Stephen Fry’s BBC radio series on the English language have provided some fascinating background to the development of English in this country and around the world. What particularly interested me was how English came to have such a simple grammar but such a confusing spelling system – in fact, it hardly seems that there’s a system at all. The grammar was simplified many centuries ago to help the Norman French who were ruling the country and needed to understand the locals. At that time, English looked like this:
Eadward forðferde on Twelfts mæsse æfen 7 hine mann bebyrgede on Twelftan mæssedæg innan þære niwa halgodre circean on Westmyntre 7 Harold eorl feng to Englalandes cynerice swa swa se cyng hit him geuðe 7 eac men hine þærto gecuron 7 wæs gebletsod to cynge on Twelftan mæssedæg 7 þa ylcan geare þe he cyng wæs he for ut mid sciphere togeanes Willelme (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)
It was related to German and had a similar system of grammar. So we certainly have something to thank the Normans for!
But the spelling after the reform was a bit haphazard and there were no hard and fast rules. In Shakespeare’s time, people spelt the playwright’s name in all sorts of different ways. So if you remember your English teacher at school telling you off for forgetting the “e” at the end of Shakespeare’s name, you could have said to him or her: “But that’s how they spelt it in his lifetime!” Unless you’re still at school, it’s perhaps a bit late to be thinking along these lines though. Time to move on…
David Crystal, an expert on the development of English, explained on one programme how different spellings came to be adopted and fixed as “the correct spelling”. There are a number of reasons why we have such a range of different spellings today, like the infamous “-ough” that can be pronounced so many ways depending on the word. Apparently, William Caxton, pioneer of printing in this country, was one of the culprits – because he used typesetters from the Netherlands, who thought we should spell things the Dutch way.
According to Fowler’s English Usage, we also owe some of our spellings to French influences – the “-ise” ending on so many words, like “organise” is how the French would do it. The Oxford English Dictionary always used to spell such words with an “-ize” ending – something that many people in Britain think is American. The latest version of the dictionary offers “organise” only as an alternative to “organize”. Collins dictionary does the same thing, although Chambers has it the other way round.
With the advent of mobile phones and texting, so-called TextSpeak appeared. I remember hearing discussion (in a pub) between people who confidently stated that the old ways of spelling, or even worrying about spelling, were gone and that English now needed to be completely changed – rationalised because of this new mode of communication. But now we have smart phones that correct your spelling as you go along, and hence don’t tolerate TextSpeak. Now you may really feel that you don’t have to worry about spelling any longer because your phone is there to help (but you need to be aware of what you’re writing as your phone is not a mind reader and will sometimes assume a word or phrase that you hadn’t meant at all – this can be misleading or even embarrassing).
I attempted to join the TextSpeak generation a few years ago when on holiday in Tunisia. I sent a message back to my family in England saying that I was relaxing on the beach, reading a book: “RDNG A BK”. My family were surprised to hear that I was riding a bike on the beach.