And in their down-time when the city courts were inactive, at Christmas or over the summers, they were copying out, freelance, prized editions of Chaucer for wealthy customers. Probably more important to English were the clerks of the Chancery -- the royal government in Westminster outside the walls of London and safe from its mobs in , but well within the built-up city today.
In the s, the Chancery was almost the entire national bureaucracy except the Exchequer. The royal chancellor had a staff of skilled assistants.
By it is estimated the chancery was composed of clerks. Each of the 12 major clerks had his own house where minor clerks and candidates for clerkship lived, along with aspirants to the Inns of Court, who there learned the mysteries of writs and pleas and other formal procedures of administration.
Correct use of the standard language was essential. These professional scribes of the Chancery Office wrote almost all the royal government's legal documents, which circulated throughout England. Their primary concern would have been to maintain a comprehensible official idiom for communication through the kingdom. This hardly need have anything to do with pronunciation.
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The Chancery Standard that emerged from the s was, as such things tend to be, backward-looking and conservative. Though phonetic spellings for words like high and though were in use from the s, Chancery scribes kept the old spellings, no longer reflecting the pronunciation. In the s the Chancery scribes made choices between the options in front of them. Some of the options were rooted in England's dialects: egg or ey?
They went with egg and shoes, and we've followed them ever since.
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To say they had etymology in mind doesn't just mean they looked to the past. It means they had a mind to the familial relationship of the forms, not just to the sound of the words. So in the s you would have had kingez with a -z as the plural of king, but the Chancery scribes would make it -s; all the "s" plurals became -s, even if they sound like -z. William Caxton, the first English printer working in the last quarter of the s , churned out hundreds of books and helped set the spelling standard.
He published chivalric romances, classical works, Aesop's Fables, the Reynard the Fox stories, English and Roman histories, and poetry by Chaucer and his contemporaries. These were the books that appealed to the English upper classes in the late s. Caxton printed almost nothing by contemporary authors.
That had an effect on the spelling. Chaucer dead a century by then was so important and so well-known that Caxton didn't modernize his spellings, even though the kn- and -gh- in knight no longer were pronounced. The general tendencies that Caxton began, or rather continued from the Chancery and the Guildhall, were continued by his successors. Neither is it textual representation of speech.
They were solving the practical problem of how to send documents that could be understood across the King's realm in And ever since then, reformers have been trying to "fix" English spelling, to make dogs have a -z and cats have an -s. And then you lose the notational quality of what the plural affix is.
Forget spelling reform based on pronunciation. Whose pronunciation should we choose? Modern sensibilities would disdain as prescriptivist any standard of spelling, however logical or practical, that ignores everyone else's individuality or anyone's group identity. What you'd end up with if you shifted English writing to a purely phonetic basis is, at best, a set of 20 or 30 mutually incomprehensible writing systems -- one each for London probably actually 5 or more just for London , Jamaica, Edmonton, Singapore, Perth, New Delhi, New Orleans, Lagos, etc.
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