Posted by: Jack Henry | March 15, 2018

Editor’s Corner: The History of English Spelling

I recently read some articles about the history of English spelling (I’ve provided a list of the articles below, in case you’re interested). I’ve condensed the information for you here, but it’s still a little lengthy. So, be forewarned—this post is a little longer and denser than usual. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

Not surprisingly, before printed publications, people who knew how to write spelled words according to how the words sounded. So, words were spelled differently depending on a person’s accent and depending on where a person lived. Printing in the 15th century added to spelling irregularity because many of the printers were not native English speakers, and they included a lot of misspelled words in their publications. And along with the accidental misspellings, printers also often lengthened words because they were paid according to the number of lines they printed. For example, they changed frend to friend, hed to head, and shal to shall, etc. These spelling changes led to confusion and to many of our irregularly spelled words.

By the end of the 16th century, a lot of people were calling for more controlled spelling. The first person to write a book of “correct” spelling was an English headmaster named Richard Mulcaster, who is often regarded as the founder of English language lexicography. The name of his book is The First Part of the Elementarie. It was written in 1582 and contained only about 8,000 words. He was not interested in reforming spelling, he merely wanted to standardize it.

Quite a bit later, in 1755, English writer Samuel Johnson created a dictionary that had a huge influence on the English-speaking world. When deciding how to spell a word in his dictionary, he chose the most common spelling—a decision that contributed to the English language’s wide variation in spelling rules.

Surprisingly, since Johnson’s dictionary, there have been only minor changes in how we spell words, but the changes have been many (for example, the omission of the letter k in words like panick and frantick).

Here in the United States, some of our forefathers were interested in spelling reform, but the biggest influence in the United States was Noah Webster who created the American standard of English we use today. He published his first dictionary (the precursor of the Merriam-Webster dictionary) in 1806.

Minor differences remain in the way people from the United States and people from the United Kingdom spell some words (color/colour, center/centre, check/cheque, specialize/specialise), but the differences are relatively few and don’t lead to confusion.

All this information helps to explain why spelling can be so difficult for so many of us. However, spell check and our easy access to online dictionaries pretty much negates any excuses for misspellings these days. And I’m here to tell you, people are a lot less forgiving than they were in the 16th century.

Someone posted this message on a neighborhood website:

And the writer got this response: “Please take an English class when you get there.”


A Brief History of English Spelling

The Standardization of American English

A Brief History of English Spelling Reform

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Ext: 765432

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