. In Middle English these were three long vowels with values similar to their Latin or continental counterparts [i:], [e:], and [a:] (roughly the vowel sounds of thief, fete, and palm); the spelling was therefore ‘phonetic’.

 After the shift:

  • long i became a diphthong (probably in the sixteenth century pronounced [əi] with a first element like the [ə] of the first syllable in ago)
  • long e took its place with the value [i:]
  • long a became a front vowel, more like that of air to begin with, but later [e:].

A parallel change affected the back vowels of mouth and moot. Hence the mismatch of the long vowel sounds of English with their counterparts in other European languages.

Additionally, during the period a number of sets of vowel sounds that had formerly been distinct became identical, while their spelling distinction was largely maintained, resulting in a further mismatch of spelling and pronunciation.

Important examples are:

  • the long vowel a in mane and the diphthong ay or ai in may, main
  • the long mid vowel o in sloe, so and the diphthong ow or ou in slow, sow (= cast seed)
  • the diphthong represented by u in due and the diphthong ew, eu in dew, neuter.

Numerous conditioned changes (i.e. changes in the sound of a vowel or consonant when in the vicinity of another sound) also contributed to the mismatch. When long vowels were shortened in certain positions a given spelling could show either on the one hand a long vowel or diphthong or on the other a short vowel that would normally be spelt another way.

For example:

  • ou in double, trouble and oo in blood, flood and good, hook became identical with short u (either as in bud or as in put).
  • similarly originally long ea in bread, lead (the metal) became identical with e in bred, led.
  • in southern (standard) English the short vowel u became an unrounded central vowel in most words (bud, cut) but remained a close rounded vowel in certain environments (full, put); the latter vowel subsequently merged with the originally long vowel spelt oo which had become short in certain environments (good, hook).
  • a after the sound of w became a back rounded vowel, identical with short o (e.g. wad, wash, squat as against mad, mash, mat).

Changes in the pronunciation of consonant sounds during the early modern English period contributed significantly to the incongruity between spelling and pronunciation. Accordingly consonant sounds ceased to be pronounced in many contexts.

For example:

  • initial k- and g- ceased to be pronounced before n (as in knight, gnaw) as did initial w- before r (as in write).
  • final -b and -g ceased to be pronounced after nasal consonants (lamb, hang) as did medial -t- in such words as thistle and listen.
  • in late Middle English l became a vowel after back vowels or diphthongs in certain positions (as in talk, folk), but the spelling remained.
  • in certain dialects of Middle English the velar fricative [x] (like ch in loch), written gh, either disappeared (as in night, bought) or became [f] (as in rough); in standard English the old pronunciation of gh continued until about 1600, but was then replaced by the present pronunciation. Because gh was now mainly silent it was introduced into several words where it did not etymologically belong (delight, inveigh, sprightly).

Spelling: general principles

At the start of the sixteenth century the main systematic differences in spelling from present-day English were as follows. (Examples are taken from the Ordynarye of crystyanyte or of crysten men, printed by Wynkyn de Worde, 1502.)

i). u and v were graphic variants of a single letter. The form v was used at the beginning of a word and u in all other positions, irrespective of whether the sound was a vowel or a consonant.

And we defende the that thou be not so hardy for euer to do vyolence vnto the holy token of the crosse the whiche we put in his forhede.

ii). Similarly, j was only an extended form of i. i was generally used for both the vowel and for the consonant sound (as in jam) in most positions in a word: its capital form, which resembles J, was beginning to be used in initial position for the consonant sound.

>by the whiche they ben Justely adiuged

iii). The final ‘silent’ -e was much more commonly found, not only as a marker of a ‘long’ vowel in the preceding syllable (as in take), but with no phonetic function, and sometimes after an unnecessarily doubled final consonant.

Also it is to be noted that this crosse made & gyuen vnto the newe crysten man is the seuenth crosse & the laste that is sette on his body.

iv). The letter y was commonly used for the vowel i, especially in the vicinity of ranging or ‘minim’ letters such as m, n, and u.

And man ought to byleue that the fayth of this artycle is deed that bereth not here the fruyte of this werke.

v). Double e (ee) or e..e was used for two different long front vowels: the ‘close’ vowel of meet and the formerly ‘mid’ vowel of meat, mete (the significance of this is now obscured since in most words the two sounds have become identical). The spelling e..e was gradually restricted to the latter while additionally ea was beginning to be introduced as an alternative spelling.

By the the fruyte that procedeth of the tree menynge the boode or the floure and the leef.

vi). Similarly o (oo) or o..e were often used for two different long back vowels: the ‘close’ vowel of moot and the ‘mid’ vowel of moat, mote. o..e was gradually restricted to the latter and, during the 16th century, oa was introduced on the analogy of ea.

>bytwene the more goodnes and the lesse goodnes / and bytwene the more ylle and the lesse or the moost lytell.

vii). Instead of t in the ending now usually spelt -tion the letter c was frequently used.

He is very lorde by creacyon by redempcyon & for ye resurreccyon.

Numerous abbreviations used in manuscript were carried over into print. A short line above a vowel was often used to replace m or n. The forms yt and ye were used to abbreviate that and the.

Spelling: particular words

Variation in the spelling of particular words is due to two main factors.

During the early modern period numerous words were respelt according to their true or (occasionally) false Latin etymologies; this tendency began in late Middle English but gathered strength in our period. In some of these words the pronunciation has been adjusted to conform to the spelling, while others have not (hence the existence of ‘silent’ consonants). Examples:

Examples include:

  • anchor (Middle English, anker)
  • author (Middle English, autour; Latin, auctor)
  • doubt (Middle English, doute)
  • fault (Middle English, faute)
  • nephew (Middle English, neuew)

During the period also, forms derived from different dialects or varieties of speech gradually ousted those originally used.

  • friend only became common after 1530
  • frend disappeared after 1630 (but the pronunciation remained)
  • during the overlap, frind was also found
  • before 1500 the word height was usually found with –th as the final consonant (in various forms such as heyth, highth)
  • After 1550 the northern form h(e)ight became predominant (though Milton favoured highth)
  • before 1500, sword(e) was rare and swerd(e) common
  • between 1500 and 1550 they were about equally common
  • after 1550, sword(e) was much commoner than swerd(e)

The stabilization of spelling

By the mid-seventeenth century printers followed general principles of spelling much like the present ones. Notably the modern distinctions between I and J and U and V were established by about 1630. The spelling of nearly all individual words was also identical with present-day forms in printed books. In ordinary handwritten documents, however, even those of well-educated people, spelling continued to vary noticeably until well into the eighteenth century.

I saw walking hard by me the appearancys of six men carrying a corps, uppon which, being somewhat frighted, I held my horse fast, and set forward, but saw it following of me yet as oft as I look’d back. Then, having got pretty far, I look’d behind me once more, and instead of the corps and men following of me I saw a bear with a great huge uggly thing sitting thereon, which thing I saw as oft as I look’d. Then of a suddain it disappear’d in a flash of fire, which made my horse leap out of the way and through me just when I had got to town end.
Abraham Pryme, Diary, 20 March 1696, published 1870.

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. There’s more on the development of early modern English in this overview article, also written by Edmund Weiner, while the OED‘s editor, John Simpson, considers the rise of ‘hard word’ dictionaries in this period.
  2. A growing list of commentaries on English in time, charting historical lexicography from Old English to the modern day, is also available.
  3. Who was the diarist Abraham Pryme (1671-1704)? The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography includes an entry on Pryme and thousands of other people whose words are cited in the OED.

About the OED