One of the features of early modern English that will immediately catch our attention, as present-day readers, is the spelling. Particularly in handwritten documents such as letters, early modern spelling was highly susceptible to the personal habits of the person doing the actual writing. Even personal names were often spelt in different ways depending on the writer or occasion. For example, Bess and her fourth husband Shrewsbury did not feel the need to spell their name in the same way as each other: the earl's usual spelling in his signature is 'Shrouesbury' (for example, ID 066) whereas Bess, then countess of Shrewsbury, uses 'Shrewsbury' (for example, ID 144). Both spellings were perfectly and equally acceptable. Difficult as it might be for us to grasp, as speakers and writers of present-day English, there was simply no one correct or 'better' way to spell this name in early modern English.

The reason that there was no one preferred form is to do with the fact that English was not yet a standard language. It was not until much later, in the eighteenth century, that standardisation occurred. Although this is the case - that early modern English is a non-standard language - it is not to say that people were completely mindless of spelling. On the contrary, the sixteenth century saw a number of spelling reformers, all of whom had their own very strong views on how English ought to be spelled, only, they were views which often conflicted with one another. As time went on, and as English began to be used more frequently in a number of printed and handwritten contexts, people did begin to grow vaguely conscious of the concept of 'correctness' when it came to the English language. Nevertheless, any definitive standard remained lacking and public censure of what we might call 'bad spelling' was necessarily unspecific for the most part and limited to rarefied circles of intellectuals.

Under such circumstances, it is hard to imagine that an individual's personal spelling system could have been missed by familiar correspondents. That is to say, a letter-writer's spelling adds weight to the voice inscribed into a letter because it reflects his or her own preferences. For historians of the English language, spelling variation can provide evidence for early modern speech, sound change, literacy and attitudes to language.

The letters to and from Bess provide an outstanding cross-section of variant personal spelling systems from 1550-1608, which is, as has been mentioned, a key transitional period. The range of different spellings that appear in the letters written to Bess remind us that her experience of reading letters included comprehension of this wide variation of forms. For example, we know that, as a result of Bess's role as co-keeper of Mary Queen of Scots, she was reading letters from a number of writers who used Scots spelling, such as Alexander Gordon, Bishop-elect of Galloway, whose letter to Bess of 3 May 1571 includes characteristic Scots forms (ID 029):

  • werrey and werry VERY
  • hawe HAVE
  • awyss ADVISE
  • gwod GOOD
  • zowr, zwar YOUR
  • zow YOU
  • weall WELL
  • gif IF
  • wrycht RIGHT

It is worth mentioning, here, the letters from Bess's female correspondents written in their own hands. It has become a cliché to say that early modern women had poor spelling, a result of the general tendency for their writing to be more privately orientated and removed from clerkly or scholarly trained practices. While both contemporaries and modern editors cite the irregularities of early modern women's idiosyncratic or 'phonetic' spelling habits, in reality we find that gender is not by any means the only factor when it comes to idiosyncratic spelling forms. For example, Bess's fourth husband Shrewsbury is no less idiosyncratic in his spelling than his wife, and the writing of both he and Bess can be easily distinguished from their more punctilious secretaries.

We must, then, be careful not to over-emphasise the role of gender when it comes to assessing spelling habits. While this is so, Bess's female correspondents do provide a range of examples of the kinds of variations that characterise personal spelling systems in early modern English. For example, we find that Bess' daughter Elizabeth Cavendish Stuart, countess of Lennox, spaces words in her letters according to her perception of speech patterns, rather than according to more formal notions of word division (ID 041):

  • so dangouroues was the weonhores (i.e. 'so dangerous was the way on horse')
  • i wil euar inde uar (i.e. 'I will ever endeavour')
  • thos prainge youronar maliue mani hapi yeres withehelthe (i.e. 'thus praying your honour may live many happy years with health')

We also find examples of spellings which suggest uncertainty over the representation of specific sounds, such as in the letter to Bess from her friend Frances Brooke Cobham (ID 015):

  • wlode WOULD
  • innoufthe, innoufe ENOUGH
  • roauffes RUFFS

Bess's own personal spelling system is characterised by certain forms which she used throughout her life, and which can therefore be described as prototypical for her. These include:

  • faythefoull FAITHFULL
  • har HER
  • yet IT
  • moust MOST
  • Chattysworth(e) CHATSWORTH
  • latter(s) or later(s) LETTER(S)
  • letyll LITTLE

In this way, written variation can itself allow for differentiation between writers whose handwriting might otherwise be virtually indistinguishable. For example, at first glance, Bess's own handwriting appears to be very similar to one of the scribes she regularly used (the scribe coded in this web-edition as 'Scribe A'). However, the two can be readily distinguished by their distinctive personal systems of spelling, punctuation and abbreviation.

The discussion so far has been aside from any attempt to speculate on the relationship between spelling and pronunciation. The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is never an exact one, especially (and notoriously) in English. For example, users of present-day English are all well aware of the inconsistency and unreliability of the language from present-day English words like KNEE (pronounced more like 'nee'), or DOUGH and TOUGH (the former pronounced like 'doe', but the latter, although the same spelling, pronounced with an 'f' sound like 'tuff' in most varieties of English today). The same vague and inexact relationship between spelling and pronunciation was true of early modern English; although there are some of Bess's spellings which may perhaps hint at pronunciation, such as:

The first two of these examples ('pott oup' and 'onhabyll') involve possible variations in vowel sounds, though it is difficult to speculate on the exact pronunciation, given that written vowels in English (now and then) are often pronounced variously according to speaker and context. However, the fourth form ('reyme'), is one we can be slightly more confident about in terms of linking spelling and pronunciation. This is because we know there were two ways of pronouncing REALM in early modern English: one similar to its present-day pronunciation (i.e. like 'relm'), and one which lacked the consonantal 'l'-sound, and would have sounded something more like 'raym' (the latter being closer to the original loanword from French, which also lacked this sound). It is therefore possible that Bess's spelling 'reyme' is indicative of her own pronunciation of the word in a way no longer current in English; although, of course, it may just be the way she had been taught to spell the word.

Again, it is important to emphasise that one form was not regarded as 'better' than another. Among the highest Elizabethan courtiers a range of accents and dialects were spoken. Even among those in Bess's family a range of different forms were used. To take one example here, we can observe that the word DAUGHTER was spelled in different ways by Bess, her fourth husband Shrewsbury, her daughters and her daughter-in-laws:

  • dowter Bess ID 099, ID 109, ID 120, ID 183
  • dafter, dough[ter] Bess's daughter Elizabeth (Cavendish) Stuart, countess of Lennox ID 041, ID 042
  • dautter Bess's daughter Lady Frances (Cavendish) Pierrepont, ID 052, ID 053
  • daughter Bess's step-daughter and daughter-in-law Grace (Talbot) Cavendish, ID 008
  • doughter Bess's husband, George, sixth earl of Shrewsbury, ID 065

As these examples illustrate, in early modern English DAUGHTER could be written in various ways and either with or without medial < f > or < gh >. These spellings may or may not reflect pronunciation, i.e. either with or without an 'f' sound, or with or without the velar fricative (the sound like the 'ch' in Scots 'loch'). As we know from present-day English, today's spelling 'daughter' does not reflect the way the word is actually pronounced by many of us: although we write the < gh >, < t > and < r >, many speakers of British English today pronounce the word more like 'daw-ta' or 'daw-a'. In a similar way, we should not expect the various spellings of DAUGHTER across Bess's family to map directly onto pronunciation, but only observe that they reflect the fluid situation of early modern English. It was a situation in which there was no single standard way to write or to pronounce the word, even among close members of the same family or household, who, as we see here, all wrote the word in different ways and did not agree on a settled or preferred form.

To sum up: there was never only one way to spell a word in early modern English. Women letter-writers often used outlandish-seeming spellings, however, male writers were prone to do so too, and what may seem outlandish to present-day readers was often perfectly acceptable in Bess's time. In some cases, spelling is suggestive of pronunciation, but, again, given the fluidity and variation in both written and spoken realisations of early modern English words, it is rarely possible to be definitive. Furthermore, spelling must be recognised as valuable not just in its relation to speech, but also as an indicator of written language change and literacy, and as a means to identify specific writers.

Tips for First-Time Readers of Early Modern English

  • u and v are interchangeable, e.g. euer EVER, uenison VENISON
  • i is used for present-day English j, e.g. iuell JEWEL
  • i and y are interchangeable, e.g. wyfe WIFE, yf IF
  • vowels differ from present-day English, e.g. mech MUCH, moust MOST
  • some writers use ff to indicate upper-case F, e.g. ffrom FROM
  • final -e can appear where we do not have it in present-day English, e.g. trouste TRUST, frende FRIEND
  • c and s are sometimes interchangeable, e.g. cend SEND, sease CEASE
  • double letters can appear where we do not have them in present-day English, e.g. nott, butt for NOT, BUT
  • numbers are often in Roman numerals (1-10 are i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii, viii, ix, x, 50 is l, 100 is c), e.g. the xv of march (15th March)
  • money is in pounds, shillings and pence (denoted: l, s, d)

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References and Further Reading

  • Standardisation and spelling reform is discussed by Jonathan Hope, Shakespeare and Language: Reason, Eloquence and Artifice in the Renaissance (London: Arden, 2010), especially Chapter 4 'Fritters of English: Variation and Linguistic Judgement', pp. 98-137.
  • Methodologies involved in the analysis of Renaissance women's writing are discussed by Margaret J.-M. Sömez, 'Perceived and Real Differences Between Men's and Women's Spellings of the Early to Mid-Seventeenth Century', in The History of English in A Social Context: A Contribution to Historical Sociolinguistics, ed. by Dieter Kastovsky and Arthur Mettinger, Trends in Linguistics Studies and Monographs 129 (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2000), pp. 405-39; and Terttu Nevalainen, 'Women's Writings as Evidence for Linguistic Continuity and Change in Early Modern English', in Alternative Histories of English, ed. by Richard Watts and Peter Trudgill (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 191-270.
  • The rise of accent as social symbol in the modern era is the topic explored by Lynda Mugglestone, Talking Proper (Oxford: Clarendon Press, revised and extended second edition, 2003).
Author(s): Graham Williams, April 2013

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'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Humanities Research Institute at The University of Sheffield
Version 1.0 | ISBN 978-0-9571022-3-1
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