Iz cpelling enportent?

         Or, who put the “yo” in “u”?


TODAY spellings of common English words are changing for the first time since 1450. (The date roughly used as the start of “modern English” as we know it today.) If nothing else, today’s tweet-speak is demanding an answer: Why is eye pronounced like I—or why do due, you, ewe rhythm?  The mysteries are endless: shoe, true, flew. Then there are letter sounds that change in every word: ear, bear, weather, read. Finally, there are words filled with letters that don’t sound at all: Wednesday. (What a shame it wasn’t spelled, Whensday.)


William Caxton.


William Tyndale.


     “Break the car!  No, no!   I meant brake the car!” 


Part of the blame for all this goes to the Normans who invaded England in 1066 and demanded that the people speak French.  Thanks to the people’s ability to accept a new language without letting go of their own, English survived. Then the Renaissance [a cultural “big bang” in Europe] came and began to fill English with German, Dutch, Latin and Greek words. Actually, there were two “Englishes” by that time. Anglo-Norman was the “English” spoken by kings and nobles. The lower classes and merchants spoke “our” English.  English was so different from Anglo-Norman, that people who spoke both were considered bilingual [able to speak two languages].

    However, the blame for many of our strange English spellings must go too to two Williams!  William Caxton brought the printing press from Europe to London in 1476.  He also brought Belgian typesetters with him [men who wrote out each letter of a book with metal letters for printing]. The workers were paid by the length of each line and so they often added letters to words to make the lines longer. But the strangest spellings are thanks to William Tyndale. Around 1525 he began his translation of the Bible into English. That was bad for kings who wanted people who could not read, write or question their authority. To print his illegal [against the law] Bibles, Tyndale had to print them in Europe using printers who spoke little or no English. They often changed spellings to match their way of pronouncing words. The Dutch put the silent “h” in ghost.  The silent “b” was put in debt out of respect for its Latin original, debitum.

     Perhaps the most important fact about the English language is that it survived two near-deaths by being willing to change. But the importance of spelling depends on why you’re learning English. Do you want to know some of the world’s greatest ideas?  Is beauty important to you?  Do you want your writing to be respected?  If you answered “yes” to just one of those questions, then you need to learn the rich, “modern English” of the 15th century in addition to net-speak.  ATB [All the best].  Mrs.Chips 

     P.S. There is no simple answer for how we arrived at “you”!  It took centuries, the influence of many countries, the printing press and, in the 14th century, a rebellion against having 3 forms of addressing someone: ye, thou, and thee. During the 14th century the three began to melt into one you.  In addition, when the printing press came into being, the typesetting symbol for the “joint letter” th did not exist. Instead, printers used the letter “y” for “th”.  And so, “thou” became “you”. 

 ©InterestEng. July 2013  §  The stories in the magazine portion of the site are written by English language learners. Stories are corrected by a native English speaker.  § Photos are staff or used with permission.  §  To contact us:  go.gently.on@gmail.com