Spelling Timeline

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This is Hurlebatte's attempt at following the evolution of English spelling. Do not take it as authoritative or fully accurate.



The English alphabet consists of the following: Aa Bb Cc Dd Ee Ff Gg Hh Ii Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Rr Ss Tt Uu Xx Yy Þþ Ðð Ƿƿ Ææ.

  • Digraphs include: ⟨cg⟩ and ⟨gc⟩ for /dʒ/; ⟨sc⟩ for /ʃ/; ⟨ea⟩ for /æɑ/; ⟨uu⟩ for /w/; ⟨th⟩ for /θ/; ⟨hƿ⟩ for /ʍ/; ⟨ch⟩ for /x/.
  • ⟨ƿ⟩ is not universally used; some writers use ⟨u⟩ or ⟨uu⟩ instead. Sometimes ⟨uu⟩ is written as a ligature, a practice which would eventually result in the full-fledged letter ⟨w⟩.
  • ⟨k⟩ sometimes shows up to fight ambiguity between /tʃ/ and /k/. Bodleian Library MS. Auct. D. 2. 19 from the early 800s is an early example.
  • ⟨þ⟩ and ⟨ð⟩ are used interchangeably, though there seems to have been a slight preference for using ⟨þ⟩ initially and ⟨ð⟩ elsewhere. On folio 8v of Cotton Titus D 18, both ⟨þ⟩ and ⟨ð⟩ are named thorn, implying that some Englishmen may have seen them as two versions of the same letter.
  • ⟨z⟩ and ⟨q⟩ are very rare. ⟨z⟩ can sometimes be found in foreign names like Zenodotus, as in Ashmole 328.
  • ⟨e⟩ and ⟨i⟩ are occasionally inserted after ⟨c⟩ and ⟨g⟩ when writers want to make it clear their values are /tʃ/ and /j/ and not /k/ and /g/. For example, giul can be found as a spelling for /jul/ (Yule).


The Norman Invasion occurs, French begins to influence English orthography.

  • In the Peterborough Chronicle a switch in handwriting from Insular to Carolingian happens on folio 88v.
  • ⟨gg⟩ becomes more popular than ⟨cg⟩.
  • The Ormulum uses: ⟨ch⟩ for /tʃ/, ⟨sk⟩ for /sk/; ⟨sh⟩ for /ʃ/; ⟨ƿh⟩ for /ʍ/; Carolingian ⟨g⟩ for /g/; ⟨ȝh⟩ for [ɣ]; ⟨ȝȝ⟩ for /dʒ/.
  • The Carolingian style of writing ⟨g⟩ is borrowed from France. The old Insular ⟨g⟩ becomes the new letter ⟨ȝ⟩, called yough. ⟨ȝ⟩ no longer stands for /g/, as this job now belongs to the Carolingian ⟨g⟩.
  • By now /y/ has merged into /i/. This leads to ⟨y⟩ being used interchangeably with ⟨i⟩. This may be the basis for ⟨y⟩ later taking on /j/. It seems that in a few cases surviving instances of /y/ get respelled as ⟨u⟩ in the French manner, resulting in variant spellings like burthen and brugge as opposed to birthen and brigge.
  • ⟨u⟩ begins showing up with the value of /v/ shortly after 1066, as on folio 116v of Cotton Tiberius A 13.
  • ⟨hr⟩ struggles to survive this period, usually becoming ⟨r⟩.
  • ⟨hl⟩ often becomes ⟨l⟩.


By this century the Normans have been replaced on the throne by the Angevins. French influence continues, though not necessarily Norman French.

  • /ʃ/ is spelled ⟨sc⟩, ⟨sch⟩, ⟨sh⟩, ⟨ss⟩, ⟨s⟩.
  • ⟨ou⟩ is borrowed from French and becomes a very popular spelling for /uː/, which beforehand was written ⟨u⟩, ⟨ue⟩, and ⟨uCe⟩.
  • ⟨ue⟩ and ⟨uCe⟩ are repurposed to stand for French /y/. This French /y/ seems to have been substituted by Englishmen for something along the lines of [ɛu], a native English diphthong. This French /y/ and the native [ɛu] would both eventually be pronounced as /ju/. Because the borrowed French /y/ was realised as something like [ɛu], native English words with [ɛu] would sometimes be respelled with ⟨ue⟩ or ⟨uCe⟩, which is why clue is not spelled clew today.
  • ⟨ð⟩ falls out of wide use by the end of the century.
  • The distinction between [x] and [ɣ] either collapses or people stop caring. [x] had usually been written ⟨h⟩ (more rarely ⟨ch⟩), and [ɣ] had usually been written ⟨ȝ⟩, but ⟨ȝ⟩ ends up being the normal way of writing both. Eventually ⟨ȝh⟩ becomes popular, perhaps under influence of French or French-linked digraphs like ⟨ch⟩ and ⟨sh⟩.
  • ⟨æ⟩ seems to drop out of use by the end of this century. Its short value merged with ⟨a⟩, while its long value began to be written ⟨ea⟩. Contrary to a claim made in The History of English Spelling, by Upward & Davidson, ⟨ea⟩ was probably not "borrowed by French scribes from Old English", as it survived into the 1100s (Laud Manuscript) and 1200s in words like head.
  • ⟨hw⟩ has essentially been fully replaced with ⟨wh⟩ by the end of this century.
  • ⟨y⟩ for /j/ can be found in *St.Marg.(2) (Trin-C B.14.39).
  • ⟨hl⟩ fully dies off?
  • Vowel breaking leads to spellings like ⟨ou⟩ and ⟨ei⟩ in words like dough and height.


The English alphabet generally consists of the following: Aa Bb Cc Dd Ee Ff Gg Hh Ii Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Xx Yy Þþ. Jj, Vv, and Ww are becoming full-fledged letters. I do not know if Ȝȝ was considered independent of Gg in this time period, though it was certainly used as though it were its own letter.

  • ⟨uCe⟩ can still be found standing for /uː/, though ⟨ou⟩ is more popular.
  • ⟨ck⟩ rises as a popular spelling.
  • ⟨gh⟩ appears, apparently modelled on ⟨ȝh⟩, and taking the job of /x/.
  • ⟨y⟩ begins to be a popular alternative to ⟨ȝ⟩ for making /j/.
  • By the end of this century ⟨ȝ⟩ has lost much ground to ⟨y⟩ and ⟨gh⟩.
  • Loanwords from French with initial /dʒ/ can be found written with ⟨i⟩, ⟨ih⟩, and ⟨g⟩. Eventually ⟨j⟩ would be used for /dʒ/ instead of ⟨i⟩ and ⟨ih⟩.
  • ⟨dg⟩ shows up in Trev.Higd.(StJ-C H.1)5.123.
  • ⟨ð⟩ is rare and seems to die in this century.
  • ⟨wl⟩ dies off and becomes ⟨l⟩.
  • After a long period of disuse, ⟨th⟩ begins popping up around the end of this century.


  • Continuing a trend that began in the second half of the 1300s, ⟨th⟩ continues to rise in popularity, even in manuscripts like Harley MS 682 where ⟨þ⟩ and ⟨y⟩ still had distinct shapes. Printing presses came later, so they did not cause this.
  • Harley MS 682 uses ⟨gh⟩ dozens of times, but ⟨ȝ⟩ only twice. The manuscript contains no ⟨z⟩, implying that the writer did not avoid ⟨ȝ⟩ on account of it looking too much like ⟨z⟩.
  • ⟨ȝh⟩ is used in a few manuscripts for /j/, but the common use of ⟨ȝh⟩ is for /x/.
  • ⟨x⟩ is used by some writers for /ʃ/.
  • ⟨h⟩ can still be found standing for /x/, though rarely.
  • ⟨dg⟩ becomes more popular, though ⟨gg⟩ still seems dominant.


  • By the end of this century, spellings like bed have mostly replaced spellings like bedde?
  • ⟨dg⟩ becomes more common than ⟨gg⟩?
  • ⟨oo⟩ and ⟨ee⟩ gain some popularity.
  • ⟨oa⟩ gains some popularity, leading to spellings like boat and goat where English previously had bote and gote.


Early use of ⟨u⟩ for /v/:

Use of ⟨ue⟩ and ⟨uCe⟩ before ⟨ou⟩ was borrowed:

  • c1175(?OE) HRood (Bod 343)4/16 : Sonæ swa he ðes wateres swetnysse ifelde, þa wearð he swiðe bliðe on his mode & mid lude stefne to ðare ferde clypian ongan.
  • a1200 Trin.Hom.(Trin-C B.14.52)89 : Ðo þe after him comen remden lude stefne, þus queðinde.
  • c1275(?c1250) Owl & N.(Clg A.9)314 : Þat nis noȝt soþ ich singe efne Mid fulle dreme & lude stefne.
  • a1225(c1200) Vices & V.(1) (Stw 34)43/21 : Ðe gastliche hierdes..sculen..stieren ðo ðe bieð in ðare woreld, and ec..ðe bieð ute.
  • a1275(?c1150) Prov.Alf.(Trin-C B.14.39)122/487 : He þat is ute bi-loken, he is inne sone forȝeten.

Use of "E-I insertion":

  • c1175(?OE) Bod.Hom.(Bod 343)88/20 : Ic underȝite þæt ic wulle underȝyten & þencean, & ic wulle þæt ic underȝite & munen. (?)
  • Cd. Th. 26, 18; Gen. 408. : Onginnaþ ymb ða fyrde þencean (?)
  • Franks Casket : ᚷᛁᚢᚦᛖᚪᛋᚢ (?)

Long ⟨æ⟩ and ⟨ea⟩ merging to ⟨æ⟩ rather than ⟨ea⟩?:

  • c1275(?a1200) Lay.Brut (Clg A.9)5692 : Ofte heo letten grundhat læd [Otho: leod] gliden heom an heore hæfd.
  • c1275(?a1200) Lay.Brut (Clg A.9)7975 : Þe drake ræde for-wundede hine to dæðe.
  • c1175 Body & S.(1) (Bod 343)23 : Sone bið þin hæfet faxes bireued.
  • c1175 Orm.(Jun 1)11799 : Þurrh þatt te laþe gast himm bæd All weorelldrichess ahhte.

⟨uCe⟩ for /u:/ in the 1300s.

  • Boþe fire and wind lude sal crie: 'Louerd, nov let vs go to.' - ?c1335 Þe grace of godde (Hrl 913)125
  • Ðis wirm bitokneð þe man ðat oðer biswikeð, on stede er on stalle, stille er lude. - a1300 Bestiary (Arun 292)377
  • Ac suffre al godes wille, Boþe lude and eke stille. - c1330(?c1300) Spec.Guy (Auch)584

Late ⟨h⟩ standing for /x/

  • a1400 Pistill of Susan 267 I am deolfolich dampned, and to deþ diht.
  • c1400 Test. Love iii. (R.) The euen drauht of the wyer drawer, maketh the wyer to ben euen.
  • c1410 J. Walton tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. (Linc. Cathedral 103) 8 His lettres in-to Rome þan he sent For to destroyen al þat heresye..Theodoricus took þis wonder hyhe For he hym-self was only on of þo.
  • c1410 H. Lovelich Hist. Holy Grail liii. 96 Ȝif owre Rem with Owten kyng be Ony while, It Myhte sone thanne fallen into Exylle.
  • 1411 Rolls of Parl. III. 650/1 The sayd Robert wold nouht graunte that he had submytted hym in that mater.
  • 1413 tr. G. Deguileville Pilgrimage of Soul (Caxton) (1859) i. xix. 19 Long tyme he had hyd hym self neyhe me.
  • a1425 Rule St. Benet (Lansd.) (1902) 47 Ȝe may ga þe right gate to god alle-mihti.
  • 1427–9 Rolls of Parl. IV. 364/2 A redy Bekyn, wheryn shall be light gevyng by nyht, to alle the Vesselx that [etc.].
  • c1430 Pilgr. Lyf Manhode (1869) iii. xxxvii. 155 She..a yens me strauhte hire handes.
  • 1435 in C. L. Kingsford Chron. London 73 That no man..shulde putte fforth ne profre no golde..but yff yt helde the weyht.
  • c1440 Promptorium Parvulorum 491/2 Thyht, hool fro brekynge, not brokyn.., integer. Thyht, not hool wythe-in, solidus.
  • 1442 Ayr Burgh Court Bks. Nov. That na wyf met mele bot thai that aht it.
  • 1447 O. Bokenham Lives of Saints (Arun.) (1938) 10563 (MED) Hyr tym neyhyd ny..whan she shuld deye.
  • a1450 Seven Sages (Cambr. Dd.1.17) (1845) l. 1995 (MED) The clerkys..louhe to scorne the emperour.
  • c1450 tr. G. Deguileville Pilgrimage Lyfe Manhode (Cambr.) (1869) 56 (MED) The virgine marie..bar hire fader, that is..the charbuncle glisteringe that elumineth the niht of the world.
  • 1524 in Acts Parl. Scotl. (1875) XII. 41/1 Þe gold sall have comone coursse..þe Hary noble of Weiht for xlb..þe scottis demy of wecht xviijb.
  • 1531 W. Babe in F. W. Weaver Wells Wills (1890) 114 To my to dahtorrs a kow.
  • a1539 in J. C. Atkinson Cartularium Abbathiae de Rievalle (1889) 340 The Bruehouse vi kelynge throuhs of lede, ii coper vesselles.
  • 1573 G. Harvey Let.-bk. (1884) 3 Miht had alreddi overcumd riht.
  • 1614 J. Saris Jrnl. in Voy. Japan (1900) 204 Muske, worth the wayht in Siluer.

Early ⟨dg⟩:

  • (a1387) Trev.Higd.(StJ-C H.1)5.123 : Maxencius was overcome atte brydge Pount Milenum.

⟨hw⟩ in the 1200s:

  • c1225 Body & S.(2) (Wor F.174)69/41 : Heo wulleþ freten þin fule hold, þeo hwule heo hit fin[deþ].
  • c1225(?c1200) HMaid.(Bod 34)32/538 : Hwet þe cader fulðen & bearmes umbe stunde to feskin & to fostrin hit se moni earm hwile.
  • c1225(?c1200) St.Kath.(1) (Bod 34)32/222 : Þeos meiden wes bicluset þe hwile i cwarterne ant i cwalmhuse.

Vowel breaking in the 1200s:

  • a1225(c1200) Vices & V.(1) (Stw 34)75/32 : Clepe ðu naht ðine friend, ne ðine breðren ðarto, ne ðine kenesmen, ne ðine neihibures.
  • a1225(c1200) Vices & V.(1) (Stw 34)143/13 : Alle ðe menn of ðare world waren abuten him; ne mihten hie him benemen anne þouht to þenken buten alswa he walde.