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Writings in Middle English
CHANGES IN THE SPELLING SYSTEM
During several centuries after the Norman conquest the business of writing was in the hands of French scribes. They introduced into English some peculiarities of French graphic habits. Traces of French traditions in writing have stayed on in English to the present day.
First of all we must note some changes in the alphabet. Several letters typical of OE gradually came out of use, and some new ones were introduced: The alphabet of the 14th century is basically the same that is in use in our days.
The letter , which was used in OE to denote several distinct consonant phonemes is gradually replaced by the letters g and y. Thus, OE now appears as god, and the OE as .
The ligature also comes into disuse in ME. This change accompanies the phonetic change of short into a , and that of long into e.
The new letters introduced during the ME period are all consonantal. The letter g (as hinted above) is introduced to denote the sound [ ] as in god and also, the sound [ ] as in singe
The sound [ ] is also denoted (in words of French origin) by the letter j, as in joy, judge, June.
The letter v is introduced to denote the consonant [v], which in ME became a separate phoneme. However, this letter soon came to be treated as an allograph of the letter 11, which had been in use since the earliest OE times. The allographs u and v became interchangeable. Thus, we can find the "following spellings in ME MSS: over, ouer; use, vse; love, loue, etc.
The letter q, always accompanied by, is introduced to denote either the consonant [k], as in quay, or the cluster [kw], as in quarter or queen. In the latter case it replaces OE cw.
The letter z is introduced to denote the consonant [z], which in ME became a separate phoneme. However, the letter z is not used systematically, it does appear m such words as zel 'zeal', Zephyrus, 'Zephir', but the sound [z] is still spelt s in chesen 'choose', losen 'lose' and in many others.
289. Next we come to changes in spelling habits. In the sphere of vowels French influence made itself felt in the following points:
1. The sound [u:], which was represented by the letter u in Old English, came to be spelt ou, the way it was spelt in French. This French spelling was due to the fact that in Old French the diphthong [ou] had changed into [u:] but the spelling had remained the same. From borrowed French words such as trouble, couch, this spelling was transferred to native English words: hous (OE has); out (OE ut); loud (OE hind), etc. In final position, and occasionally in medial position as well, instead of ou the spelling ow was introduced: cow (OE cu); how(OE hu); down (OE dun), etc.
2. The vowel [u] is often represented by the letter o. In many modern grammars this o is accompanied by a tack: o. This spelling is probably partly due to graphic considerations. The letter o denoting [u] is found mainly in the neighbourhood of such letters as u (v), n, in, that is, letters consisting of vertical strokes. A long series of vertical strokes might be confusing: thus, it might be hard to distinguish between cume, cmue, cimie, etc. Replacing u by o would avoid this difficulty.
Another factor favouring the introduction of the letter o to denote [u] might be the narrow quality of Anglo-Norman [o], which was close to [u]. Examples: come ['kuina] (OE cuman), som [sum] (OE sum), sone ['suna] (OE sunn), love ['luva] (OE luju), bigonne [bi'guna] (OE onjunnen - second participle of the verb ).
3. The vowel [e:] is sometimes denoted by the digraph ie. In Old French this digraph had originally denoted the diphthong [ie], which in Anglo-Norman changed into [e] in the 12th century, the spelling remaining the same.
From French loan words like chief [t e:f], relief [re'le:f] this spelling penetrated into native English words like field [fe:ld] (OE feld), thief [0e:f] (OE of), lief [le:f] (OE leof).
4. To denote the vowel [u] in the dialects where it was preserved the letter u was used, as in fur 'fire' (OE fyr).
In the sphere of consonants French spelling also had some influence.
1. The spellings and for the sounds [ ] and [ ] were gradually superseded by the digraph th: this for OE is, three for OE .
2. For the consonant [v], which had been a mere positional variant of the [f] phoneme in OE and which in ME became a separate phoneme, the letter v was introduced. As v was considered to be merely an allograph of u, both allographs could be used indiscriminately: over, ouer (OE ofcr), love, lone (OE lufu); in French words: very, avengen.
3. The affricate [ ] was denoted by the digraph ch: from such French loan words as chair, chambre it penetrated into native English words: lechen 'teach', child, etc. The corresponding voiced affricate [ ] was spelt in the French way either j, g, or dg: courage, joy, bridge.
4. The consonant [ ] was spelt sh and sometimes sch: ship, schip, shal, schal.
5. The consonant [ ] was first spelt , and later gh: li t, light, nisi, night, ri t, right, brou ts, broughte.
6. The letter c when denoting the consonant [k] was replaced by the letter k before e, i, and also before n: drinken (OE drincan), king (OE cyninj), knowen (OE cndwan). This was due to the fact that the letter c before e or i would suggest the pronunciation [s]. It should be noted that the letter was widely used in Old French, for example in the pronoun ki 'who' (Modern French spelling qui).
7. The cluster [kw] was spelt qu instead of Old English cw, as in quellen 'kill' (OE cwellan), quethen 'say' (OE cwepan).
8. The consonant [j], which in Old English was spelt , now came to be spelt y: yer 'year' (OE ear), yet (OE iet), ye 'you' (OE e).
Besides these features, due to French influence, ME spelling has some more peculiarities, which have partly been preserved down to the present day.
It became a habit in ME to replace final -i by -y. The motive was purely graphic, y being more ornamental than i, and eventually this became one of the most characteristic features of English spelling. In MnE there are only a few words ending in -i: rabbi, taxi, and a few plural forms of Latin words, such as bacilli and genii. The letter y was also often used instead of i in medium position: ryden (OE ridan), wryten (OE writan). This habit did not survive.
Similarly, the letter u when final was replaced by w, which was more ornamental. Again, words ending in -u in MnE are very few: you, thou, gnu, emu.
The use of ou and ow to denote long [u:] resulted in ambiguity, which is still felt in English spelling. The digraph ow could also denote the diphthong [ou]. When it came to be used for [u:], the result was two series of words: one with[ou]: slow, snow, crow, low, the other with [u:]: cow, now, down.
On the whole ME spelling is far frorn uniform. Purely phonetic spellings mix with French spelling habits and also with traditions inherited from OE. Besides, there are differences between dialects in this respect, too.
In the period following the Norman conquest the same dialects continue to develop which existed in OE. But according to a tradition now firmly established, they are given new names. The Northumbrian dialect is now called Northern, Mercian is called Midland, and West Saxon and Kentish are united under the name of Southern. The boundary between Northern and Midland runs along the Humber, that between Midland and Southern is close to the Thames.
The Midland dialect is subdivided into West Midland and East Midland.
The dialect of London combines East Midland and Southern features.
We shall first give a short list of the main ME documents classified according to dialects, and then we shall give a brief characteristic of ME writings.
The main ME documents belong