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So yet was written zit, as in Buchanan's Defection :
‘Quhilk wryting being without dait, and thocht sum wordis thairin seme to the contrarie, zit is upon credibill groundis supposit to have bene maid and written be hir befoir the deith of hir husband.”
But so uncertain is the fortune of language, that one mischance is avoided only to fall into another. This Scotch z, which had a justification in the cases quoted, was extended to supplant the English consonant y in other cases, as in Pork, which was written Zork. (Queen Mary's Letters, January, 1568.) In the word Pork the P had no consonantal antecedent: the old form was Eoforwic. The consonantal sound has grown out of vocalic crowding, just as the Saxon iv has produced the English yew. This Y represents the German, Danish, and Swedish J, both in sound and in historical extraction. The Saxon iung is in modern English young, and the Y here sounds exactly as J sounds in the German jung, or in the Danish Jeg, or the Swedish Jag. The bringing out of this consonantal Y is a feature of the modern language. It probably existed in Saxon times, but it was not expressed in writing. It is in the West that this Y displays itself most conspicuously. In Barnes's poems we meet with _yable, able; yachên, aching; yacre, acre; yakker, acorn; _yale, ale; yarós, herbs; warm, arm; yarn, earn; yarnest, earnest; yean (Saxon eacmian); yeaze, ease. On Sunday evenings, arm in arm;—
and first they'd go to see their lots of pot-herbs in the garden plots;
Traces of the same thing, but more slight, are noted in the opposite quarter, as in Miss Baker's Northants Glossary.
Our national proclivities in utterance are best discerned by the examination of instances where the pronunciation is least under observation, least exposed to modifying influences, least self-conscious. This makes the evidence from the dialects so valuable. Next to this we may class those sounds which we utter but do not write, as the Y-sound at the beginning of the word ewe. It is unthought of because it never meets the eye. To the same category belongs the initial Y in the unwritten name of the vowel U. Add to this the case above at p. 1 o'7, where kind is pronounced as Āyind, and we see how decided a proneness there is in us towards this consonant. Indeed, we must consider this Y consonant as being in some special sense the property of the English language, in the same way as we consider our consonant J to be peculiarly a French product.
The value of Y has been further complicated by means of the fashion which prevailed in the fifteenth century of substituting it often for I. Already in the fourteenth century, in an ABC Poem, we find the letter Y thus introduced:
A reaction followed and corrected this in some measure; but still too many cases remained in which the Y had got fixed in places where an i should have been. A conspicuous example is the word rhyme, which is from the Saxon rim = number, and which Dr. Guest always spells rhime in his History of English Rhythms. Possibly the y was put for i in rhyme from confusion with the Greek fivéuos : at any rate we do owe many of our y's to the Greek v, such as tyrant, zephyr, hydraulic, hyssop, Aypocrisy, hypothesis. In fact, so commonly does the English y represent the Greek v, that Dr. Latham would ‘limit the use of the letter y, when not final, as much as possible to words of Greek origin.” Hyson and Hythe are the only two words in his Dictionary that begin with hy-, and are not Greek. Even the Saxon Hythe he would like to write Hithe, and for Hyrst he prefers the form Hurst. /
Z is a letter of late introduction. During the Saxon time it appears in Bible translations in names like Zacheus, Zacharias; and otherwise only in one or two stray instances, e.g. Caziei, the Saxon form of the French town-name Chegy, as in the following description of the path of the Northmen in France:—
887. This year went the foe up through the bridge at Paris, and then up along the Seine to the Marne, and then up the Marne to Chezy.
We find s put for z as late as the fifteenth century: e.g. Sepherus for Zephyrus.
Nor is this letter anything more than a foreigner among us now. There will be found very few genuine English words with a z in them. The only one I observe in the Dictionary under Z is zinc, which most likely represents the Saxon sinc = treasure.
CHA PT E R II.
THE spelling of our language has admitted a succession of changes from the earliest times to the present day. We now call our orthography fixed: but perhaps the next generation will detect some changes that have taken place in our time. Orthography is in fact always in the rear of pronunciation, and therefore there is always room for improvement. But as a language grows old, it naturally tends towards being governed by precedent. We spell words as we have been taught to spell them. The more literature is addressed to the eye, the more that organ is humoured, and the ear is less and less considered.
That which we call a settled orthography is a habit of spelling which admits only of rare modification, and tends towards a state of absolute immutability. . When a language has become literary, its orthography has already begun to be fixed. The varieties of spelling which have taken place from the fourteenth century until now, may appear considerable to those who have only glanced at old books; but in reality they are very limited. A small variation will make a great difference in the legibility of a page, to the eye that is unaccustomed to such variation. It might be thought that the idea of orthography was a modern affair, and that the spelling of our early writers was chaotic and unstudied. But this would be a great mistake.
The poet of the Ormulum (1215) earnestly begs that in future copies of his work, respect may be had to his orthography. The passage has been quoted and translated above, on p. 51.
Chaucer also, in the closing stanzas of his Troilus and Creseide, begs that no one will ‘miswrite’ his little book, by which he means that no one should deviate from his orthography.
“Go, little booke, go my little tragedie
And kisse the steps whereas thou seest pace
It was not for want of interest in orthography that so great diversity continued to exist, but it was from the obstacles which naturally delayed a common understanding on such a point. A standard was, however, set up in the fifteenth century, or at furthest in the sixteenth, by the masters of the Printing-press. It was the Press that determined our orthography. This may easily be discerned by the fact that whereas private letters continue for a long time to exhibit all the old diversity of spelling, the Bible of 1611, and the First Folio of Shakspeare (1623) are substantially in the orthography which is now prevalent and established.