In the Early Modern English period (roughly 1500s–1700s), the use of the letters <u> and <v> went through a change from a positionally constrained system (i.e., initial <v>, medial <u>) to a system based on phonetic value, with <u> marking vowels and <v> consonants. The exact dynamics of this transition have received little attention, however, and the standard account is exclusively based on printed sources. Using a data set of 3,801 examples from 107 handwritten legal documents from the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and 1693, this study indicates that the current narrative is oversimplified and that behind the transition from one system to another lies a complex process of experimentation and variation. The study charts the <u> and <v> usage in the handwriting of nineteen recorders who subscribe to various “mixed” systems that conform neither to the positional nor the phonetic system. In addition to the positional and phonetic constraints, a range of other linguistic and extralinguistic factors appears to have influenced the recorders’ alternation between <u> and <v>, from lexical item and graphotactics to textual history.

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