The Ormulum

English: The Bodleian Library

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The Ormulum

The Ormulum or Orrmulum is a twelfth-century work of biblical exegesis, written by a monk named Orm (or Ormin) and consisting of just under 19,000 lines of early Middle English verse. Because of the unique phonetic orthography adopted by its author, the work preserves many details of English pronunciation existing at a time when the language was in flux after the Norman Conquest. Consequently, it is invaluable to philologists in tracing the development of the language.

English: Page from the 13th century Ormulum. N...

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After a preface and dedication, the work consists of homilies explicating the biblical texts set for the mass throughout the liturgical year; it was intended to be consulted as the texts changed, and is agreed to be tedious and repetitive when read straight through. Only about a fifth of the promised material is in the single manuscript of the work to survive, which is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Orm was concerned with priests’ ability to speak the vernacular, and developed an idiosyncratic spelling system to guide his readers in the pronunciation of the vowels. He used a strict poetic metre to ensure that readers know which syllables are to be stressed. Modern scholars use these two features to reconstruct Middle English as Orm spoke it.

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