The distinctive orthography of Edward de Vere 17th earl of Oxford

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The 44,000 plus words which are transcribed in the accompanying letters and memoranda according to their original spelling reveal peculiar orthographic habits and characteristics. Full lists are given below under the letters of the alphabet. The unusual spellings may be considered under several distinct categories:

  1. Variability. Oxford had no settled way of spelling many common words: see, for example, his eleven different ways of spelling "halfpenny", or six of "buy" (also by, buye, bvy, bwy, bwye). Given his presumed legal training (for which there is in fact no solid evidence), it is noteworthy that he had no consistent way of spelling "attorney" (also atturney, atturnie, atturnye, aturnye) and had eleven different ways of spelling "suit" along with "suitor" and their plurals.

  2. Selective consistency. Oxford tended to write "cowld" for could, "showld" for should, and most particularly "wowld" for would (but on one occasion, he wrote "sowlde" for "should"). He almost always (and very idiosyncratically) wrote "lek" for like, not only in the simple verb, but in such combination forms as "misleke" and "leklywhodes". These spellings alone are almost enough to identify a piece of writing as his.

  3. Dialectal variants. Oxford uniformly wrote "oft" or "ofte" for ought (OED defines "oft" as an obsolete or dialectal form of aught, ought) and wrote "lek" for like (discussed above). He often put a "t" (sometimes "th") at the end of "although", "enough", "though", or "through". He also put a "t" at the end of "prop", spelling it "propt"; similarly, he wrote "slypte" for "slip", and "hightnes" for "highness". He usually spelled "satisfy" as "satisfise". Instead of so and so many pounds "a year", he wrote so and so many pounds "of year"; conversely, for "any kind of way" he wrote "any kind away". His spelling of like in almost all forms as "lek" and his spelling of liklihoods as "leklywhodes" and falsehood as "falswhood" reveal e-for-i and wh-for-h substitutions which are fully characteristic of the East Anglian dialect - Oxford spent his formative years in Essex and Cambridge. Clearly, Oxford habitually spoke a dialect recognized by contemporaries as provincial and even as rustic.

  4. Idiosyncratic substitutions. Oxford often wrote "v" for "w" or "u", resulting in the highly unusual spelling of law as "lave" and lawyers as "lavers"; see also variants of "buy" in No. 1 above.

  5. Spellings based on the mis-hearing of words. The most startling instance is Oxford's spelling of "stannary" as "stammerye". The "stannaries" were the tin mines, from late Latin stannum. Clearly, Oxford misheard the n's as m's and did not make the correction (as any person cognizant of Latin would certainly have done) from an awareness of the word's etymology. Such misheard words are legion in Oxford's letters.

  6. Defective Latin. When writing Latin, particularly legal Latin, Oxford frequently made serious grammatical errors and sometimes misspelled words.

After reading Oxford's letters and memoranda you may make up your own mind about Oxford's competence as a writer of English, but you may wish also to know my opinion.

Alphabetized word-lists derived from letters and memoranda written by Oxford in his own hand

For questions concerning these pages please contact Alan H. Nelson at [email protected]