Tudor Styles and Spellings
Just as the private letters of the Pastons and the Celys written in the fifteenth century give us some idea of everyday speech among the merchant families of the time, so the letters of the Lisle family, from the early sixteenth century, give us some idea of colloquial language fifty years later.
Writers at that time were still not using a nationally standardised form of spelling, but this does not mean that their spelling was haphazard or that they simply ‘wrote as they spoke’. There were inconsistencies, particularly in the use of the now redundant final ‘e’ in many words, but the authors of letters had clearly learnt a system of spelling. Variations were the result of the lack of dictionaries until the latter part of the century.
The Lisle letters were written to and by Lord Lisle, his family, friends and staff, when he was Governor of Calais, then still an English possession under Henry VIII, from 1533 to 1540. The letters reveal a wide range of styles of correspondence, both formal and informal, therefore providing important primary evidence of the state of the language in the first half of the century before the Anglican Reformation.
A letter of 1539, written by George Bassett, Lady Lisle’s fourteen-year-old son by her first marriage, reveals the use of purely formal family correspondence. George has no news to convey, being a servant in the household of Sir Francis Bryan in order to further his education, but he addresses his mother in the approved Tudor manner, according to Muriel St Clare Byrne, the editor of The Lisle Letters:
Ryht honorable and my most dere and singler goode lorde and ladye/ in my most humble man(ner) I recomaunde me unto yow besechynge to have yor dailye blessynge/ and to here of yor goode and prospus helth/ fore the conservatione of whiche/ I praye dailye unto almyghty godde… ffurthermore I beseche yor lordship and ladishipe to have me heartilye recomendyde unto my Brother and Systers. And thus I praye godde to conserve yor ladyshipe ever in goode/ longe/ and prosperus helthe wt honor. ffrom Woburn the firste daye of Julye
By yor humble and
owne Son George
So, George’s formal ‘duty letter’ to his parents does not tell us much about him, except that he can write very competently and in beautiful handwriting (see the facsimile above). He uses the ‘strike’ or ‘virgule’ (/) as a mark of punctuation, and the occasional full-stop, then called a ‘prick’.
Sir William Kingston’s letter of September 1533 to Lord Lisle (see facsimile below) is an interesting example of an educated man’s style, since Kingston was not only a member of the King’s Privy Council, but also Constable of the Tower of London. The presentation of the letter would be unacceptable to modern readers, since there is no punctuation. The content, however, refers to the gentlemanly pursuit of hawking, or falconry, and gives the names of several birds used in the activity.
In January 1536, Sir Thomas Audley wrote to Lord Lisle as Governor of Calais to request a post of ‘Spear’ in the Retinue on behalf of Robert Whethill, whose father had been Mayor of Calais and was still resident there. He had been constantly at loggerheads with Lisle, who nevertheless replied affirmatively, though with obvious reluctance, to the request:
Rhyt honorabyll after my most hymbylyst wyse I commend me unto you & have reseyvyd yor yentyll letter in the favour of R whethyll cosrnyng the next speris rome within myn offyce her hit shall plesse yor good lordshype that ther is not the trustit srvat in yor house nother in yngland that shall gladlyer do yor commandment & plessur then I wold w owght desemylassion as evr deuryng my lyffe shall aper toward you & yors thys whethill & his father orderyd me opynly at lantern gate w word & countenans that I nevr sofferyd so muche of no degre sens I whas xvj yer old notwstandyng I woll at yor comandement forget all.
An example of formal written language contemporary with the Lisle letters is Sir Thomas Elyot’s The boke named the Governour, printed in London in 1531. It was dedicated unto the most victorious prince King Henry VIIIth, King of England and France, Defender of the True Faith and Lord of Ireland. Elyot’s purpose was to to describe in our vulgare tunge/ the fourme of a just publike weal (= welfare/ prosperity/ (common)wealth)… for as much as this present boke treateth of the education of them that hereafter may be demed worthy to be governors of the publike weal. He wrote it in English, but – in common with all educated men – regarded Latin and Greek as the essential languages of learning. He refers to the insufficience of our own langage when defining the words publike and commune which he borrowed from Latin. His ‘commune’ is the equivalent of the modern ‘common’, used in the sense of ‘commoner’ as compared with ‘noble’ or ‘lord’. Both words were taken from Old French during the Middle English period, but their sources were the Latin publicus and communis. Elyot, like many other scholarly writers of the period, anglicised many Latin and Greek words in order to express his meaning.
Sir Thomas Elyot set out a programme of education for young noblemen, beginning with the learning of Latin from the age of six. Strong feelings were aroused over accents and dialects, and Elyot directed that a young nobleman of this age should only be placed in the care of a nurse or serving woman who spoke none Englisshe but that which is cleane, polite, perfectly and articulately pronounced. The texts from The Governour, one of which is shown in facsimile below, reveal not only matters of substance and style, but also features of grammar and lexis, which mark out Elyot’s language as being in transition from archaic forms to standard English. He expressed a scholar’s view on the superiority of Latin and Greek, from which hundreds of words were borrowed into English in anglicised forms. These words were referred to, somewhat disparagingly, as ‘inkhorn terms’, words coming from the scholar’s horn of ink and therefore often pedantic in use. George Puttenham called this development a ‘corruption’ of the English language, the result of the peevish affectation of clerks and scholars, introducing unnecessarily long, polysyllabic words.
There were some who went even further in their rejection of not just the ‘inkhorn terms’ but of any borrowings from other languages:
Above: Richard Verstagen’s
A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, 1605
During the latter half of the sixteenth century, the first dictionaries, spelling books and grammars of English began to be published. The writers of them were responding to a growing sense that the language needed agreed forms. They noticed that there were too few letters in the alphabet to match the sounds in English, and that the spelling of many words did not match their pronunciation. The common view was that the language had become ‘corrupted’. One of the earliest books to advocate a reform of English spelling was John Hart’s Orthographie, published in 1569 (see facsimile below). Hart pointed out two spelling conventions which are still part of the modern English system, but which he did not use in his reformed spelling. The first was the use of a final ‘e’ to mark a preceding ‘long’ vowel, as in hate/hat. The second was the use of double consonants to mark a preceding ‘short’ vowel, as in matting/ mating and robbing/ robing.
The Great Vowel Shift
Between the time of Chaucer in the late fourteenth century and Shakespeare two centuries later, all the long vowels in English spoken in the Midlands and South of England shifted their pronunciation in what has been called the Great Vowel Shift. John Hart’s reference to the ‘i’ vowel in exercise – that it was being pronounced as a diphthong by some speakers – is contemporary evidence of this shift. It was not complete by 1569, and there were both regional and social variations in dialect, but in time all the vowels were either raised or became diphthongs. However, right up until the present day, the spelling system in English has never been altered to fit these changed pronunciations. As a consequence, there are still only five letters corresponding to the fifteen vowels and diphthongs in Modern English.
Just as in Middle English there was no standard language, but a number of interrelated dialects, English today also consists of these dialects, spread throughout the world. However, in England people now tend to regard the Standard English dialect, with its ‘received pronunciation’ as ‘good’ or ‘correct’ English, looking down on the other regional and social dialects of English as substandard or inferior. This tendency is not new. Concern over differences in dialect dates back to the fourteenth century, with both Chaucer and Caxton referring to the ‘diversity’ of the English language. A written standard was the first form to develop. Educated men and women wrote in this standard form but continued to speak in the dialects of their regions. John Aubrey, writing in the seventeenth century, commented on Sir Walter Raleigh’s enduring dialect:
Old Sir Thomas Malett, one of the Justices of the King’s bench… knew Sir Walter, and I have heard him say, that notwithstanding his so great Mastership in Style and his conversation with the learnedest and politest persons, yet he spake broad Devonshire to his dying day.
Aubrey implies that this was somewhat unusual, and that gentlemen in his time did not speak in regional dialects at the Stuart Court, hinting that this would have been considered unfitting for learned and polite society. We also know, from surviving documents, that Raleigh often signed his name Rawley, clear evidence of how he himself must have pronounced it. Standard vocabulary and grammar eventually spread to spoken English as well as to written forms. By the end of the fifteenth century, there is less evidence in both printed and manuscript documents of the range of dialects in English. Regional and social varieties still flourished, but evidence for them is much more difficult to find. The language of informal letters or the dialogue of characters in prose drama is probably the nearest we can get to everyday speech in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. George Puttenham, writing in 1589 in The Arte of English Poesie, illustrates his awareness of the range of available regional and social varieties available before Standard English became a fully defined and accepted written variety (see the facsimile below):
Puttenham was expressing a concern that was common to many sixteenth century scholars and writers, that there was too great a ‘diversity’ in the language. These were not simply social and regional, but also national in their characteristics. The dialogue of characters in plays cannot be taken as completely authentic evidence of the spoken language, but may indicate some of the more obvious dialectical features of speech. In Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fift, there is a comic episode involving four captains – Gower (an Englishman), ‘Fluellen’ (Llewelyn – Welsh), Mackmorrice (Scottish) and Iamy (Irish):
In general, reading texts from Shakespeare’s time onwards into the seventeenth century, we find fewer and fewer features of vocabulary and grammar that are archaic and unfamiliar, and it becomes more difficult to specify exactly what differences there are between older and contemporary English. Facsimiles or exact reproductions make the language of the 1620s look more unfamiliar than it really is. There were some obvious differences in spelling and punctuation, but commas, colons, full stops (‘pricks’) were all in use, as were exclamation and question marks. In pronunciation, the raising or diphthongisation of long vowels in the South and Midlands (the ‘Great Vowel Shift’) had taken place, but was not yet complete. In vocabulary, the adoption of a large number of Latin words into written language had been made easy by the previous adoption of hundreds of French words. At the same time, a number of prefixes and suffixes were also adopted and used with English words. In general terms, the grammar of English at the end of the sixteenth century was the same as English today, except for the use of personal pronouns such as thou, thee, thy, thine and ye. The relative pronoun ‘which’ was still common, but ‘who’ and ‘whom’ had also come into regular usage. With verbs, the third person, the ending ‘-eth’ (southern) as well as ‘-s’ (northern) was still in use, as in ‘he maketh’ and ‘she makes’. The inversion of subject and verb in the simple present and past interrogative forms was also still in use, as in ‘knowest thou?’ and ‘came he?’, but the use of the auxiliary ‘do’ had also become common, as in ‘dost thou know?’ or ‘did he come?’.
Source: Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: Macmillan.