As always, dear readers, welcome.
Some years ago, an Italian friend of mine decided to take a French course. By the second week, he was complaining about pronunciation: “In Italian, 100 percent of everything written is said. In French,” he continued, his eyebrows raised, “almost nothing is!”
This is, for an English speaker, a standard complaint—and only one of two, not only those silent letters on the end of words, but also that, even when something is pronounced, the same letters can stand for different sounds, which is what gave this posting its title, three similarly spelled English words—and yet: through is said “throo”, rough is said “ruff”, and bough is said “bow”—but that looks like the word we pronounce as “boe”—although, in this case, it’s said as b + ow! as in ouch!—or is that ooch? Or uhch?
All this comes from something called the Great Vowel Shift, first named that by Otto Jesperson (1860-1943)
in his extensive A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (7 volumes, 1909-1949), where the term shows up in Volume 1, “Part I Sounds and Spellings”. Here, he described an odd change in English pronunciation from the medieval period
through Shakespeare’s time
The explanation for this is complicated, including the Norman conquest of England,
which brought a ruling class
(William the Conqueror with his half-brothers, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, and Robert, Count of Mortain)
which spoke one kind of French (which itself must have had elements of Norse, as the Normans’ direct ancestors had been Vikings who had so colonized one area of western France that it came to be called “Norsemanland”—Normandy).
Although the rulers spoke French, the ruled continued to speak Anglo-Saxon (also and now commonly called Old English),
which must have made for no end of difficulties, at least initially, although, when it came to things like seizing local land and demanding taxes, the Normans appear to have had little trouble making their demands known.
(This is a page from the “Winchester Book”, known colloquially as “the Domesday Book”. Written in Latin, this was the attempt, in 1086, by William’s agents, to catalogue all land-holding in England and part of Wales in great detail. For more, see: https://www.domesdaybook.co.uk/ )
Writing in Old English appears to have continued, in some areas, into the mid-12th century, but then fades away, although the spoken language remained and, combined with a second wave of northern French, formed the basis of what is called Middle English, which people usually refer to as “the language of Chaucer”.
(This is from the early 15th-century Ellesmere Manuscript, which is a beautifully illustrated copy of the “Canterbury Tales”. To see more about it, go to: https://hdl.huntington.org/digital/collection/p15150coll7/id/2360 As Chaucer died in 1400, it’s possible that this is an actual portrait. Unfortunately, we have no information about his horse. It is interesting, however, that Chaucer’s last name is not English, but French, meaning “shoemaker” , while his first name, “Geoffrey” seems to be derived from a Germanic compound which appears in the Old English name “Godfrith” and in the Norman French name, “Geoffrei”, meaning something like “God’s peace/protection”. See: https://ia904506.us.archive.org/34/items/ancestryofchauce00kern/ancestryofchauce00kern.pdf for much more on the subject of Chaucer’s last name.)
Tolkien, however, would have been the first to tell you that Middle English began some time before Chaucer had been born and that Chaucer’s English was just one form, from one area of England. Tolkien himself had published an edition of Ancrene Wisse, an early 13th century handbook for anchoresses (a kind of medieval female hermit—see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anchorite ), written in a dialect very different from that of Chaucer,
as well as, with E.V. Gordon, an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which, although written by an author who lived in the same era as Chaucer, spoke a Middle English which showed significant differences from that of the author of “The Canterbury Tales.
Throw into this mix the fact that, when printed texts began to appear in the late 15th century,
early printers were influenced by the English which they spoke, there not being a “common English”, either in speech or in writing. William Caxton (c.1422-c. 1491), who is believed to have introduced the printing press to England in the 1470s, came from Kent and was well aware that his English was not the English spoken elsewhere and that even the English of his own childhood was changing. (See this brief article for more on this: https://www.bl.uk/treasures/caxton/english.html and for a very interesting monograph on Caxton’s prologues and epilogues, see this: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.233974/page/n245/mode/2up )
Putting all of this together, we arrive at the bizarre word GHOTI, first mentioned in a letter from the publisher Charles Ollier to Leigh Hunt in 1855, in which the spelling of the word is explained as:
1. the GH is the F sound in “enough”
2. the O is the IH sound in “women”
3. and the TI is the SH in “mention”
so GHOTI is actually an alternate spelling of FISH. (See: https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=81 with its wonderful attached comments), and the Great Vowel Shift is—or perhaps should be—to blame.
(For more on the Shift, see this very jolly explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOOAb7erAmE )
Needless to say, then, when my Italian friend had complained about French, he turned to me and said, “And then there’s English…” (which he, in fact, spoke extremely well) and I had to admit, English has its orthographic difficulties. This was a sort of personal nostra culpa (which I’ve seen translated in the singular as “my bad”, but, since I’m at the other end of many generations of English speakers/writers, it seemed more appropriate to write “our bad”) for the quirks in my native tongue. At the same time, another Latin phrase came to mind, usually written tu quoque, which should probably be translated in a childish tone, “you do it, too!” and I point at one of our Germanic cousins, Danish. There’s a common example of “well, it’s spelled like this, but said like that”: rodgrod med flode (which requires that the O’s all have the slash through them which indicates a sound like—hmm, go to: https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/danish-alphabet to see all of the ways in which it can be pronounced (and already I imagine that you understand where I’m going with this). Here’s a native speaker saying it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xasgdhN7S48 (For an entertaining little lecture on why Danish sounds the way it does—and I myself think that it’s actually pretty cool, in fact—see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eI5DPt3Ge_s )
It’s clear that we English-speakers are not alone.
Thanks for reading,
Remember: “I before E—except after C—or—when sounded like AY, as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’ “,
And know that, as always, there’s
Here’s an intelligent and fun historical explanation of why French frustrated mio amico italiano (in whose home language every letter is pronounced): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2TWBBxwhbU