“Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing” – Robert BenchleyFor those of you who weren’t raised speaking English, spelling words in English sucks. You can learn the rules, but they are routinely broken, ignored, or otherwise appended to a long list of exceptions. And if spelling is a pain, pronunciation is a nightmare. As the Oxford Royale Academy (isn’t that ‘Royal’?) observes, “English pronunciation is the cause of much confusion among those trying to learn English. Some words are very low on vowels, such as the word ‘strengths’, which is hard to say when you’re not accustomed to English pronunciation. What’s more, words that end in the same combination of letters aren’t necessarily pronounced in the same way. Why is ‘trough’ pronounced ‘troff’, ‘rough’ pronounced ‘ruff’, ‘bough’ pronounced ‘bow’ (to rhyme with cow) and ‘through’ pronounced ‘throo’? There are silent letters at the start of words, too. Why are there so many words that begin with a silent ‘K’, such as ‘knife’? Or even a silent ‘G’, such as ‘gnome’? If it’s not pronounced, what’s the point of including that letter in the first place, if it only adds to the confusion of both native speakers and learners?” As it turns out, the bizarre nuances of the English language may be directly related to one of the strangest linguistic anomalies on record, that is what has come to be known as “The Great Vowel Shift”, an as of yet unexplained change in pronunciation of all English long vowels that happened in the ludicrously short span of time (linguistically speaking) between 1350 and 1600 A.D. in England, and which most experts agree the bulk of which occurred over no more than two generations.
By the 15th and 16th Centuries A.D., printing had become a thing, and we ended up with an English that is reasonably similar to what we speak today in terms of spelling, but Middle English and Modern English are extremely different in terms of the pronunciation of long vowels (that is to say, they are completely different from the long vowels in Middle English, which had “continental” pronunciations similar to Italian or German). Round about 1400 A.D., somebody screwed us, and nobody knows why. Middle English “bite” was previously pronounced “beet”, “meet” sounded like Modern English “mate”. What is especially odd is that Middle English and Modern English retain the same number of vowel phonemes, thus we pronounce “meet” and “meat” identically, whereas previously meet would be pronounced “mate” and “meat” would have been something like “met”. The Great Vowel Shift was first named and studied by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), but the rapidity of the change was considered baffling. Unfortunately, by 1470 the printing press had been introduced to the British Isles, which was smack dab in the middle of the Great Vowel Shift, standardizing the language in print, which resulted in the codification of the language with mostly Middle English spelling, but Modern English pronunciation. That’s just plain embarrassing, and could have easily explained my prior poor performance on spelling tests.
Numerous attempts have been made to explain the rapidity of the Great Vowel Shift, ranging from an influx of Old French loan words into Middle English, that Romance languages in general were considered more prestigious among the up and coming set, or that closer contact with Continental Europe simply required the use of more loan words that filtered into English and affected pronunciation. My personal favorite though, is more in keeping with the troubling universe that we live in. Some scholars have suggested that the Black Plague altered our language.
The Bubonic Plague pandemic ravaging Europe first reached England’s shores in 1348, had little impact, but returned in 1361, resulting in the death of roughly 20% of the population, and would revisit throughout the 14th and 15th Centuries. The plague resulted in rather massive demographic shifts, with Englanders moving in mass migrations to the southeast in attempts to avoid areas where the plague was rampant. Linguists have suggested that the collision of northern and southern dialects led to an unconscious and concerted effort to standardize pronunciation, so everybody could understand each other, particularly as the middle class was becoming a prominent social force, but was drawn from a stratum of society that often had remarkably dissimilar pronunciation when it came to vowels. As they had at the same time just come up with the idea that we should be writing everything down and reproducing it en masse for public consumption, the language started to congeal around it’s Middle English spellings and modern English pronunciations. Basically, a germ determined how we talk. William Burroughs may have been on to something when he suggested that “Language is a virus” (performance art version by Laurie Anderson at “Language is a Virus”).
We think so highly of our advanced evolutionary state, what with our opposable thumbs and digital watches, rarely considering that the universe is much more capricious than we give it credit for, perhaps smacking us with tiny microbes that fundamentally alter the way in which we talk to each other. The history of man is a concerted attempt to turn the local into the universal, to elaborate our metaphors as if they have some sort of existence independent of our consciousness that we can write upon reality. Maybe we are guilty of bacterially driven overreach, or as Jacques Derrida said, “As soon as there is language, generality has entered the scene”.