The UVic Writer's Guide

A Historical Note About Spelling

English spelling is made difficult because it reflects the pronunciation of the early sixteenth century rather than today. Medieval spelling was largely phonetic, and therefore changeable, since those speaking with different accents would pronounce a word differently.

The arrival of the printing press, initially in London, meant that the accent of southern England became the basic standard. Then, in the mid-sixteenth century there was noticeable change in pronunciation. The guttural sound, still preserved in some Scottish accents, disappeared, for example--but the many words that retain the awkward gh spelling expect us to expectorate as we speak night, cough, plough, and so on.

The only substantial attempt to reform English spelling was Noah Webster's; the result is, however, that American and English spelling differ.

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated Sept 23, 1995