Saturday, 21 September 2013

Disclaimer: The Great Vowel Shift may not be interesting to some readers

I received a specific request from Nadia Rushdy to write a post about the Great Vowel Shift after I mentioned it in conversation last week. I hesitated to comply because I have been so many times warned against talking about linguistics. My sister always says that it is a topic that instantly kills conversation. Actually, I have used this to my advantage, though only once.
In 2001, I had just returned from China and was meeting an old friend, Ryan Lash, at a book shop in Montreal. Waiting for my friend, I had been chatting with the clerk. When my friend arrived, the clerk kept talking to us, and we wanted to leave. I mentioned I had come back from China. The clerk said something like, "I heard Chinese has no grammar." Here was my moment. I seized it, saying plainly, "No, it just doesn't have any inflectional morphology." That was the end of the conversation. He had nothing. My friend and I made our escape. 
As to the Great Vowel Shift itself, as any linguist will tell you, it as the biggest change in pronunciation of the Middle English period. Basically, it turned open syllables into dipthongs. So, in terms of Jane Austen, her name "Jane" would have once had 2 syllables Ja-ne (the silent "e" wasn't always silent). The great vowel shift would have turned the "a" from a short vowel sound to a long vowel sound, or from "ah" to "ay."  This is the same with all words that have a silent "e" such as robe, lime, tube, tale, cope, and thousands more.  It also accounts for the difference between words like "latter" and "later." One has a closed first syllabler "lat-ter" and the other open, "la-ter." So, we kept the silent "e" on the ends of words to show that they were once open syllables, and so that we don't read Jan Austen and buy a tub of toothpaste.

(Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, the novel, comes out October 31, 2013. Until then, I am posting things I learned in the course of my research, and of being a geek. Sharing always welcome. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast)

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