November 30, 2019

Words of the Month - Of Writing lllllllKS

        English has many oddities of spelling that derive from a wide variety of historical incidents and accidents.  Today we look at why a number of words that sound like they should be spelled with U are instead spelled with O.  The words in question include come, some, son, monk, tongue, honey, and worm.  If we were to spell them phonetically, they should be cum, sum, sun, munk, tung, hunny (to Winnie-the-Pooh’s satisfaction), and wurm.  And so they were spelled, more or less, in Old English.  Why the change?  A leading theory is that it came about because of the difficulty of deciphering handwriting.
        The Carolingian script used for European manuscripts in the ninth through thirteenth centuries is quite clear and legible, with nice, round, well-spaced letters.  It was also slow to produce and took up a lot of space on precious parchment.  The gothic or blackletter script developed from attempts to squish letters ever closer together, and make them quicker and easier to write with quill pens.  Letters were reduced as much as possible to short, vertical downstrokes with the pen, called minims, while curves or other penstrokes were minimized. 
Easier to write, however, meant harder to read.  The letters m, n, r, u, and v were each simply a series of minims.  To add to the mix, i was often written with no dot, and t didn’t extend upwards much beyond the others.  Put all that together, and a word like minim might end up looking like llllllllll (only with shorter strokes.  This is the best way I can reproduce the effect with typing.)   And that could equally be numin, or rumun, or mirum, or wurm…  So our Middle English words listed above would look something like ClllllE, flllllE, fllll, lllllllK, lllllG, HlllllG, and llllllllll (with S's that looked more like another fairly straight line: f).  Yikes!
        The solution, apparently, was to use an O instead of a U in common words when it came next to other letters composed of minims, thus making it easier to parse which letter was which.  Instead of lllllllK, write lllOllK, and it’s a lot easier to make out.  This scribal habit may also have turned wimman (lllllllllllAll) into woman, and the minim problem may also be the origin of the dots over I and J.  That dot is technically a tittle (from Latin titulus), and first began to appear as another way to differentiate among the mass of minims, while remaining comparatively quick and easy to write.
        The manuscript examples I have here are all in Latin, not Middle English, but they certainly serve to illustrate the gothic script, and how all the letters can begin to look the same.

[Pictures: Details from the “Alphonso Psalter,” 1284 (Images from The British Library);
Details from bestiaries, c1200-c1210; 1201-1225; 1201-1300 (Images from The British Library, Bodleian Libraries, Bibliotheque Nationale de France).]

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