About the yeare of our Lord, 1554, a wenche who came from Glocester named Elizabeth Croft, about the age of eighteene yeares, stoode uppon a scaffolde at Poule’s Crosse all the sermon tyme, where shee confessed that she, being moved by dyvers lewde persons thereunto hadd upon the four-teenth of Marche laste, before passed counterfaited certayne speaches in an house without without Aldersgate of London, thoroughe the whyche the people of the whole city were wonderfully molested, for that all men mighte heare the voice but not see hir person. Some saide it was an angell, some saide a voyce from heaven, and some the Holie Ghost. Thys was called the Spirite in the Wall…The penance being ended and the people satisfied, the officers of the courte tooke the woman and shut hir for a tyme in the prison. But after did shee return to her owne countrie and was noe more hearde of.
–Chronicle of England, 1580
I found this quotation from my page-a-day calendar featuring old English words. Even though it’s English, it’s really hard to read, isn’t it? The spellings are different and hard to read even for a native English speaker like me: Thys ->; this, hir ->; her, tooke->;took and so on. Also the grammar is somewhat different.
I noticed though that many languages had unusual and inconsistent spellings before the modern era, not just English. Maybe this is because of regional differences, or lack of standardization in education. I am not sure.
For example one thing that has confused me many times in Korean is the way some words seems to have extra, unpronounced letters in them like 잃다 (ilkda) which means “to read”. If you look carefully, there’s an extra ㅎ at the bottom of the first syllable, but it’s not really pronounced. Another example I know is 좋다 (joda) which means to be good or nice (e.g. weather, a book). Again the ㅎ is practically silent here. So why even spell it that way in the first place?
When I still followed KoreanClass101.com, I asked a helpful instructor there over the forums and he explained that these are how the words are spelled traditionally, but over time the pronunciation has changed and deviated from the original spelling. So, small odd, spellings like this are kind of left over from an older era in Korean culture when they were more pronounced. However, Korean has a lot of sound-shifts that naturally occur to make things smoother, so even though the letters are there, their pronunciation gets dropped in conversation.
According to one commenter below (thank you, Paul), this was due to a change in how words were spelled in Korean from a more phonetic spelling to a spelling that preserved the verb roots as much as possible. The result was that in some situations certain letters become de-emphasized, almost silent.
Japan is also troublesome sometimes because common words can have obscure variations on the spelling, or have very odd ways of reading kanji that are leftover from ancient times. Usually, okurigana are used to help disambiguate. These are extra hiragana letters that show how to read the kanji part, but sometimes aren’t strictly necessary. For example, 落ち葉 and 落葉 both mean ochiba or “fallen leaves”, but the first has the “chi” explicitly written in the middle for clarity. Some words have multiple okurigana spellings: 引き換え is the standard spelling for hikikae (an exchange), but 引換え and 引換 are also valid, though less common. In the 1970′s and 80′s a lot of this stuff was standardized, but non-standard spellings still exist.
Because we have more information than ever before, a lot of archaic language is going away, and things are becoming more standardized because we have better communication. However, we can learn a lot about a culture and language by little oddities like these.