Language Change: What are the reasons for orthographical change?

Although there was a big drive in the 18th century to prescribe all aspects of written language use, spelling had already gone through some standardisation from Old English onwards.

In the Early Modern English period (1450 -1700), individual printers established their own conventions and styles. Printers wanted to fit words neatly on to a line. This resulted in letters such as the terminal –e being removed. This –e may have been linked to Middle English pronunciation.

Caxton’s introduction of the printing press to Englandin the 15th century had a huge influence on standardisation: spelling could be codified because the technology allowed it. Printing practices shaped the presentation of letters in the long ‘s’. The long ‘s’ was used until 1800, when it was replaced by the short ‘s’ as it didn’t have a phonological function. The phoneme didn’t need a different grapheme and so due to printing practices the long ‘s’ became unnecessary.  

At the start of Late Modern English standardisation was more firmly established. In 1755 Dr Samuel Johnson recorded and described the words in use at the time. The rise of traditional grammar in the 18th century was due to making language conform to the rules set by grammarians. Both Bishop Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray tried to fix the English Language into a prestigious standard form.

The 19th century built on the standardisation process. Mass education and literacy programmes reinforced standards in written English.

The 21st century has seen a change in spelling. Language has not retained a fixed form due to technological advances. We can now choose to use non-standard forms depending on what technology we are using, the audience we are speaking to and the function. We use punctuation differently now. When texting we use punctuation to mark a prosodic feature, punctuation is used in non-standard multiple forms such as (!!!), but not in contractions (dont).


Comments are closed.