Making the spellings of /ee/ irregular, made learning to read and write English much harder than substituting ‘o’ for /u/ had done, or ‘a’ for /o/ next to ‘w’, which I explained in my last piece.
Spellings for the /ee/ sound were made irregular mainly after 1430, when English was re-adopted as the official language of England again. From the Conquest in 1066, until roughly 1350, it had been supplanted by French.
Then several plagues reduced the population of England by a third, to just over 2 million, and the last war with France, the sporadic 100-years war, ended. French domination ceased, and even the upper classes began to use English as their everyday language again.
Until then, only lower folk had used nothing but English. Their superiors needed some too, for giving orders. The clergy too, had to use it for their Sunday sermons. But for over 300 years, English had been the main language of only the lower classes.
English had already begun to be used alongside French for court records by around 1300, as those on trial mostly spoke no French. In 1430 however, a royal decree made the use of English obligatory for all official writing.
This must have been a big shock to the Whitehall mandarins of the time. – They had to switch from the previously superior French language to lowly English, and learn a new spelling system as well! Worse still, the frenchified, post-Norman English and its spelling were both still evolving.
For some reason, they decided not to copy Chaucer’s regular use of ‘e-e’ (or ‘open e’) for the /ee/ sound (e.g. even, beleve, reson). They kept ‘e-e’ in some words (even, here), but opted mainly for ea, and ee,and several others, without any fathomable reasons for their choices (e.g. siege, seize, police, people, ski, key). That is why we still spell the /ee/ sound, with 152 ea, 133 ee, 86 e-e, 31 ie, 15 ei, 29 i-e and 13 assorted others.
Learning to spell them all, word-by-word, keeps children busy for many years. It causes many misspellings and need for corrections. – This particular hassle would of course vanish, if we decided to undo this scribal meddling with English spelling and chose to adopt just one sensible, regular spelling for /ee/.
To make matters worse, the Chancery scribes chose to adopt ea not just for /ee/, but for 49 words with a short /e/ sound as well (head, thread, ready…). This made not just learning to spell, but learning to read more difficult too. – Chaucer had spelt the short /e/ sound just with ‘e’ (erth, heuen, fether).
Three centuries later, Samuel Johnson made learning to spell the /ee/ sound a bit harder still. He decided that 47 words needed different spellings for their different meanings, e.g. ‘meet/meat’. Mercifully, he did not do this with all homophones (mean, lean).
I’ll say more about Johnson’s influence on English spelling next time.
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