On the Origins of the word ‘Write’

These days, writing is everywhere, and there is a far greater proportion of the population that uses or knows how to use forms of writing than may have been the case in the past. Writing has become a part of our daily lives.

Writing as an activity has a long history, with early examples dating back to the Sumerian civilisation around 5000 years ago. However, in this article, we are not going to look at the activity, but instead at the word itself.

To trace its path through history, we shall first take a look at Middle English. Here, with spellings as yet unstandardised, we can find an enormous number of forms, including wrīten, writ, writin, writon, writte, writh, wright, wrigth, wriȝte, wretene, wreite, writan and writtenn. Although all of these written forms may resemble the modern word, it is likely that the pronunciation was significantly different, and it was pronounced with a sound much like the past participle ‘written’, /i/ or /i:/.

Here is an example from 1450, from a collection of Middle English sermons known as the Sermons in Royal:

Crist put down is fyngere and wrotte on þe erthe.

(Christ put down his finger and wrote on the earth)

Now compare this with the similar fragment from the Wycliffite Bible, which dates to 1384, so some years earlier than the Sermons in Royal:

John 8.6: Jhesu, bowinge him silf doun, wrot with þe fyngir in þe erthe.

In both these examples, we can easily recognise the word and identify it with its modern counterpart. Now let’s go to the Ormulum, from around 1200, at least 180 years before the Wycliffite Bible:

Johan þe Goddspellwrihhte wrat onn hiss Goddspellboc Off Cristess Goddcunndnesse

(John the Evangelist wrote in his gospel of Christ’s divinity)

In this example, although it is still close enough to be recognisable to a modern speaker, there is a difference. The past tense is now wrat; the vowel has changed. This has moved the word closer to its form in Old English, as we shall see in our next example, from the Wessex Gospels, dating to approximately 990:

Hé wrát mid his fingre on ðære eorþan.

I have used the same reference deliberately, for better comparison with its later forms. It might strike you, as it did me, that although ‘wrote’ has now become wrát, the word for finger is much more similar to our word today than its Middle English versions! Going back to ‘write’, it should be noted that the word did not just carry the meaning that we know today, but also meant ‘engrave, inscribe’ and even ‘wound’. This is evident in this example:

Wrít ðysne circul mid ðínes cnífes

(Engrave this circle with this knife)

This is from Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, a collection of writings published in the 1800s, dating back to the late ninth century. These days, we are unlikely to talk of writing with a knife – engraving is far more likely to come to mind.

There are cognates, or words from the same root, of the Old English word wrítan in other Germanic languages, such as Old Norse rita, meaning ‘write, scratch’, German reißen, which means ‘pull, tear, rip’. Old High German also gives us rizan, meaning ‘write, scratch, tear’. A possible cognate is Swedish rista, meaning rip or tear. These point to a common root in the language that gave rise to all the Germanic languages; known as Proto-Germanic. The proposed root here is *writan. Unfortunatefly, we can’t trace the word any further back in time, as there are no known cognates in languages outside of Germanic.

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