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I was recently reading about the life of Robert I (the Bruce) of Scotland. On his deathbed, since he had been unable to go on crusade to the Holy Land as he had once pledged to do, he directed that his embalmed heart be carried on a crusade:

"I will that as soone as I am trespassed out of this worlde that ye take my harte owte of my body, and embawme it, and take of my treasoure as ye shall thynke sufficient for that enterprise, both for your selfe and suche company as ye wyll take with you, and present my hart to the holy Sepulchre where as our Lorde laye, seyng my body can nat come there."

Note that "out" and "hart" here are actually spelled both with and without a terminal "e".

What is going on here? Was this just an unaccountable urge to plaster terminal and unpronounced extra "e"s everywhere, or were they actually expected to be pronounced? Or was there some kind of spelling convention that called for "e"s?

I do see that some of this pointless terminal "e" thing is done to this day (such as in "treasoure" above). Obviously that is just tradition. And of course a terminal silent "e" is used to indicate that a previous vowel is to be pronounced "long" instead of "short". But what about the ME usage?

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  • I have no actual knowledge, but I always assumed it was pronounced, although probably with little emphasis. Don't we occasionally see it in Victorian-era poetry (maybe Shakespeare) when it's necessary to fit the meter?
    – Barmar
    Dec 12, 2014 at 23:43
  • @Barmar As far as I know, Shakespeare is Elizabethan... Dec 12, 2014 at 23:59
  • Ye olde Robert lived about 100 years before the printing press was invented. As there was no real need for it, spelling was not standardized, and each scribe invented spellings that seemed right and appropriate to him.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 13, 2014 at 0:27
  • I know this, yet why add a useless letter to a word? Did they generally love to add labor to their writing? It seems there was some consistency, otherwise why would virtually all writers put in useless "e"s? And the must have been a reason for it. Dec 13, 2014 at 0:52
  • @Cyberherbalist - Why does a store name itself "Ye Olde Bottle Shoppe" today? It seems cool. Likely the scribes enjoyed that extra flourish they got with the e.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 13, 2014 at 1:24

1 Answer 1

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The simplest explanation is that it’s a simple case of phonetic changes buggering up what used to be sensible orthography.

In Old English and earlier Middle English, some words ended in a consonant, while others had an extra, final, unstressed vowel: in Old English, just about any vowel could serve (though -y was rare), while later on, most of these unstressed vowels merged and were pronounced the same, probably as some kind of schwa [ə], most commonly associated with a weak form of the letter ⟨e⟩ in particular (perhaps because that’s how the final schwa was written in Old French around the same time).

When that happened, it’s only natural that the scribes of the time started faltering and getting unsure of which words had an ⟨e⟩ all along (and therefore didn’t change), and which ones used to be written with ⟨a⟩, ⟨i⟩, ⟨o⟩, or ⟨u⟩. The system was gone, and suddenly you had an enormous chunk of words and case forms that all ended in [ə], but were written in half a dozen different ways.

Eventually, this synchronically random system was of course abandoned, and they started just writing ⟨e⟩ everywhere.

But what happens, then, when a few centuries later, that final [ə] has been whittled away at for so long that it, too, has completely disappeared? Back when the schwa was pronounced, it was obvious why you wrote an yong man [ən joŋ maːn] but the yonge man [ðe(ː) joŋə maːn]: they were different words, pronounced differently, so of course they were also spelt differently. But once they’re both pronounced the same, [joŋ], but still spelt differently, you’ve got a nice, fertile ground in which to start sowing confusion.

This was around the same time that popular (by which I mean non-ecclesiastical, vernacular) literature and writing started spreading far beyond what it had previously been, so you had a whole new group of people writing the language that had never been thoroughly trained for years as scribes—they just wrote what they spoke.

After a while of this, you’d quite naturally end up with a kind of written diglossia: the untrained who wrote how they spoke would be more likely to just leave off all those pesky little -e’s (that weren’t pronounced anyway) and just write what they pronounced; while the more thoroughly trained scribes who had historical documents at hand and had been taught Old English (not to mention Latin and probably Old French) grammar would be much more likely to maintain a more conservative, archaising style, effectively creating a ‘high-brow’ literary style that would seem, among other things, to be characterised by an abundance of words ending in some mysterious -e that meant absolutely nothing and wasn’t pronounced.

Just like nowadays, when people tend to use fancy words to sound clever (even if they don’t understand them and end up misspelling and/or misusing them), it would of course be desirable for an untrained writer to appear more high-brow and literary than he perhaps really was—but since an untrained writer had no real way of knowing exactly where to stuff in all these pesky extra -e’s, it’s almost unavoidable that he would start adding them, well, more or less at random. When he felt like it.

Once the untrained writers started significantly outnumbering the trained ones, the not-so-systematical system of optionally adding silent -e’s at the end of many words became the standard practice. At some point, even the trained scholars gave up and just went with it—that’s around the time when writers like Ye Olde Robert and later on Shakespeare start to enter the stage.

(Actually, Robert himself was probably on the stage while the schwas started to be deleted, which seems to have been a process underway by Chaucer’s time, about 30 or so years after Robert’s reign. But whoever wrote down the text you were reading might well have done so later in the century, so it’s roughly around the same time.)

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