Spelling: A history

Most alphabets in the world’s living languages evolved from a single alphabet developed around 2000 BC in the Eastern Mediterranean.

A lot has changed since then. Even from the time of Old English, from about AD 500 to about AD 1100, much has changed. In fact, languages are always changing. Over the generations, grammar changes, words and their meanings change, accents and pronunciations change, and spelling changes.

If you had lived in the 14th century, you could have spelled most English words any way you pleased — as long as other readers could make sense of your spellings. Then, with the introduction of printing in England in 1476, printers started to settle on standard spellings. It took time for those spellings to stick, but within a couple of centuries, English spelling gradually became more and more standardised.

There was only one problem. While English spellings were becoming standardised, people’s accents and pronunciations of words continued to change.

By the late 17th century, pronunciations and spellings had become so disconnected that many people started to call for a complete revision of the spelling system.

In the early 18th century, Jonathan Swift, among others, recommended the establishment of an English academy, like the recently founded academies in France and Italy, to maintain the English language and make decisions about spelling and grammar. Somehow, the idea of an English academy never took off.

Meanwhile, English spelling became even more standardised as dictionaries began to be published. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 was a major standardising force.

Perhaps the most successful attempt at reforming English spelling was Noah Webster’s, in the newly independent USA. Webster’s Dictionary of 1828 pinpointed a small but noteworthy set of reforms.

Thanks to Webster, British people think they’re the centre of the world, while Americans think they’re the center of the world. Brits have a unique sense of humour while Americans have a unique sense of humor.

Today, we are essentially living with English spellings that were decided long ago. And our pronunciations continue to change, sometimes becoming more like the spellings, but often moving further and further away.

People from all backgrounds continue to propose new systems for spelling English words the way they sound. But English has become the lingua franca for hundreds of millions of people, and there are far more English speakers outside of the US and the UK than inside the US and the UK. Many linguists now argue that the English language belongs to the world. How could any one person, one academy, or even one country control the English language now?

It seems that we’re stuck with the spellings we have, and the best we can do is to learn them well.


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