Orrm lived at a time, in the late twelfth century, when English was hardly written at all. After the Norman invasion in 1066, English stopped being the language of law, religion and education, and was replaced by French. Latin was already used extensively, but spread even further. Even in his little monastery in Bourne, Lincolnshire, these changes affected Orrm. His great-great-grandparents would have spoken an Anglian dialect of Old English. As Lincolnshire was in the Danelaw, there would certainly have been a great deal of Old Norse influence even then. There were even some permanent sound changes in vowels and consonants. A lot of writers developed changes to the alphabet to write their own varieties of early Middle English. Orrm's is unique, although it is based on a number of existing principles.


a section of the Ormulum text from folio 30r
A section of the Ormulum text from folio 30r, exemplifying Orrm's alphabet and hand style.

In this picture, several examples of Orrm's style are shown. One thing he always does is to use double letters to show that the preceding vowel is short, something which a lot of languages do in their spelling. However, Orm very often wrote one letter over another, such as in munntess 'mountains' in the third line from the bottom. This was quite usual, but he was not very consistent with it, as you can see in many other words, such as kinn 'family' with the stacking, being followed by onn 'on' without it, fourth line from the top. In contrast to this is the insular letter g with a superscript h. This needs to be explained in terms of the full range of g forms in Orrm's writing.

types of g in Orrm's orthography
types of g in Orrm's orthograph


The five graphs on the left all have their origins in the letter g. The leftmost one, with a bar on top, is what Orrm uses to represent the g sound in 'gold'. The second-to-left we would now spell '-dg-' as in 'edge'. In Old English, this was often spelled with '-cg-'. Both of these forms are called Carolingian because they were used in documents written during the time of Charlemagne, and came into England from France. The others have the Insular form, which was used in British and Irish documents. The middle graph is used for the y sound in 'young'. The 'stacked' second from the right is different from all other stacked graphs in the Ormulum, in that it does not indicate a sequence of letters. Rather this is used for 'softened' intervocalic g, an allophone of g and h in Old English. This is a sound at the back of the throat with no equivalent in Modern English, as it has now disappeared completely. It never occurs in initial position. This must also be distinguished from the insular gh- sequence, which only occurs in the word gho, 'she', which I will write about separately at some point because it is so strange. As you will have noticed, these letters cannot easily be represented on webpages, as none of them (except the h) are rendered in unicode. This is one of the major barriers to overcome when making the interactive edition, as I'd like it to work on all major web-browsers.