Spelling Conventions in Un-Modernized Medieval Texts

 

            Modern English spelling was regularlized by English printers in the two centuries after William Caxton introduced movable type printing to the country in 1475.  Medieval scribes used variable spellings to help them minimize the amount of vellum or paper they used, by squeezing more words into every line they wrote.  Printers, when setting lines of type for mass-produced pages, had to know for certain how many characters every word in the language would use up.  First, they had only a limited number of each character in their type fonts, so they did not want to compose more pages ahead then they had characters to fill them.  Also, they had to be able to compute, before setting any type at all, how many pages the completed lines of set type would take up, because they had to order enough paper for the whole edition in advance of setting the type.  Hence, they ordained particular spelling for every word, and “correct spelling” became a test for literacy that replaced accurate reading of a set text.  In doing so, printers also eliminated three Middle English characters by replacing them with combinations of other characters to make the modern “th,” “y,” and “gh” spellings.

            Modern editors of medieval manuscript texts typically modernize spellings of words that survived from Middle to Modern English.  Words that did not survive typically also are phonetically transcribed to sound like Modern English words.  The effect is dangerous, though, because surviving Modern English versions of Middle English words often have changed their range of meanings (e.g., “nyce” = silly, simple-minded, not serious, rather than “nice”).  Middle English words that have not survived, once they are transcribed into Modern English spellings, can seem falsely familiar.  Accept the strangeness.  Embrace it.  That is the key to learning the language and literature of Pre-Modern English.

 

Three Lost Characters in the Middle English Alphabet

 

Ž, ž = Capital and small “thorn,” replaced in Mod.E. by “th”: že is “the” and žat is “that.”

Š, š = Capital and small “edth,” also replaced in Mod.E. by “th” within or at the ends of words: Š as "th" is rare in Middle English manuscripts, but  boš is “both”

3, 3 = Capital and small “yough,” replaced in Mod.E. by “Y” if at the start of a word and by the Germanic guttural “gh” if inside or at the end of a word: 3e is “Ye” and enou3 is “enough.”  [Note: in this example, "Ye" would be the nominative plural form of the pronoun "thou," as when Malory's Launcelot tells his brothers, "My fayre felawes wete ye wel that I will torne vnto kynge Arthurs party" [e.g., Hey guys, you should know that I'm going to change sides and join Arthur's allies."].  The Middle English scribal abbreviation "ye" in a noun phrase, as in "ye ale house," is a modern printer's substitution for the scribes' abbreviation of article "the" [e.g., "the ale house"] and it was never pronounced "yee."]

 

Typical Scribal Spelling Conventions

 

            Scribes almost always used the “v” where Mod.E. spellers would use a “u” and they almost always the “u” where Mod.E. spellers would use a “v”: “vse” is Mod.E. “use,” and “vpon” is Mod.E. “upon.”

            Scribes almost always used “y” for “i””: “y” is “I” and “ys” is “is.