There are lots of difference between Old English and Modern English, and a lot of them are already in place when Middle English starts to be recorded. One of the most significant changes in the early vowel inventory of Middle English is the change from OE /eo/ to ME /e/ in words like beo 'be' and þeof 'thief.' It is believed that the dipthongs spelled /eo/ (one of which was long, the other short), become the back rounded /ø/ in ME, which was also spelled <eo>.

Orrm began writing the Ormulum using the eo spelling. However, around line 13,000, he changed his mind and went back over the whole document, carefully scraping away every eo and replacing it with e. This was first properly described by Karl Bülbring in 1905.

eo examples
Text showing example words with erasures and overwriting of eo > e

In the top left of this picture, you can see how the word heore 'their' has been corrected to here and then, apparently, someone has written the o back over it. This was probably Jan van Vliet who owned the manuscript in the late 1600s, and was a skilled historical linguists. A similar change can be found in the word streonedd 'begat', which has been corrected to strenedd (and back again).

eo is the Orrm's only vowel digraph (a symbol where two letters represent one sound). He is incredibly thorough in replacing the items before line 13,000, and never uses it after that point. Burchfield (1956) notes only three  exceptions, while we count 1852 changes. The change suggests that not only did this change occur quite quickly and over quite a large area, but that Orrm was consciously aware of it and expected it to be permanent.

We believe that Orrm spent around 30 years working on the whole text, and we only have perhaps an eighth of it remaining. We don't know when he started, but he can't have been very young or very old, so this means that this change probably took place when Orrm was middle-aged.




I note after producing this blog that the Bodleian Library scans of the Ormulum manuscript are no longer available to the general public. Hopefully they will release them again when they have reorganised the content on their new platform.