Middle English Spelling


Looks very different from OE, but this doesnt always reflect sound changes



to, to



tooth to(o)th(e)






Different appearance

       collapse of WS standard

       development of local traditions (e.g. the Ancrene Riwle MSS)

       influence of French conventions


During ME, very variable:

       have a look at the spellings of might on page 40 of Crystal: maht mahte mihte mihhte mist mithe mouthe myhte micht


After ME, by the time of the Great Vowel Shift, spelling was sufficiently well established for it not to reflect sound change


A fairly user-friendly topic

       just some highlights reflecting big things

       OED has entries under each letter (e.g. v) or digraph (e.g. wh)


Not all spelling changes reflected sound changes

       OE sum -> ME some (a matter of minims!): /ʊ/

       OE a bufan -> ME abuuen, abuue, aboue, above

       OE ūt -> ME out (French convention for spelling /u/)

       OE fl -> ME ful, fule, fole, fowl(e), foul(e)

       OE n -> ME nu, nv; new, newe; no, noou, noue; noug, nough, nou{ygh}, nouwe, nov, nowgh, nuge, nw, nyw, (transmission errors) know, ne, ynow, ME-15 nou, ME-16 nowe, ME- now,


Some changes were substitutions from French

       OE cild -> ME child

o      weve seen <ch>: OF chatel, ONF catel <- Latin capitale

       OE to -> ME tooth

o      French didnt have /θ/, but did have <th> in words from Gk->Lat->Fr

       Greek -> Latin thronus -> French trone -> ME t-, th-


But not all ME spelling changes were from French!

       early French didnt have // (or <sh>)

o      OE scip -> ME sc-, sch-, sh-, s-, ss- ...

       Orm was an early user of <sh>, according to OED

       OE <hw> /hw/ was cognate with Romance <qu> /kw/

o      PIE **qwos, *qwes is the ancestor of English who and Latin quis, quid

o      OE /hw/ -> ME /hw/ and /w/

       OE hw -> ME hw-, qu-, qw-, wh-, w-

       Orm was the first regular user of <wh>, according to OED

       OE hw /hw/ -> ?


How were long vowels marked?

       with final <-e>, once it became grammatically meaningless

o      OE on līfe -> ME aliue

       sometimes doubled:

o      meet and boot

o      maad and tijm


A digression about the letter <i>

o      developed dot first in early medieval Latin, near (e.g.) <n>, <m>

o      ingen -> all <i>s

o      had variant forms <y> and <j>

o      e.g. thy: OE n, n ->> ME i, thi, y, thy

o      city, cities

o      sushi

o      e.g. life: OE lf -> ME lif(e), lyf(e), liif, lijf


And about the letter <a> as a diacritic

       distinguish close /e/ from open /ɛ:/

o      OE cpan -> ME kepe(n), keep(en)

o      OE clǽne -> ME clene, cleen, clean

       distinguish close /o/ from open /ɔ:/

o      OE bt -> ME bote, boot(e)

o      OE bt -> ME bote, boot(e), boat


How ME phonemicization of voiced fricatives affected ME spelling:

       OE had made do with <f>, <s> and <, >

o      for //, new digraph <th> still didnt/doesnt distinguish voicing

       e.g. thin, thine

o      for /z/, use of <z> increases (graze)

       but <s> in choose

o      for /v/, ME used <v> and <u>

       visitist, virgyn

       abouen, heuens, ouer, yuel

       Whats the distribution of <v> and <u>?

       Hint: vndirkast, vndir


OE and ME <h>

       word-initially, sometimes spelled but not pronounced in loanwords from French (< Latin): e.g. (h)oste, (h)onour, etc.

       post-vocalically, OE <h> [, x] -> ME <h>, <3>, <3h>, <s>eventually <gh>

o      1-4 riht, 3 rihht, rihct, 2-3, Sc. 6- richt; 3-5 ri{ygh}t(e, 4 ri{ygh}tt, ri{ygh}ht, ri{ygh}th (4-5 rith), 3- right; 1, 4 ryht (4 -te), 5-6 Sc. rycht; 4 ry{ygh}ht, 4-5 ry{ygh}t (4 -tte, 5 -te); 4 rygth, 5 rygt, ryth, 4-6 ryght (5-6 -te);


Distribution of <c> and <g> changed with French conventions


Remember OE <c>: /k/, /č/

Near front vowels

       in some words OE <c> could represent /č/ : cēosan, cild, cinn

       but ME loans cellar, city used <c> /s/ near front vowels

o      (affected some native words like OE īs ice)

       in ME, /č/ represented by <ch>

o      recall OF loans chattel and chase used <ch> /č/

o      so OE cosan, cild, cinn -> ME choose, child, chin

       in other OE words, <c> /k/ near front vowels (cynn, cyning)

o      (these front vowels arent original, but result from front mutation)

o      in ME, near front vowels <k> used for /k/: kin, king


Other changes to OE <c> /k/ include

       OE <cw-> /kw-/ (OE cwellan) -> ME <qu>

       OE <_Cc> /_Ck/ weorc -> ME /k/ work


Remember OE <ʒ> /g/, /j/, /ɣ/


Changes with <g>: ME saw a new letter <g> introduced to supplement the native <ʒ>

       ME <g> /g/

o      OE ʒod -> ME God

       near front vowels, ME loanwords used <g> /ʤ/

o      e.g. loanwords gem, gentle, generacioun used the new letter form <g> /ʤ/

o      not just initially:, e.g., college 4 col(l)egie, (pl. -ies, -ijs); 4-5 colege, collegge, 4-6 colage, 5-6 collage, 6-8 colledge, 7 colledg, 4- college

o      (<Fr<Latin <g->)

       n.b. we also see <j> in loanwords like judge, Jesus, joy (Latin i-, g-)

       OE had /ʤ/ <cg>, but non-initially (brycg, ecg)

o      spelled in ME <gg(e), dg(e)>: 1 brycg, bricg, 2-6 brugge, 3-6 brygge, 4-6 bregge, (brige), 4-7 brigge, (5-6, 9 dial. brudge, bryg(e, 6 bruge), 6-7 bridg, 5- bridge; also northern 3- brig, 4-6 brygg, 5 bregg, brigg, 5-9 brigg.

       so, before front vowels, for /g/ we see <gu> in the loanwords guide, guile

o      extended to eg ON guest


OE <ʒ> changed in distribution: loses [g]; keeps [j] & [γ]; adds [x, ]

       no longer represents /g/ - see above

       OE had used <ʒ> for /j/ near front vowels: gē, forgeat

o      that continued in ME <ʒ> and later <y> /j/ in 3e ye

       for3ete: modern forgets /g/ is a substitution from the north

       watch southern ME spelling change from for3ete to northern forget

       and ME continues to use <ʒ> for the reflex of OE [γ] (OE folgian, sorg)

o      OE boʒa -> ME boʒa, boghe,

o      later, <w, u>, e.g. bowe