The Development of Letters and Words in Early Modern English


English is the second most widespread language today on our planet, behind Mandarin Chinese. Over 1.5 billion people speak, listen, read and write in English on a daily basis. But English has evolved dramatically over the last one thousand years. Today’s spelling of English words is a bit different from what English-speaking people read or wrote between the sixteenth century and the eighteenth century. Search documents that were printed or written in English, and you should notice a remarkable difference in the spelling of words. The primary differences between spelling in Early Modern English and Modern English are outlined below.

The letter “u” in Early Modern English became “v”. Several examples would be: liue, euer, fauor, clouer (live, ever, favor, clover). If the “u” started a word, it became a “v”, like vpon, vntil, vfuall (upon, until, usual).

Words with “vv” became “w”: povvder, flovver, tovver, vvither (power, flower, tower, wither).

Sometimes the letter “b” that started a word became “v”: benomous, benerate (venomous, venerate).

Almost all words that included “s” in the middle originally had been “f”: caftle, congrefs, mofte (castille, congress, most). The “f” resembled the “s” in classical Greek. This change made English words appear more distinguished.

“y” became “I”: dayly, forgyve, fayth, artycle (daily, forgive, faith, article).

Many of today’s words with a consonant as the last letter ended in “e”: kingdome, meeke, righteousnesse, muste.

Many words today were spelled with double letters, such as: Sonne, originall, cann, Batt (son, original, can, bat).

The first letter of most nouns became capital letters, beginning in the seventeenth century. Noun capitalization was borrowed from the German language, in which all nouns are capitalized. From the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries, this was the rule for all printed English words. Several examples include: “He has a Methode for reading the Tytle of any Playe”, or “The Dog saw the Flouer and the Hatt”.

If you’re interested enough to examine the words in context, look up online and scan through pages of original copies of the King James Version of the Bible (1611), William Shakespeare’s poems and plays (1593 to 1613), even the Constitution of the United States (1776). Of course, a lot of other printed and written literature was produced, which have been carefully preserved in world-class libraries and can be searched on the Internet. You might be delightfully surprised at how today’s English words were once spelled.

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