Things are a little disconcerting when you open an early printed book for the first time: everything initially seems familiar, yet upon further inspection you realise that some things are not quite right. Alongside the characters that we glide over without much thought feature strange additions and conspicuous absences, many of which are incomprehensible if old English books are not your usual game. With the help of some examples from ‘An A.B.C. for Chyldren’, this post hopes to make the task of reading an early printed book slightly more manageable for beginners.
As you might expect, many of the differences in spelling that occur in old English books are due to differences in pronunciation, especially if they originate from before the Great Vowel Shift, though this does not explain all of them. Variations often occur (even within the same text) because of the lack of a standardised orthography, meaning that words may appear to be different without actually changing the way that they are spoken out loud. This is especially true of the letters ‘u’, ‘v’, ‘i’, ‘y’ and ‘j’. In many older works, ‘u’ and ‘v’ are used almost interchangeably (though ‘v’ is usually found at the beginning of words and ‘u’ everywhere else), meaning that the correct pronunciation has to be worked from the context. A very similar relationship exists between ‘i’ and ‘y’, though their distribution does not follow such a clear rule as that of ‘u’ and ‘v’. To add to this confusion, ‘j’ is sometimes not used at all and is simply rendered as ‘i’.
In addition to irregular spelling, there are also a handful of characters that, although common in the past, are no longer used in English orthography. These include, among others, the ‘long s’ (ſ), ‘r rotunda’ (ꝛ) and the ‘yogh’ (ȝ). The long s and r rotunda are pronounced in the same way as the ‘s’ and ‘r’ that modern English speakers use. Their usage in early printed books is down to the fact that they were considered aesthetically pleasing and took up less space on the page, something that was particularly important when paper was a much more expensive commodity than it is today. The r rotunda is generally found after rounded letters like ‘p’ and ‘o’ whereas the long s can be found anywhere except as the final letter in a word. The long s also features in ligatures (joined up) with ‘h’ and ‘t’. The yogh, at least in the ‘A.B.C. for Chyldren, is used in place of modern ‘z’ and has the same pronunciation.
Characters like the long s and r rotunda were not the only space-saving measure used by early printers – abbreviations are also abundant in older texts, proving that modern text speak is hardly a new phenomenon. ‘Y’ is often used to represent ‘th’ in the cut-down form of words such as ‘the’ (ye) and ‘that’ (yt). Other frequently used words such as ‘with’ also crop up in abbreviated forms like ‘wt’. Another relatively simple abbreviation to look out for is the so-called ‘macron’. This is the dash used mostly above vowels (ā, ē, ī, ō, ū) to highlight that either an ‘n’ or an ‘m’ has been dropped from the word to save space. Basic abbreviations like these can normally be guessed from the context. The same, however, cannot be said of the Tironian note (⁊). This abbreviation originates from the shorthand for the Latin ‘et’ and became widely used across Europe to replace writing out ‘and’ in full.
Learning the characters and abbreviations outlined in this short guide should be enough to get you through most old English texts. If you want to read Latin though, the challenge ramps up another level – but that is for another day!
Robbie Spiers is one of this year’s interns with the History of the Book. He studied Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge and is hoping to pursue a career in academia in the future.