English Consonants and Vowels
The English Spelling
The original (Old) English writing system (of about 1000 A.D.) had a very good correspondence between sound and written symbol. However, following the Norman Conquest of 1066, French-speaking scribes began writing English; they introduced French spelling conventions as well as hundreds of French words which did not follow the English sound/symbol correspondence. For example, in Old English, the sound /s/ was always spelled s, but in French it could also be spelled c as in circle (and note the c could also represent the /k/ sound in native words like catch). Furthermore, spelling conventions were quite fluid, and spelling varied according to region and even individual scribe. Spelling became fixed after the introduction of the printing press to England in the late fifteenth century, when it became necessary to have a consistent system of spelling to use in printed books that would be disseminated throughout the country and hence must be decipherable by all. The disadvantage of fixed spelling, however, is that sound changes that occur subsequent to the fixing of the spelling are not recorded in the orthography. For example, the loss of “g” in gnash, of “k” in knot, of “b” in dumb, of “t” in castle, listen, or of “gh” in cough occurred after the fifteenth century, so that the now silent consonants are preserved in the spelling; the coalescing of different short vowels before “r” (to /ɝ/), as in bird, turn, serve, or the split of “u” into two sounds, as in full /ʊ/or cut /ʌ/ also occurred after the fifteenth century, so that either the same sounds are spelled differently or different sounds are spelled the same. More importantly, a major change – called the Great Vowel Shift – affected all of the long stressed vowels in English from the beginning in the fifteenth century; this change ultimately altered the pronunciation of the sounds represented orthographically by i (as in time), e (as in meet), o (as in noon), a (as in name), and others, so that these letters are no longer pronounced in English as they are in the other European languages.
There was also a deliberate respelling of certain words in the Renaissance to reflect their Latin and Greek origins. This introduced letters into words which are not pronounced, as with the h in honor and hour or the b in debt and doubt. Look the following words up in a desk-top (not paperback) dictionary. Compare their earlier form (given in the etymological section, usually at the end of the word entry) with their modern spelling. What change(s) have been made in the spelling? In some cases we now pronounce the added letter using a “spelling pronunciation”, where words are pronounced as they are spelled rather than as they should be according to their historical development, for example, pronouncing the t in often or the h in host and habit. This of course has the effect of bringing the orthography more in line with the pronunciation. Indicate these cases.
The Middle English form is asma. The addition of “th” has not changed the pronunciation.
The Middle English form is sotil. The addition of “b” has not changed the pronunciation.
The Old French form is erba. The added “h” is pronounced by some speakers by a spelling pronunciation, but not by others.
The Old French form is neveu. The replacement of “v” by “ph” has not changed the pronunciation.
The Middle English form is autentik. The replacement of “t” by “th” has changed the pronunciation.
The Middle English form is ortografie. The replacement of “t” by “th” has changed the pronunciation, but the replacement of “f” by “ph” has not changed the pronunciation.
The Middle English form is artic. The added “c” is pronounced by some speakers, but not by others.
The Middle English form is verdit. The addition of “c” has changed the pronunciation.
The Middle English form is receit. The addition of “p” has not changed the pronunciation.
The French form is banqueroute. The addition of “p” has changed the pronunciation.