Spelling Reform

By about 1600 the controversy concerning inkhorn terms had largely subsided, although opposition to borrowed words continued for a long time afterwards. As the semantic debate waned, scholarly, attention shifted to the growing interest in spelling reform.

We can make the generalization that English spelling in Late ME was relatively phonetic, for there was a fair measure of correlation between spelling and pronunciation. But in the early portion of the EModE period spelling became quite fluid and largely a matter of individual preference. For example, in Caxton's works the following variants for 'French' occur: frensh, frenssh, frenshe, frensshe, Frensshe, Ffrenshe, Frensshe, Frenshe. Scholarly reaction to such disorder prompted various proposals for the reform of English spelling. There ensued a verbal conflict between the conservatives and the advocates of change. Richard Mulcaster lamented in The First Part of the Elementarie (1582): hereby it commeth to passe, that we both write vnproperlie, not answering the sound of that, which we saie, and ar neuer like our selues, in anie our writing, but still varie according vnto the writers humor, without anie certain direction. Whereupon forenners and strangers do wonder at vs, both for the vncertaintie in our writing, and the inconstancie in our letters. As a remedy for the orthographic confusion in the EModE period, advocates of reform in the last half of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century proposed that English spelling be remodeled along phonetic lines to reflect more accurately contemporary pronunciation. They proposed, for example, such spellings as bras 'brass,' sutl 'subtle,' biznes 'business.' eest 'east,' prisner 'prisoner,' supt 'supped,' telst 'tellest,' and kuriozite' curiosity. In the face of such proposod spellings the scholar Mulcaster voiced a conservative opinion. He favored elimination of the defects in the English spelling system, but not the adoption of a totally new system of spelling, as urged by some writers. He also believed that spelling reform should be based on the authority of popular usage, and that spelling should no more than approximate pronunciation because, "When the age of peple, which now vse the tung so well, is dead and departed there will another succede, and with the peple the tung will alter and change." Edmund Coote, in the English Schoole- Master (1597), also opposed the reform of spelling. Said Coote, "Because it lyeth not in vs to reforme, I wish you rather to obserue the best, and follow that which wee haue, than to labour for innouation which we cannot effect."

Etymological Spellings

The sound advice of Mulcaster and Coote did not deter scholars from remodeling some English words to make them conform to the spelling of their etyma, or earlier forms.

For example the etymological remodelers, as they may be called, succeeded in adding

b to "debt" (ME "det - dette")
in order to make it conform to Latin "debitum", from which the English word was derived through Old French "dette ~ debte".

These are some other examples of scholarly additions of graphemes:
p in "receitp" (ME "receite" from OFr "recete"), to conform to Middle Latin "recepta", fem. past. part. of "recipere".

s in "island" (ME "ilond - eilond"),
to conform by analogy with unrelated "isle" (ME "yle", OFr "isle~ile") from Late Latin "isole" < Latin "insula".

c in "indict" (ME. "endyten - indite - indght", O Fr "enditer"),
to conform with Latin "in+dictare".

Fixation of Spelling

Although such etymological spellings remain in English, most of the other changes advocated by EModE scholars in the spelling reform movement (c. 1550- c. 1650) did not come into general use. The majority of spelling changes that actually were adopted were determined bv correctors, that is proofreaders and editors who sought to spell the samc word morc or less uniformly in texts produced from their presses As a result of their conservative efforts, influenced mainly by Late ME SEM forms, there emerged bny c. 1650 a system of English spelling which became standardized, with relativelv few exceptions, in the following century through the additional requlatory influence of dictionaries. Since that time English spelling has been more or less fixed. Thus, the discrepancies between the way we currently pronounce and spell words may be attributed, in large mtasure, to the fact that our spelling, mostly inherited from Late ME has remained more or less fixed since ca. 1650, unlike the pronunciation of those Late ME words. For example we spell knight just as it was spelled in the Late ME period, but today we pronounce it nait instead of kniÁt as in the ME period.