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I am referring to <ea> as in "meat" and <ee> as in "meet".

Apparently, <ea> comes from Middle English [ɛ] and <ee> comes from Middle English [e], which come from Old English short and long /e/ respectively.

However, all along they have been spelt "e", in Middle English and Old English alike.

My question is, where then do the spellings come from?

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    Interesting question. The spelling <ee> is just a doubled e. It does occur in Middle English (Chaucer uses it for example) although it can represent either /eː/ or /ɛː/. I'd assume the spelling <ea> arose simply because /ɛː/ is halfway between /a/ and /e/ in vowel quality. It seems parallel to <oo> and <oa>. – brass tacks Apr 17 '16 at 22:27
  • The pronunciations of "meat" and "meet" are not the same? – velut luna Apr 20 '16 at 17:45
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    Not before the Great Vowel Shift. – Kenny Lau Apr 20 '16 at 22:54
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_English

ea Rare, for /ɛː/ (see ee).

ee /eː/, becoming [iː] by about 1500; or /ɛː/, becoming [eː] by about 1500. In Early Modern English the latter vowel came to be commonly written ⟨ea⟩. The two vowels later merged.

oa Rare, for /ɔː/ (became commonly used in Early Modern English).

The surmise by @sumelic is what I've always assumed:

the spelling arose simply because /ɛː/ is halfway between /a/ and /e/ in vowel quality. It seems parallel to <oo> and <oa>

The fact that what was an occasional Middle English spelling variant became prevalent in Early Modern English (just before it merged out of phonetic reality) suggests an increased concern with phonemic accuracy, coming about with the standardisation of spelling accompanying printing. Which sounds at odds with the chaos of Early Modern spelling; but Middle spelling was likely even more chaotic.

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As I said in a comment a while ago, the spelling <ee> is just a doubled e. Doubled consonants have been used to represent "long vowels" in many languages. The spelling <ee> does occur in Middle English (Chaucer uses it for example) although it can represent either /eː/ or /ɛː/.

For the spelling <ea>, one thing I forgot to mention that may be relevant is that Middle-English /ɛː/ was sometimes the reflex of the Old English long diphthong /æ͡ːɑ/, which was typically spelled <ea>. Another source of Middle-English /ɛː/ was Old English /æː/, which was spelled with the letter ash <æ> or with the <ae> digraph (my understanding is that these spellings were interchangeable in Old English, although I don't know what their relative frequencies were). So not only was /ɛː/ phonetically between /e/ and /a/, but the spellings of its antecedents in Old English did involve combinations of the letters <e> and <a> in many cases (although not necessarily in that order).

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  • Since there was little continuity of transmission between Old English and Middle English orthography, that points to reinvention along the same principles, and not inheritance. – Nick Nicholas Jul 8 '18 at 22:25

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