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Normalisation 4: spelling

the principles underlying the normalisation of spelling in the East Midland dialect c 1150

As with the vocabulary and grammar, the spelling of eME should reflect the spelling of the East Midland dialect circa 1150, as closely as possible, but at the same time be free of any inconsistency or confusion. The spelling of eME should make the task of learning and using the language, as easy as possible.

The spelling is based on PC2 and Orm. Where those two differ, OE decides. That is the first of the two basic principles which underlie the normalisation of spelling in eME. The concept of eME as a bridge between modern and Old English is fundamental. The second basic principle is clarity.

The sounds of eME are those of the East Midland dialect circa 1150. Changes that took place after 1200 in the East Midlands or had only just begun there, are not reflected. For example, long open back a__ /A`:/ had not yet become long half-open back o` /O`:/, and in stressed open syllables in disyllabic words, a and e had not yet been lengthened to open front a` /a:/ and ae /E`:/ respectively.

The process of normalising eME spelling is represented graphically in table V - ME spelling variations. I've also set out the five steps below.

The spelling of eME is determined as follows:

  1. wherever PC2 and Orm use the same letter (or combination of letters) to represent a particular sound, that spelling passes into eME;
  2. where PC2 (or PC1) and Orm have no common letter (or combination of letters) to represent a particular sound, the OE spelling is adopted; see table V;
  3. if a letter (or combination of letters) represents more than one sound, and there is the potential for confusion, we need to clearly define the contexts in which that letter (or combination of letters) should be used to represent those different sounds;
  4. if context is not able to resolve all potential points of confusion (using the letters or letter combinations admitted thus far), and either PC2 or Orm offers a solution, that PC2 or Orm spelling is adopted; if both Orm and PC2 offer a solution, the spelling which is closest to the OE spelling, is adopted; if neither Orm nor PC2 offer a practical solution, but OE does, the OE spelling is retained.

I've also taken these three principles into consideration. All other things being equal, the best spelling for a given sound is that which:

  1. consists of a single letter
  2. does not require a diacritic
  3. is based on a simple rule

PC2 and Orm accord

PC2 and Orm use the same letter or combination of letters to represent the same sound, in the following cases:

  1. long vowels a, e, i, o, u, ae /a: e: i: o: u: E`:/ are unmarked in both Orm & PC2; < a_ e_ i_ o_ u_
  2. simple consonants (no variation for context): b, d, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, x
  3. c /k/ - before back vowels /a o u/
  4. f /f/ - initial or final or before an unvoiced consonant
  5. g /g/ - initial
  6. h /h/ - initial
  7. h /x/ or /C``/ - medial or final
  8. k /k/ - before front vowels /e i/
  9. t` /T``/ - initial or final, /d`/ - medial

where PC2 and Orm don't see eye to eye

PC2 and Orm use a different letter or combination of letters to represent the same sound, in the following cases. The Orm spelling is given first, followed by the PC2 spelling, then the pronunciation and finally the OE spelling (from modern transcriptions):

  1. gg - ? - /dZ`/ < c`g`
  2. wh - w - /xw/ < hw
  3. cw - qu/cu - /kw/ < cw
  4. f - v - /v/ - between vowels, with or without a liquid (/l r/), or before a voiced consonant; < f
  5. short vowels a, e, i, o, u /a E` I` O` u/ - the following consonant is doubled in Orm, but there is no indication in PC2
  6. ch - c - /tS`/ < c`
  7. sh - sc - /S`/< sc`
  8. y%h` - ch/g - /G``/ - medial (between a back vowel and /@`/, with or without a liquid)1; < g
  9. y% - g/i - /j/ - all positions (but often next to a front vowel, with or without a liquid); < g`
  10. ay% - aei/aeg - /aj/ or /ai/ < aeg`
  11. ey% - ei/eg - /ej/ or /ei/ < eg`/e_g`/ae_g`
  12. iy% - i - /ij/ or /i:/ < ig`/i_g`
  13. ch - c? - /tS`/ - before back vowels /a o u/; < c` (lOE c`afl c`alc)
  14. sk - ? - /sk/ - < sc (only sco_l, Scottas)

Resolving the differences

The approach taken is that described in the five steps above. In a nutshell, the final spelling scheme requires a bit of OE and Orm and a pinch of artistic licence.

I'll deal with the numbered items above in order, grouped according to the source of the chosen spelling.

the gg - /dZ`/ conundrum

Most eME sources use gg to represent /dZ`/. Lmn, AW, Owl, SO and Ch all use that digraph for that purpose. PC2 has no instances of this sound. PC1 does have at least one instance however, also using gg. The author of Orm uses a similar digraph but in his script the continental <g> which represents /dZ`/ is distinct from the continental <g> with top bar which he uses to represent /g/2.

That said, the chief problem with gg is that it is potentially confusing. eME contains words which need that digraph for /gg/ - dogge, frogge, hagge, hogge, pigge, stagge, wigglen i.a. Using Orm's top-barred continental <g> for this latter doubled sound isn't practical. A related letter such as the IPA's <Z``> could be employed for the post-alveolar plosive (affricate) - /dZ`/, but that approach strikes me as perhaps a bigger departure from both OE - c`g` and ModE - dg than the OE spelling itself. Thus this site uses the digraph <cy%> for /dZ`/, note - with insular <y%>, which aligns well with <y%> for palatal /j/.

turning to OE

OE provides the following spellings which present no potential confusion. eME sources with similar spellings are indicated:

  1. cy% - /dZ`/
  2. hw - /xw/ - AW
  3. cw - /kw/ - Orm, AW
  4. f - /v/ - Orm - between vowels, with or without a liquid (/l r/), or before a voiced consonant
  5. a__ e__ i__ o__ u__ - /a: e: i: o: u:/

The use of macrons to mark long vowels is a convention of modern editions of OE texts. OE scribes only used diacritics occasionally. Note also that Orm's doubling of the following consonant to indicate a long vowel was not only unique, but also obscured the genuine doubling of certain cononsants which persisted until Chaucer's day. I use an acute accent rather than a macron to indicate vowel length in this site, because it seems slightly less intrusive to me.

sorting out c, k, y%, g, sc and sk - part 1

OE also provides the following spellings, which do present potential confusion. Again eME sources with similar spellings are indicated:

  1. c - /tS`/ - PC2, Lmn - before front vowels /E`: e i/ (ae e i);
  2. sc - /S`/ - PC2, Lmn - all positions;
  3. g - /G``/ - medial (between a back vowel and /@`/, with or without a liquid)1

The potential confusion arises because each of the spellings above, represented two or more sounds, which were allophones in OE and eME, but are no longer allophones in ModE. We can avoid the potential confusion, either by defining clearly the context in which each letter (or combination of letters) represents a particular sound, or by using a separate spelling. At the end of each spelling given here, I briefly describe that context, if one is relevant. Note - this is the first part of the process of removing any potential confusion. I'll deal with this further in the next two sections.

Orm steps in

sorting out c, k, y%, g, sc and sk - part 2

In the spelling scheme that has emerged thus far, <g> already stands for two different sounds (see above). For a third sound - /j/, context is not a reliable predicter. OE's g cannot be used to represent this sound without a distinguishing dot. Both Orm and PC2 provide a different solution. However, the Orm spellings are closer to the OE precedents:

  1. y%/y` - /j/ - Orm, Lmn, AW, Owl, PH3, SO - all positions (but often next to a front vowel, with or without a liquid /l r/);
  2. ay% /aj/ or /ai/ - Orm - all positions;
  3. ey% /ej/ or /ei/ - Orm - all positions;
  4. iy% /ij/ or /i:/ - Orm - all positions;

Thus far, we've dealt with /tS`/ before front vowels and /S`/ in all positions. But we haven't accounted yet for /tS`/ before back vowels, nor for /sk/. To fill the gap, Orm provides the following:

  1. ch - /tS`/ - Orm, Lmn, AW, Ch - before back vowels /a o u/;
  2. sk /sk/ - Orm, AW, Ch - all positions;

ch only affects four words - chusen ichosen.

sk - the spelling and the sound /sk/, is also rare and is confined to borrowings from Latin, Old Norse and later - Middle Dutch (and/or Old French). Orm was not alone in using sk. AW also made use of it in skile. Orm used sk before /a/ in skat`en (eME scat`en). Ch also had skatere (in addition to scatered). I've extended that usage to the four cases where sk is needed before a back vowel or consonant to clearly indicate the sound /sk/ rather than/S`/ - Skot, sko__l skre__cen, skracen. Perhaps that should be considered artistic licence, which brings me to the next section.

artistic licence

sorting out c, k, y%, g, sc and sk - part 3

All that remains to be resolved is /tS`/ at the end of a word.

There are a couple of solutions here. I could employ the digraph ch, which we've already tapped for /tS`/ before back vowels.

However, there are a few factors working against that choice. Consider nouns that end in /tS`/ - braec /brE`:tS`/ for example. This has genitive and plural forms that add <es> to the root. If we were to spell the nominative form with ch - braech, it would then diverge from the genitive and plural forms - braeces3, which don't need the digraph to indicate the /tS`/ sound. The same would be true of a verb such as se__cen which has a singular imperative se__c

The complement of ch for /tS`/ at the end of a word, is c for /k/ at the end of a word. And while the latter was the usual spelling for word-final /k/ until the late 1300s, it has a similar issue - the converse issue in fact. An adjective with final /k/, e.g. - se__k , spelled as se__c would have to change to se__ke when used with t`e or a demonstrative or a possessive or a plural noun.

To avoid switching the root-final consonant, you would need to use either ch or dotted c` for all instances of /tS`/, and then c for all instances of /k/.

Or - if you prefer a solution without digraphs or diacritics, you could go with the following system:

  1. c - /tS`/ - PC2, Lmn - at the end of a word;
  2. k - /k/ - Ch - at the end of a word;

It involves a bit of artistic licence - extending the eME use of k, or co-opting Chaucerian practice. Nevertheless, since that approach aligns with the principles I set out above, that is the default spelling I've adopted for word-final /tS`/ and /k/.

The result is a set of simple, consistent spelling rules which are easy to remember.

c, k, y%, g, sc and sk - sorted

A brief pronunciation guide for this group of spellings is as follows:

For the full pronunciation guide, see sounds and spelling.

Miscellaneous spelling notes

Several alternate spellings are offered for all texts. There is even a description of the principles behind one alternate scheme. However the eME spelling as described above, is the default option. A more detailed discussion of the principles behind the eME spelling is available.

The character of eME

How should eME - the normalised East Midland dialect (c 1150 AD) used in englesaxe (eME), be characterised? Which does it resemble more closely - Orm or PC2?

On the page (or screen), at first glance, eME looks more like PC2. Orm is unique in its use of doubled consonants to indicate short vowels, and these doubled consonants tend to draw the eye. On the other hand, eME uses the letter y%, which is found in Orm and developed into yogh - y`, which is used in all secondary sources except PC2. Since the fallback for spelling conflicts between PC2 and Orm is the spelling closest to OE, eME leans on the conservative side. For example, g for /G``/ (PC2) and f for /v/ (Orm) are rare in late 12th and early 13th century texts. Nevertheless, conservative (OE) spellings are found in other contemporary sources. Lmn has c for /tS`/ and sc for /S`/, while AW has both cw and hw.

To the ear, eME should be very close to the speech of Peterborough (central Midlands - where PC2 was written), and thus closer to the general traits of East Midland, than would be Orm, if read aloud by its author. Orm had some peculiarities usually associated with the Northern dialect but apparently also found in the north Midlands, e.g. final /k/ rather than /tS`/ in places.

The lexicon of eME is conservative, with few French loanwords, and in that respect resembles Orm and Lmn rather than PC2. The core grammar on the other hand, is progressive, avoiding altogether dual stems in the preterite of class 4 and 5 strong verbs as well as traces of the case system in the indefinite article, which crop up on occasion in Orm. On that count eME is closer to PC2.

More on normalisation

Looking for more background on the normalisation of the East Midland dialect c 1150, in englesaxe? For an outline of the basic principles applied to the normalisation of eME word forms, together with a list of the abbreviations and definitions used, see normalisation 1: principles. For examples of the principles in action - eME forms (eME changes applied to standard OE forms) and additional eME forms, see normalisation 2: additional eME forms. For a discussion of levelling within eME paradigms, see normalisation 3: grammar. For a discussion of some of the finer points, see normalisation 5: issues.


  1. also found (rarely) after a front vowel, where it is a palatal fricative /J`/, rather than velar /G``/
  2. See Orrm's alphabetic innovation
  3. and in the optional grammar, the dative form braece