The History Of English Pronunciation

The History Of English Pronunciation

Why is English so complicated to pronounce? Find out about the history of English pronunciation

Why does English have such an indirect relationship between spelling and sound? The answer lies in the history of English pronunciation

Have you ever stopped to think about the relationship between spelling and sound in English? It’s very surprising and indirect. Why does “Slough” rhyme with “cow”? Why does “through” rhyme with “true”? And why does “rough” rhyme with “stuff”? Bizarre. Why is English seemingly so irregular when in most other languages, what you read is what you say? Well, the answer to that question is history. Here, you will find a very brief overview of the history of the English spelling to sound relationship.

Believe it or not, back in the 13th century, English was pretty much pronounced the way it was written. It would have sounded much more like German or Dutch than it does today (after all, it is technically a Germanic language).

How and why did modern English evolve?

Well evolve is definitely the right word to be using here. That’s right, languages evolve and they are in a constant state of evolution! Just as species in the world evolve under selective pressures (an abstract force that causes an organism to evolve in a particular direction), languages evolve in a similar way.

English changed almost beyond recognition between the years 1350 and 1700. The vowel sounds of English underwent a shift known as the Great Vowel Shift during this time. The Great Vowel Shift was extensive. To give an example of the sorts of changes that took place, we can take a word like “make”. “Make” had a monophthong /a/ sound before the Great Vowel Shift but by the end of the Great Vowel Shift, the vowel became a diphthong /eɪ/. A great number of vowel sounds moved in stages and many vowel sounds shifted around as a result of gradual changes.

Language evolves under pressure

One possible explanation for the huge change in the phonology of the English language is that in the mid 14th century, there was a lot of societal turbulence in England. The Black Death happened right in the middle of the 14th century and as a result of the huge loss of life, society changed and the language began to evolve simultaneously. As well as the Black Death, there were many wars in between the years 1350 and 1700 and this brought about a new sense of patriotism. On the other hand, increased language contact in later years seemed to push the language to change in the other direction and contact between languages can also spark off large-scale phonetic changes.

 Which other language influenced English the most?

The French language arguably made the largest impact on the English language and we still retain many words from French in modern English today. Suffixes like -tion didn’t exist in English before and the phonology of English changed as a result of the French influence as well (for example the phoneme /ʒ/ entered English, as in the word “pleasure”).

Were there any other major events that contributed to the indirect spelling to sound relationship of English?

The advent of the printing press in the 15th century led to the fixing of spelling in the English language. Furthermore, until the Renaissance in the 16th century, there was no prescriptive grammar for English. Modern English (a largely uninflected language) has a prescriptive grammar whereas Middle English did not. While pronunciation and phonology evolve relatively rapidly with each generation of speakers making new changes and passing them on, spelling and grammar tend to be much more fixed. This explains the odd relationship that we see in English today. That is, the written language did not catch up with the phonological changes, leading to apparent irregularity.  The various pronunciations of -ough is just one example!

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