The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XV. Changes in the Language since Shakespeare’s Time

§ 2. Changes in pronunciation

A book printed in the early decades of the seventeenth century presents little difficulty in one respect. It can be read without much trouble; for the differences in orthography are trifling, and whole sentences may occur with present-day spelling. But, if a chapter from The Authorised Version or a scene from one of Shakespeare’s plays were read to us with the contemporary pronunciation, the ear would be considerably puzzled to recognise certain of the words. For, while the spelling has remained tolerably constant, many of the sounds have changed a great deal.

To begin with the vowels. Middle English &ibreve; and &ebreve;, in wit and men for example, have, as a rule, continued unaltered. Not so the other vowels, whether single or diphthongal. Sometimes, one Middle English sound has, in modern times, split into several, as a in man, was, path. Sometimes different Middle English sounds have converged: name, day, which have now one and the same vowel sound, had distinct sounds (, ai) in Middle English. To-day see and sea are indistinguishable in pronunciation. In Middle English, the former had tense , the latter slack ; and their pronunciation was dissimilar till into the eighteenth century. This explains and justifies the rimes in Pope:

  • But for the wits of either Charles’s days,
  • The mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease;
  • and in Cowper:
  • I am monarch of all I survey,
  • My right there is none to dispute,
  • From the centre all round to the sea
  • I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
  • The vowel sound in sea, meat, heat, treat, deal was then identical with the vowel sound in day, name: it is now the same as in meet, feel, see. There are exceptions, however: great, break, steak have not followed the example of the others. Middle English also had a tense and a slack value. Tense changed to , which remains in such words as too, soon, moon. Sometimes has been shortened and made slacker: hence, the sound we have in book, good. Slack has been diphthongised to the sound heard in go, stone, coat. Middle English ŭ was unrounded in the seventeenth century. Then, in words like sun, son, come it was lowered to its present value; but, in other words, it was again rounded, as in bull, full, put. Consequently, cut and put no longer rime. Middle English and were gradually diphthongised till they acquired their modern sounds, as in wine and house. The diphthong oi has now the same sound as in Middle English; but that does not imply that it has undergone no change. It altered from time to time till its accepted value closely resembled the current pronunciation of the diphthong in wine, to which it was then assimilated. Dryden rimes coin’d, mind; choice, vice; join, line. Similarly, Pope rimes night with doit, mind with join’d; and writes:
  • Waller was smooth; but Dryden taught to join
  • The varying verse, the full-resounding line,
  • The long majestic march, and energy divine.
  • In those days, the oi sound was considered “low” in such words as join; now it is correct, while the other pronunciation is vulgar, dialectic, or comic as in “strike ile.” The influence of the spelling helped, in comparatively recent times, to restore the old sound of oi.

    During the last three centuries the consonants have, on the whole, been more stable than the vowels; but they, also, have suffered certain changes. In words like night, gh seems to have been mute by 1600, while the vowel received compensatory lengthening. In laugh, enough, thought, sought, gh continued to be pronounced into the seventeenth century, though not unmodified. Then it disappeared, or was replaced by an f sound. In the same century, the k sound was vanishing from know, knee, and the g sound from gnaw, gnarled. The first step was for kn to become tn—a combination still heard in parts of Perthshire and Forfarshire. J.M. Barrie (Auld Licht Idylls, chap. VIII) has T’nowhead instead of Knowhead. Colonel Lovelace (To Lucasta) could sing,

  • For whether he will let me pass
  • Or no, I’m still as happy as I was.
  • But the voicing of s in is, was, and other words, has made such a rime inadmissible, though Byron (Childe Harold, IV, 1473–5) and Keats (Lamia, 126–7) employ was with voiceless s. Certain s sounds changed in the seventeenth century to sh, as in passion, sure, sugar, ocean, nation; others to zh, as in leisure, osier, usual. During the same period, t following s or f and followed by l, m, or n, regularly became silent, as in castle, chestnut, Christmas, soften. Towards the close of the eighteenth century, changes started in the pronunciation of initial h and wh. H came to be regularly dropped, but it has since reappeared in standard speech, partly because of the spelling, partly because it had been retained in Ireland and Scotland. So strong was the reaction that h is now heard in words where it had all along been silent, as herb, hospital, humour, humble. One of the marks of Uriah Heep’s vulgarity is his iteration of ’umble. In words like when, white, wh began to be levelled under w. Purists have sought to revive the sound of wh, especially where confusion might result, as in whet contrasted with wet. In recent times one of the most noteworthy developments has been the loss of r as a trill. Dr. Johnson speaks of the “rough snarling sound” of r in his day. Now, it is lost medially before other consonants, and finally, in most cases, except in combinations where a vowel sound follows, as far away. Early in modern English, r modified preceding vowels. Contrast Middle English sterre, hert, herte with present-day star, hart, heart; and note the modern sound of clerk and Derby. In addition, r levelled distinct vowels under one sound, as in bird, word, fur; while it sometimes caused a vowel murmur to develop as in fire, fair, cure.

    Phonetic changes do not necessarily make a language better or worse in its essential character of an instrument to reveal our thoughts. The modern pronunciation of house, wine, fair need not be more expressive, or less expressive, than the older pronunciation. But, in certain instances, the change may produce ambiguity or may be useful only for puns. In the following groups, for example, the words were formerly distinct in sound but are now identical—father, farther; no, know; ruff, rough. Phonetic change, as we have seen, forbids rimes formerly allowable, as days with ease, makes with speaks, great with cheat, though poetic tradition may admit an obsolete rime and call it an eye-rime, as love with move. On the other hand, new rimes may develop: the change in the sound of Middle English slack now permits sweet to rime with meat. Alliteration may, also, be upset by an altered pronunciation. When chivalry is sounded with initial sh (as if the word were a recent importation from France) instead of tch, the alliterative effect in Campbell’s Hohenlinden is ruined—The untrilling of r may spoil the force of onomatopoeia, where that depends on the “rough snarling sound.”

    In Middle English, words of French origin (as courage, honour, nature) sometimes had the stress shifted from the last syllable to the first. This tendency has increased in modern English, and in such words the stress is now permanent on the first syllable. In certain words, the throwing back of the stress has taken place quite recently. In the seventeenth century, big’oted had the stress and spelling of bigot’ted. The spelling lingered into the eighteenth century, as in Burke’s Present Discontents. Till about 1820, balco’ny was almost the only stress. Cowper, in John Gilpin, has

  • At Edmonton his loving wife
  • From the balcony spied;
  • and Byron, in Beppo, rimes balcony with Giorgione. The Oxford English Dictionary points out that, though con’template occurs from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth, orthoepists generally have contem’plate down to the third quarter of last century. Since then, con’template has more and more prevailed. Similar shifting of stress is found in concentrate, confiscate, compensate, demonstrate, enervate, illustrate, but not in remonstrate. Some eighteenth-century authorities stressed the last syllable of recondite, others (as Dr. Johnson) the middle. Dr. Johnson’s way still has followers; but The Oxford English Dictionary stresses the first syllable. Till about 1800, revenue regularly had the stress on the middle syllable, a pronunciation which to a much later date was current in legal and parliamentary circles.