The Spelling of English: Carved in Stone?

Why does the spelling of English seem so illogical? Surely, every one of us who has learned to write the language must have asked ourselves (or someone else) that question at some point. There are many other languages where the very idea of writing words in a way that doesn’t represent their sounds would seem utterly pointless, so why is this considered not merely acceptable, but correct, in English?

Part of the answer is that early writers took to writing the language using an alphabet that didn’t contain symbols for several sounds that already existed in spoken English. The details of this process are complex, and are excellently covered in The History of English Spelling (Christopher Upward).

As a teenager, I stumbled across an astonishing example of early English writing that not only illustrates a now-extinct solution to the problem of English spelling, but also documents some momentous times in England’s history.

The Hidden Sundial
In a secluded rural valley near the town where I was born, in Northern England, there’s a plain and unassuming little church, called St. Gregory’s Minster. The image below, from my most recent visit, shows the building from the South.

View of St. Gregory's Minster, Ryedale
St. Gregory’s Minster, Ryedale, from the South

By an accident of history, an inscription that had been carved into the church’s wall when it was built has been preserved to this day. Based on its content, it’s possible to date the inscription quite accurately.

The inscription is on a lintel above the doorway in the church’s south wall, and it originally formed the surrounding of a sundial above the door. A porch was built onto the doorway at some later date, and plaster was applied to the walls inside the porch. The inscription was thus covered up until 1771, when it was rediscovered, in remarkably good condition. The image below, of the complete inscription, is enhanced to make the characters easier to read.

St. Gregory's Minster, Inscription on Sundial
The Complete Inscription

Deciphering the Message
The text is, to our eyes, very difficult to decipher, partly because there are no spaces between words. With spaces restored, and with the character forms converted to more modern equivalents, the main text actually reads like this.

Inscription Main Text in Modern Characters
The Main Text, using Modern Characters

This is indeed a form of English, but there was no “Standard English” at the time of its writing. Since the departure of the Romans, what is now England had been divided into separate kingdoms, each of which spoke their own dialect. At that time, the various kingdoms had only recently become federated, under the leadership of Alfred the Great. The inscription is written in the Northumbrian dialect of Old English, and uses abbreviations and letters that are absent from the modern language. Translated into modern English, the main text says;

Orm Gamalson bought St. Gregory’s Minster when it was all broken and fallen down, and he had it made anew to Christ and St. Gregory, in the days of King Edward and in the days of Earl Tostig

The names of King Edward, and Earl Tostig provide the clues as to the date of the inscription. Earl Tostig ruled Northumbria between 1055 and 1065, and King Edward (Edward the Confessor) ruled England as a whole from 1042 to 1066. Hence the inscription can be dated to between 1055-65.

Spelling of English: Northumbrian Spelling Conventions
Most people are aware that the character set that we now use to write English was derived from the Roman alphabet, but may not realize that our language was not originally written in that alphabet.

The earliest English language was written using an alphabet called “runes”. The Roman alphabet was introduced into Britain between about 40 and 400 CE, during the Roman occupation of the territory. The Romans left behind Christian churches with a tradition of speaking Latin, and writing using the Roman alphabet. Around 700 CE, church historians opted to start writing the English language using Roman letters, instead of runes.

When English was written using runes, there was one letter for each sound, and the spelling of English was always phonetic and logical. Unfortunately, however, not all the sounds of the English language could be represented by the Roman letters. For example, the Roman alphabet offered no way to represent the English “th” sound, or the English “w” sound.

Two different solutions to these problems arose. One solution, which is now extinct, probably originated at Lindisfarne, in Northumbria. The inscription at St. Gregory’s Minster is written using this Northumbrian method, which involved the retention of the runic symbols for the English sounds that the Roman alphabet could not represent. For example, the rune thorn, which looks like a “p” with a small projection, was used for the “th” sound, and the rune wynn (which, unfortunately, also looks like a “p”) was used for the “w” sound. It isn’t difficult to guess why this system might have fallen from favor — the shapes of thorn, wynn and ‘p’ are all confusingly similar to each other. As a partial solution to this problem, the letter thorn was frequently replaced by a symbol consisting of a ‘d’ with a cross through it, called edh (as is still used in modern Icelandic).

Spelling of English: Wessex Spelling Conventions
The alternate method of representing these sounds came from Wessex, in what’s now Southern England. The Wessex method substituted two-letter combinations, such as “t.h.” for the “th” sound, and “u.u.” for the “w” sound. As we all know, it was the Wessex method that eventually prevailed.

Soon after the inscription was written, in 1066, the king mentioned in the inscription, Edward the Confessor, died, and battles erupted between the claimants to the English throne. Seeking revenge, Tostig teamed up with the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, and together they invaded England from the North. Their invasion was repulsed and defeated by a resident claimant, Harold Godwinson (who happened to be Tostig’s brother), but a third claimant, William of Normandy, took advantage of Harold’s absence in the North, by mounting his own invasion from France. As is now well-known, William defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings, and the Norman victory simply terminated the line of the Old English monarchy.

Spelling of English: English Goes Underground
In order to consolidate his power, William dispossessed all the English earls, and changed the official language of his kingdom to an old version of French. As a result, the English language went “underground” for a couple of centuries. For several hundred years, English existed as an unofficial vernacular language, which meant that many of its speakers were illiterate. This created a situation where sound changes in the spoken tongue were not reflected in the written language, which contributed further to the dephoneticization of English spelling that had commenced with the changeover from the runic alphabet.

When it finally re-emerged, English had been forever changed by its contact with French, having metamorphosed into a language much more recognizable to us.