Reconstructing spelling systems through grapho-phonological parsing: The case of 15th century Scots (w/ Joanna Kopaczyk)

May 31, 2017 12:00 AM
University of Stavanger, Norway

In this talk, we extend research on medieval writing systems – gained mostly through the study of Middle English (see, e.g., Laing 1999, Laing & Lass 2003) – to early Scots. In doing so, we will showcase the tools and methods developed for FITS (From Inglis to Scots, University of Edinburgh), a project which investigates Scots administrative texts from 1380–1500, drawn from the Linguistic Atlas of Older Scots (Williamson 2008). Like their Middle English counterparts, we assume early Scots scribes to be “prodigal yet still systematic” spellers (Laing and Lass 2003: 258). FITS is concerned with the nature of these spelling systems and assumes them to be at least partly rooted in the phonology. We have therefore developed a method of grapho-phonological parsing (Kopaczyk et al., under review), which resolves individual word forms into their component spelling units (‘graphemes’). For each token of each resolved grapheme we record its:

• etymological sound value (e.g. OE [ð] for early Scots ) • reconstructed sound value (e.g. representing [θ] in <yef(is)> ‘thieves’ and [ð] in ‘therefore’) • graphotactic, morphographic and lexical context • extralinguistic context (e.g. date, place of composition, sub-genre)

This technique enables us to (1) propose the underlying phonology represented by each scribal orthography (e.g. Alcorn et al. 2017, Molineaux et al. 2016, Maguire et al. in prep.) and (2) reconstruct the spelling systems of different texts, times and places. Here, we concentrate on the second of these goals. We illustrate how FITS tools allow us to establish sound substitution sets (‘SS sets’, cf. Potestatic Substitution Sets, Laing 1999) and to investigate their contextual variation. We focus on the SS sets for the grapheme and the digraph , represented in Fig.1.


Fig.1. Overlapping consonantal SS-sets for and in the FITS database

Fig. 1 shows the range of reconstructed consonantal values for and as revealed by the FITS database visualization tool. This tool allows us to assess the strength of correlation between units of spelling and the sound values we reconstruct for them (indicated by the thickness of connecting lines within each set). It is apparent from Fig. 1 that is preferred to as a spelling for [ð], but is clearly dispreferred for [θ]. Our tools enable us to study these mappings further, e.g. in individual texts or in particular morphemes. In our talk we investigate the consonantal interpretations of and more broadly by exploring their positional, geographic and temporal restrictions. In doing so we build on current scholarship by providing a fresh, Scots-based perspective.


Alcorn, R., B. Molineaux, J. Kopaczyk, V. Karaiskos, B. Los and W. Maguire. 2017. ‘The emergence of Scots: Clues from Germanic *a reflexes’ in J. Cruickshank and R. McColl Millar (eds.) Before the Storm: Papers from the Forum for Research on the Languages of Scotland and Ulster triennial meeting, Ayr 2015. Aberdeen: Forum for Research on the Languages of Scotland and Ulster, pp. 1-32.

Kopaczyk, J. et al. Under review. Towards a grapho-phonologically parsed corpus of medieval Scots. Database design and technical solutions.

Laing, M. 1999. Confusion wrs confounded: litteral substitution sets in early Middle English writing systems. Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 100: 251-270.

Laing M. and R. Lass, 2003. Tales of 1001 nists: the phonological implications of litteral substitution sets in some thirteenth-century South-West Midland texts. English Language and Linguistics 7: 257-278.

Maguire, W. et al. In preparation. Investigating evidence for final [v] devoicing in Older Scots.

Molineaux, B. et al. 2016. Tracing L-vocalisation in early Scots. Papers in Historical Phonology 1: 187-217.

Williamson, Keith. 2008. A Linguistic Atlas of Older Scots, Phase 1: 1380-1500. Edinburgh: © 2008- The University of Edinburgh.

Benjamín Molineaux
Benjamín Molineaux
Lecturer in Linguistics

I am a historical linguist, working on sounds, spellings, word structure and stress in Mapudungun and Older Scots.