Why standing in front of the tide can leave you high and dry

Hugh Farmar

Hugh Farmar

A huge change in the pronunciation of English began about 700 years ago and ended in the 1750s. It is called the Great Vowel Shift. All the long vowel sounds changed and some consonant sounds too. Before the shift, meet sounded more like mee-eet and meat sounded more like met. After the shift there was no difference in pronunciation between meet and meat.

One interesting consequence of this is in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Many of the rhymes and bawdy puns don’t work using the regal pronunciation we expect of Shakespearean actors. For example in sonnet 166, often recited at weddings, the romantic rhyme in this line: “If this be error and upon me proved/ I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” doesn’t work the way we read it. In Shakespeare’s time “proved” was pronounced “pruvved” and so the rhyme worked.

The causes of the Shift are disputed but one reason may have been the increased migration into England from France and from the north of England to the south. Will the waves of migration today have a similar effect on pronunciation and perhaps on language itself? What about the internet and TV – will they cause a shift?

It is possible it is happening already. Language is constantly changing due to a type of natural selection. Words that are used more often are more stable. Migration and the internet may be speeding this up. A recent noticeable change is to the tenses. The present tense is used increasingly now instead of the conditional, future and past tenses – they may die out eventually. The word “fantastic” in theory is a superlative but is used so often now it has lost its descriptive power. Spanglish mixes Spanish and English and has worked its way into the mainstream in parts of the USA.

In writing, it is crucial to be aware of such changes and adapt accordingly. Adopting local changes that haven’t caught on may baffle a wider spread audience. Similarly, trying to fight shifts that grate on us can make us into King Canute trying to hold back the tide (itself an example of a lost nuance as he was pointing out that he couldn’t hold it back).

We should instead be aware when shifts in meaning have become widely accepted and when a word can be used in a particular context. A good editor can act as a guide through this new terrain.

Image: Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons