The reason for love? And dove, above, done, wonder, come and some.

Have you ever wondered why we spell love, some, done as we do rather than *luv, *sum and *dun? The reason may surprise you.

Middle English manuscript was less rounded than ours is medieval manuscriptnowadays and it was largely made up of vertical strokes, called 'minims'. Also 'u' and 'v' were often interchangeable - written as 'v' at the beginning of the word and 'u' in the middle. So you can imagine that that letter strings of 'uv', 'um', and 'un' were pretty hard to work out - just a row of minims. So to make it easier to read, scribes started to make the 'u' into a more rounded 'o' in several words: love, dove, glove, above, shove, cover, oven; done, one, wonder, money, son, monk; come, some, etc. They are all spelled with 'o' but make the short 'u' sound, as in cut. (This explanation from David Crystal in The Encyclopedia of the English Language, p40.)

That still leaves the question of the final 'e' in some of the words above. In Old English, if there was a final 'e', it was pronounced. Words ending with this sounded 'e' were later dropped and that meant that a final 'e' could be used for other orthographic purposes. We know that the most common of these is to make the preceding vowel long, as in huge as opposed to hug or rate instead of rat. But the 'e' is also used for several other purposes. And one of these seems to be to tell us that the preceding vowel has been messed with in some way. Another reason for the final 'e' in some of these words is that there's an orthographical rule that English words can't end in 'v'. So an 'e' is added to make the spelling 'legal' in such words as give and live (vb).

Going back to the medieval manuscripts, at that time the letter 'i' had no dot and so Frank Smith (Writing and the Writer) suggests that's why women is spelled as it is - an 'i' (without a dot) between the four minims of a 'w'** and the three minims of the 'm' would be really hard to work out. And just think what the word minim would look like!

**'w' was sometimes written with a completely different letter (sorry, Blogger doesn't have that font!) and sometimes with 'uu'.


  1. The reason why words can't end in "v" is that during the period when "u" and "v" were written the same, any final "u/v" would automatically be interpreted as "u", so if we wrote "lou" instead of "loue" for love, it would be read as the name Lou. Words introduced into English since then, like Slav, don't have this problem and can end in "v".

    In addition, if you should ever happen to want a wynn (ƿ) again, simply go to Wikipedia's list of all Latin letters and copy (carefully, you don't want to click on the letter, which leads to an explanation of it) and paste it. You may not have the necessary fonts to see all the letters in that list, in which case you may want to install Code 2000 on your system as a backup font.

  2. Thanks very much, John. Super-informative as always! And that wikipedia site is a very useful resource too.

  3. It was mainly owing the script that the Norman-French scribes noted. To avoid handwriting befuddling with the French carolina script, many "u" sounds were respeld. Thus "ou" replace'd the long "u", as in "wound" (the injury, OE wunde). When "u" occurr'd next to "m, n, u/v (for v sound)" they noted "o" insted, as in "love" (lufa, luua, loua, love).

    Also, under French spelling rules (again owing to the befuddling), a word could not end in a 'u/v', thus they put (and most English speakers still put) an 'e' on words that hav a short vowel that would otherwise end in a 'v' … giv(e), liv(e) and to Latinate words as well … ~tiv(e) words. The dropping of this silent 'e' after a short vowel is always on the list of spelling reforms.