History of Language and Spelling

In reference to Wills and Deeds

Frances Belsham

17th Century Handwriting

Let us be clear that I am no expert in English language and my grammar would have some people weeping in a corner. I did however once win a competition for spelling!…and I am almost bilingual if you count being able to swear in Irish (my native tongue). Growing up I was far more interested in reading or writing a good story than perfecting a correct sentence structure.

However, as I have been transcribing wills and deeds over the last few years, I have become fascinated by the way in which language and spelling has changed and developed in these documents over the centuries. For example the will I am transcribing at the moment, a member of the Corsellis family dated 1665, which appears to have some very peculiar spellings.

The information below explains why the wills transcribed in the List of Wills section of this website may differ in language and spelling to each other and modern day documents. We believe it is important to respect the language used at the time the document was written, and transcribe to the letter…even if the letter isn’t the one we would use now.

The West Country SEN website gives a simple explanation of how the English language developed and can be viewed as three phases.

“Britain is an island. Like many islands, it has a long history of invasions and working with other countries. Each time a new culture entered the British shores, new words were absorbed into the English language and along with those words came new ways of spelling. Across these 1300 years of language history, you can see the changes in spelling continually woven into the English spelling systems. English spelling has been continuously changing over time.

The English Language is divided into three phases.

  1. Old English 5th century to 1130
  2. Middle English 1130 to 1470
  3. Modern English 1470 to present

However, it is important to note whilst this three-phase divide is used to break up the timeline, changes have been continuing throughout all the phases. The English language has continuously been changing and adapting for 1300 years.” (Westcountry SEN website, accessed 17/8/23 – https://www.westcountrysen.com/lesson/history-of-spellingduplicate/)

An example of how language and spelling developed in different eras can be seen in the Beatitudes from Chapter 5 of the Gospel According to St. Matthew. Each of the versions of the same passage shown on The History of English website are from different translations of the Bible (Wycliffe, Tyndale and King James).

1. And Jhesus, seynge the puple, wente vp in to an hil; and whanne he was set, hise disciplis camen to hym.
2. And he openyde his mouth, and tauyte hem, and seide,
3. Blessed ben pore men in spirit, for the kyngdom of heuenes is herne.
4. Blessid ben mylde men, for thei schulen welde the erthe.
5. Blessid ben thei that mornen, for thei schulen be coumfortid.
6. Blessid ben thei that hungren and thristen riytwisnesse, for thei schulen be fulfillid.
7. Blessid ben merciful men, for thei schulen gete merci.
8. Blessid ben thei that ben of clene herte, for thei schulen se God.
9. Blessid ben pesible men, for thei schulen be clepid Goddis children.
10. Blessid ben thei that suffren persecusioun for riytfulnesse, for the kingdam of heuenes is herne.
1. When he sawe the people, he went vp into a mountayne, and when he was set, his disciples came to hym,
2. And he opened hys mouthe, and taught them sayinge:
3. Blessed are the povre in sprete: for theirs is the kyngdome of heven.
4. Blessed are they that morne: for they shalbe comforted.
5. Blessed are the meke: for they shall inheret the erth.
6. Blessed are they which honger and thurst for rightewesnes: for they shalbe filled.
7. Blessed are the mercifull: for they shall obteyne mercy.
8. Blessed are the pure in herte: for they shall se God.
9. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shalbe called the chyldren of God.
10. Blessed are they which suffre persecucion for rightwesnes sake: for theirs ys the kyngdome of heuen.
King James
1. And seeing the multitudes, he went vp into a mountaine: and when he was set, his disciples came vnto him.
2. And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying:
3. Blessed are the poore in spirit: for theirs is the kingdome of heauen.
4. Blessed are they that mourne: for they shall be comforted.
5. Blessed are the meeke: for they shall inherit the earth.
6. Blessed are they which doe hunger and thirst after righteousnesse: for they shall be filled.
7. Blessed are the mercifull: for they shall obtaine mercie.
8. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
9. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall bee called the children of God.
10. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousnesse sake: for theirs is the kingdome of heauen.


(The History of English website, accessed on 17/8/23 – https://www.thehistoryofenglish.com/early-modern-english)

This gives just a small insight into the differences in language and spelling in the collection of wills presently on the website.

This page was added on 18/08/2023.

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