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Early Middle English for today

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Spelling principles - in detail

The following is a more detailed discussion of some of the points in the eME spelling scheme. Note that unless specifed otherwise, eME indicates the normalised early East Midland dialect used in this site.

PC2 and Orm accord

A majority of spellings are common to PC2 and Orm. This includes all vowels, except new eME diphthongs, and most consonants. The fact that PC2, like most OE texts, doesn't mark vowels for length, is ignored. eME distinguishes long vowels from their short counterparts, as is the convention with modern editions of OE texts. So, those spellings that emerge from the first step in the normalisation process outlined above are:

a, a_, b, d, e, e_, f, g, h, i, i_, k, l, m, n, o, o_, p, r, s, t, u, u_, x, ae_, ng

where PC2 and Orm don't see eye to eye

When there is conflict beween PC2 and Orm, two options are available:

  1. other spellings are considered, either in PC1, OE or secondary eME sources, or
  2. the contexts in which certain letter (combinations) can represent different sounds, are defined more clearly.

Those conflicting spellings are:

gg|? /dZ`/, wh|w /xw/, cw|qu/cu /kw/, f|v /v/, ch|c /tS`/, sh|sc /S`/, y`h`|ch/g /G``/ /J`/, y`|g/i /j/, ey`|ei/eg /ei/, ay`|aei/aeg /ai/

PC1 stands in for PC2

You won't find anywhere in the PC2 texts, a word which had cg (/dZ`/) in OE. But PC1 has brigge. Fortunately, that's the spelling Orm uses in biggenand egge (OE bycgan, ecg). Equally fortunate is that there is never any distinction in the length of this sound in OE or ME, as there is is with n and nn for example. It began life apparently as a doubled consonant - either /gg/ or /G``G``/, but has been simply /dZ`/ since the mid to late OE period. It's appropriate that PC1 act as proxy for PC2 in regard to spelling, because it is the closely related predecessor to PC1 and a reliable indicator of PC1 spellings, especially where it departs from OE norms. As a clincher, gg is also the spelling used exclusively by Lmn, AW, Owl, SO and Ch. So, the solution to the conflict between PC2 & Orm over the spelling of /dZ`/ is gg.

turning to OE

PC2 uses two different spellings for /cw/ - cu and qu. However, the latter is used only once in quarterne, while the former is used in - cuen, which appears twice in the texts. Orm, on the other hand, has only cw - in i.a. cwarterne cwellen cwemenn cwenkenn. OE resolves the deadlock for cw.

For OE hw (/xw/), PC2 has either w or uu, while Orm uses wh consistently. To resolve the deadlock, we have hw, which presents no potential confusion. It's also used by AW.

PC2 vacillates between u and f for OE f between vowels (/v/), while Orm uses f in all contexts - initial, medial and final. Since context always dictates the pronunciation of OE f, there's no reason we can't use f medially in eME as well. We can be confident that initial and final f are /f/ and medial f is /v/, just as initial s is /s/ and medial s is /z/ in ModE.

Context isn't quite as clear with OE c, sc, g. Potential confusion arises, so we'll shift those on to the next step.

The spellings which emerge from this step are: cw (/kw/), hw (/xw/) and medial f (/v/)

refining (and extending) the context - c, sc, k and g

In Orm, c is always pronounced /k/ and ch is used for /tS`/, while PC2 retains the dual pronunciation of c, which we find in OE. OE c is pronounced either /k/ or /tS`/, depending on the context. Most OE primers will give the readers a general idea of those contexts. Unfortunately, no matter how you state them, there will always be exceptions. This was already an issue in pre-Norman times apparently, since k was introduced in lOE to represent /k/ before i and e where /tS`/ would be expected. The most notable example is king. By the time PC2 was being recorded, this use of k was much more widespread. In fact, the basis of a clear and consistent system had emerged: c was /tS`/ before [e e_ ae_ i i_] and finally, when preceded by [e e_ ae_ i i_] and an optional [l n]. Elsewhere c was /k/. Conversely, k was only used before [e e_ ae_ i i_] to indicate /k/. The rules pertaining to final c were still a little murky and inconsistent in PC2. But with a minor tweak they could be made clear for modern users. So rather than shafting this scheme and moving on to the secondary eME sources for a solution, I propose the following: that final c always be pronounced /tS`/. Consequently, k must be used for any /k/ at the end of a word (including those in compounds). That gives us the eME spellings ce_sen, cae_p, hwilc, ic, king, kin, bo_k.

The rules pertaining to c in eME may seem at first glance, more difficult for the speaker of modern English than simply introducing ch, but in fact they mirror closely the ModE rules for c. c in ModE also changes its pronunciation in front of e and i (to /s/), and is never found at the end of a word as /k/. At the end of word in ModE, /k/ is always represented by k or ck.

It should also be pointed out that final k is not so out of kilter with Orm, PC2 and the secondary eME sources, as it might seem at first. The spelling bok for example, is perhaps more numerous in the examples listed by the MED, than boc. That's because it features in the dative and plural forms - boke bokes. And Ch has bo(o)k in the nominative. The use of final k gives greater consistency in both noun and verb paradigms - bo_k bo_ke bo_kes and scaken sco_k sco_ken scaken than would otherwise be the case: bo_c bo_ke bo_kes and scaken sco_c sco_ken scaken.

Orm has sh for /S`/, while PC2 retains the sc of OE (as does Lmn). OE sc was used almost universally for /S`/, so there's no practical reason not to continue that spelling in eME. As long as we use sk in the few cases where we need to indicate an /sk/ pronunciation - asken, Skotland, sko_l, there will be no confusion.

PC2 has one example of <g> representing a fricative (palatal or velar) /J`/ or /G``/, rather than a plosive /g/ - heglice /heJ`li:tS`@`/, and one example of <gh> in that role - sloghen. More commonly, PC2 has <ch> representing a velar fricative /G``/ (or perhaps palatal /J`/). There are four examples - Burch halechede halechen folecheden. Orm has <y`h`> for /G``/ and /J`/. The deadlock is resolved by OE - g. Context decides how it is pronounced - /g/ at the start of a word, /G``/ elsewhere. OE g also mirrors neatly the behaviour of h, which has two quite distinct sounds - one initial and one medial/final. Note that after front vowels, the latter fricative is actually palatal - /J`/, rather than velar.

In the above cases, in which there is conflict beween PC2 and Orm, the eME spelling is sought by returning to OE but at the same defining more clearly the contexts in which certain letters are used to represent different sounds.

So the spellings which emerge from this step are: c, k, sc, sk, g

A note on alternate schemes: If we allow secondary eME sources, rather than OE, to determine spelling in the case of conflicts between Orm and PC2, then we would have a quite different set of spellings here - ch, k, sch, sc, y`(h). Setting aside for the moment the principle that eME should provide a bridge between ModE and OE, and basing spelling on taste alone, I would still opt for the former rather than the latter. There's something appealing about spellings such as "Englisc", "scip", "hwilc" and "ic", while "Englisch", "schip", "hwilch" (or "whilch") and "ich" strike a slightly discordant note by comparison, perhaps because <sc> for /S`/ and <c> for /tS`/, are unique to past English.

Orm and the secondary eME sources step in

new letter combination ch

Context can't fix all. For occasional /tS`/ before [a a_ o o_ u u_], Orm, backed by most secondary eME sources, provides the following: ch

third sound - new letter y`

In the final case, in which there is conflict beween PC2 and Orm, and OE is unable to provide a solution, the eME spelling is taken from Orm, as its spelling is backed by most secondary eME sources. The spelling that emerges from this step is: y`

It should be pointed out here that y` is not actually a new letter. It is in fact the shape of OE g - used in OE writing for /g/, /j/ and /G``/. g is in fact the newcomer, borrowed from continental Europe for /g/ (in the main). So in a real sense, y` is simpy carrying on, from a long OE tradition.

extending y` to the diphthongs

PC2 has uureide, eie, rachenteges, daeies and saegen. Orm has ey`y` and ay`y` throughout its texts.

There are two ways of broaching the spelling of the diphthongs in eME. Firstly, we could simply see them through OE eyes as ae + g` and e + g` etc, in which case they simply become a + y` and e + y`, by applying both the established OE to ME sound changes and the spelling established thus far. The merging of the long and short vowels in these combinations doesn't affect the choice of the final letter (y`). Thus we arrive at the eME spellings - ey` and ay`.

Or we can look at it this way: the principles for determining eME spelling state that in the event of a conflict between Orm and PC, the OE spelling passes to eME. However, if potential confusion should ensue, we tighten up the context for sound variation, and failing that we look for a solution in Orm and PC2. Well, Orm and PC2 differ, so it's back to OE. OE has aeg` ae_g` eg` e_g` which are merged by late OE (or early eME) sound changes to ag e_g. The use of g is problematic because in the spelling system established thus far, medial g represents /G``/, when in fact we need to indicate something like /I`/. PC2 aei and ei fit the bill, and they match spellings in the secondary eME sources. But a minor tweak is needed to conform with the established spelling for /a/, giving the result - ai and ei.

I prefer the former perspective, for a couple of reasons. A much clearer path to OE is presented by ey` and ay`. Also, verb paradigms are less confused and relations between cognate words are less blurred with a g/y` alternation, rather than g/i. And last but perhaps not least, the beginner has an easier path. He or she doesn't need to conceive of ey` and ay` as a separate "beast". They don't need to create a separate compartment in their heads for diphthongs. They can simply see a + y` and e + y`, just as if they were a + t or e + t.

The spellings that emerge from this step are: ey` and ay`