Spelling | The Information by GleickChris Ridgeway | 27 Aug 2011 | 14:04
I’m blogging through ”James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood.”
Chapter 3: Two Wordbooks
Anyone who has done some study of historical documents in English notices right away that words are not spelled the way we expect them to be. In fact, sometimes they’re almost unrecognizable.
This is the page of a very early dictionary, a new idea in 1604. It was compiled and published by Robert Cowdrey—a obstinate Village priest (or so James Gleick describes him). The purpose of the dictionary was education so that the poor could better understand words in Scripture and sermons, he says.
But this is also a good example of how spelling wasn’t a thing. It’s not just what you would assume: that certain words have evolved over time. This is true, but the spelling issue has more to do with the concept not even existing. The written word was best described as stored sound or an MP3 recording (this is my way of speaking, not Geick’s here). The verb “to spell” originally simply meant to speak aloud (think Harry Potter). And just as our pronunciation can vary slightly as we speak with no consequence, so the spelling of the same word might vary in the same early printed text.
(* fol. A1r *)
ATable Alphabeticall, con-
teyning and teaching the true
writing, and vnderstanding of hard
vsuall English wordes, borrowed from
the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine,
or French. &c.
With the interpretation thereof by
plaine English words, gathered for the benefit &
helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other
Because “words” sounds the same either way, it didn’t matter much how the letters were laid out, even when compiling a dictionary. You’ll notice on this image of the 1613 edition, this had changed so that the spelling matched. The effect of the printing press was that spelling began to be noticed.