Vowel Shift

OK, I just read the classic column on the “Great Vowel Shift”. According to it, the way vowels are pronounced changed during the period 1350 - 1550.

How do we know how anything was pronounced in 1350 - 1550? It isn’t like they had tape recorders then and there probably aren’t any speakers from that time left around. How do we know how they pronounced vowels then?

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Dennis Matheson — tanstaafl@earthlink.net
Hike, Dive, Ski, Climb — home.earthlink.net/~tanstaafl

I asked my husband (renaissance English scholar) about this and he said that one way is by looking at what was considered a rhyme in tne poetry of the time. Don’t know if that applies in this case.

Like the opening lines of Chaucer (I’m doing this from memory, so I’m not going to try for the authentic spelling) which rhyme “sweet” with “root”, tells us that “sweet” had a different pronunciation in those days.

Another tool is reviewing “outlier” linguistic groups. For example, how English is pronounced today in say the Falklands (Malvinas) or an isolated district in India, and matching that up with the main dates of migration. Using different “tool” in comparison (such as Victorian-era rhyming) gets a fair extrapolation, although with the increased availablity of TV this will soon be nearly impossible.

“Proverbs for Paranoids, 2: The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immortality of the Master.”
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

“Like the opening lines of Chaucer (I’m doing this from memory, so I’m not going to try for the authentic spelling) which rhyme “sweet” with “root”, tells us that “sweet” had a different pronunciation in those days.”

Or “root”? How can you reliably tell which word has changed its pronunciation and which has remained more or less the same?

It only hurts when I laugh.

“Yo, yo, yo. What up G?” In a very short time, relative to the 200 years it took for the great vowel shift, this phrase has been accepted by a fairly large portion of our population (teens) as a common substitute for “Hi, how are you doing (insert the name of a friend that you are addressing) ?”

Perhaps some young members of court twisted the use of the language of the time in a way that was a private game to them. Some other young members of court learned of the game and it gradually spread. Over the years, the spread of the use of this specialized language found it’s way into the conversations of youth all across the land. As these young people matured and became the movers and shakers, leaders and lawmakers of the land, this gradual evolution of the language took hold and took over. At least until the next generation of young linguistic gameplayers had their way with it.

Hey, it could happen.

As I recall, Chaucer’s “sweet” is pronounced “soot,” which kind of makes sense seeing as it’s spelled “soote.” Not that that adds too much to the discussion BUT…what about spelling? Wouldn’t that give at least some clue? As for the rhyming thing, that sounds plausible, but when were eye rhymes invented? Words that look similar but sound differently, e.g. lone and none. For an example, and I’m aware of the differences between this author and Chaucer, but Blake’s “The Tiger”: “What immortal hand or eye/ could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

“Education…has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.”
-G. M. Trevelyan

There are various statistical methods used to rule out “eye/symmetry” non-rhymes. Also, conditional entropy (in information theory, not exactly the entropy you learn about in physics) is used as a technique for evaluating manuscripts.

In short, there are methods available to computational linguists for deciding these kinds of questions (to various levels of certainty).


The book The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way explains some of the techniques for determining how people used to speak. It also notes, IIRC, that these techniques aren’t foolproof (maybe my brain is confusing what I actually read with my own common sense here). The rhyming was one major point he touched on. The other was the fact that manny documents, such as letters etc., contain misspellings (not a whole lot different than today) that give linguists clues as to how words were pronounced.

“I wept because I had no shoes, then I met a man with no feet. So I took his shoes” - Dave Barry

By the way, Mother Tongue is by Bill Bryson. Forgot to mention that in my previous post.

Regarding Chaucer…

I had to memorize the first 30 lines or so of The Canturbury Tales in a high school lit class once (yes, the teacher was cool as all get-out). the first two lines, written phoenetically, go something like this “whan that ahp-real with its sho-res so-tah/ the droght of march ath per-ced to the ro-tah”

Don’t ask me how my teacher knew that’s how it was all pronounced. But I know it’s true, as college professors have verified it for me.

About those “eye rhymes” – Usually if every other set of line endings are the normal sort of rhyme, a poet probably would not insert a single pseudo-rhyme. Also, much early literature, including the Canterbury Tales, was meant to be read aloud and not distributed much in print. So “eye rhymes” would be lost on the intended audience. I’d also like to mention that I always wondered about the practice (in modern songs and poems) of rhyming “again” with words like “rain.” I figured somebody must think they rhyme. And then I heard a British song with those words in it – and “again” indeed does sound like rain. Note that eye rhymes (which do have a technical term; I just can’t remember it) don’t ever turn up in songs, unless the songs are from a time or place where they actually sound alike. Eg, “The boar’s head in hand bear I/bedecked with bays and rosemary” – bet that rhymed at some point.

And for what it’s worth, Egyptian heiroglyphics don’t come with a pronunciation key and Egyptologists have frequently noted that the way we think they talked is probably wrong. BUT, Coptic is Egyptian spelled as accurately as possible in Greek letters. This doesn’t tell us everything, but a lot of what is known about egyptian pronunciation comes from Coptic transliteration. For example, the S sound in the name of the board game senet was probably pronounced more like a Z.

Strainger mentioned Bill Bryson, the author of The Mother Tongue. Bryson also
wrote Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in America which coincidentally I picked up a copy of two days ago.

Bryson discusses the changing pronunciation of words and mentions a 1643 book called Special Help to Orthographie or the True-writing of English. The author, Richard Hodges, gives a list of pairs of words that were pronounced the same, such as ream and realm, room and Rome, poles and Paul’s, and person and parson. Bryson
also mentions the more phonetic spelling of the time. Seeing the name Parkhurst spelled as Parkis or Holmes spelled as Holums gives us information on how the words were pronounced.