History of Spelling

The English language has been influenced my many different cultures and reflects the history of Britain.

The English we speak descends from “Old English”, which was spoken by the Anglo-Saxons who lived in Britain between the fourth and tenth century AD.

During that time, the Anglo-Saxons were repeatedly attacked by Vikings from Scandanavia, which led to scandanavian words being added into the language (for example, many words starting with sk- such as sky, skirt and skin). At the same time, people coming from the Old Roman Empire brought with them some Latin words.

In 1066, Britain was invaded by the Normans, who brought with them both French and Latin (used for official work). At the same time, Old English was still used by many people, so there were three languages in use, which is one reason why we sometimes have more than one word with the same meaning. By the 14th Century, this had evolved into one language, called “Middle English”.

Printing Press

The arrival of the Printing Press, introduced by William Caxton, caused common spellings (and punctuation) to be adopted. Before that, people spelt words as they wanted to, and it was possible to see several spellings of the same word. It is possible to see how English changed in this period by comparing Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” (14th Century) with works by William Shakespeare (15/16th Century), Jane Austen novels (19th Century)  and modern novels.

American English is different from English English, with several words being spelt slightly differently, for example:
        colour            color
        theatre          theater

It originated with Webster’s Dictionary in the early 1800’s, where Webster “simplified” the spellings of words, and Americans adopted this to show their independence from Britain. Main Twain, who wrote “Huckleberry Finn” described America and Britain as “Two countries separated by a common language”.

English is still evolving, and being enriched by taking in words from different cultures and languages, for example, it is now being influenced by the use of the internet and mobile phones:

Some of the words that have come from overseas are:

Dutch Easel, yacht
French Passport
German Rucksack
Latin and Greek Crisis, axis, medium, vacuum,  (words ending in a, us, um, is)
India Bungalow, pyjamas
Italian Balcony, opera, piano, volcano, 
Many words ending in o, come from italian
Persia Caravan
Turkey Coffee, yoghurt
Welsh Flannel

Some dictionaries, particularly dictionaries for older children or adults show where words come from.

English is always changing and new words are being introduced into dictionaries. Some recent additions are:

    Video phone

Test: Think of other new words that your grandparents would not have known.