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Major spelling changes in ME


The written forms of the words in Late ME texts resemble their modern forms, though the pronunciation of the words was different. In the course of ME many new devices were introduced into the system of spelling; some of them reflected the sound changes which had been completed or were still in progress in ME; other were graphic replacements of OE letters by new letters and digraphs. In ME the runic letters passed out of use. Thorn – . – and the crossed d – ... were replaced by the digraph th, which retained the same sound value; [] and []; the rune «wynn» was displaced by «double u» – w –; the ligatures. and. fell into disuse. Next: for a long time writing was in the hands of those who had a good knowledge of French. Therefore many innovations in ME spelling reveal an influence of the French scribal tradition. The digraphs ou, ie, and ch which occurred in many French borrowings were adopted as new ways of indicating the sounds [u:], [e:], and [t.]. Compare the use of these digraphs in some borrowed and native ME words: ME chief [] from French and the native ME thief (NE chief, thief); ME chaumbre [], chasen [] (NE chamber, chase). The letters j, k, v and q were probably first used in imitation of French manuscripts. The two-fold use of g and c, which has survived today, owes its origin to French: these letters usually stood for [d.] and [s] before front vowels and for [g] and [k] before back vowels: ME gentil [], mercy [] (NE gentle, mercy). At that tine there was more wider use of digraphs. In addition to ch, ou, ie, and th mentioned above, Late ME notaries introduced sh (also ssh and sch) to indicate the new sibilant [], e.g. ship (from OE scip), dg to indicate [d] alondside j and g (before front vowels), e. g. ME edge [], joye [], (NE edge, joy); the digraph wh replaced the OE sequence of letters hw as in OE hw t, ME what [hwat], (NE what). Long sounds were shown by double letters, e.g. ME book [bo:k], sonne [sunn] (NE book, sun). The introduction of the digraph gh for [x] and [x’] helped to distinguish between the fricatives [x, x’], which were preserved in some positions, and the aspirate [h]; e.g. ME knyght [knix’t] and ME he [he:] (NE knight, he); in OE both words were spelt with h: OE cnient, he. Some replacements were probably made to avoid confusion of resembling letters: thus o was employed not only for [o] but also to indicate short [u] alongside the letter u; it happened when u stood close to n, m, or v. The letter y came to be used as an equivalent of i and was evidently preferred when i could be confused with the surrounding letters m, n and others. The letters th and s indicate voiced sounds between vowels, and voiceless sounds – initially, finally and next to other voiceless consonants: ME worthy [], esy [], thyng [] (NE worthy, easy, thing).

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