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Languages are messy. They borrow words from each other, have irregular verbs and their spelling systems can sometimes do with a bit of work. Writing is a technology. It is something that we use to convert the sounds we make when speaking into characters that can be put down on the page (or screen in the case of computers).
Before dictionaries and standardised spelling came along people just wrote how they spoke. This was fine as long as the writing you were reading was written by someone with the same dialect as yours. Does your dialect drop R’s? Then you can work out that “ka” meant an automobile. It was generally possible to work out what people meant.
But if you read a letter from elsewhere the differences between your own dialect and their dialect might make deciphering their letter a lot more difficult. Major standardisation of English spelling started happening around the time the printing press was introduced into England in 1477 by the printer William Caxton.
If you wanted to write things down in a standardised way and no such standard yet exists, then you need to make a standard. Caxton had to decide on what dialectal words to use but also what spelling to use. As printing spread, it took these new standardised spellings with them. Eventually people started getting used to the idea that a word should have one spelling.
So the words “busy” and “bury” ended up with their current spelling and even though it didn’t really make sense to some speakers of the language, people just got used to it.
Ok, but why the U’s? The reason I brought up dialects and standardisation is that they play an important role in this story. Why would people spell “busy” when it is pronounced “bisy”?Because some people did pronounce it like that. We call the English spoken at the time “Middle English”. It was spoken from about 1100 to about 1500.
There were 5 dialects of Middle English: Northern, Southern, Kentish, East Midlands and West Midlands. The word “busy” is descended from the Old English word “bysiġ”. The “y” in the Old English word is pronounced like the “ü” in German. It sounds like the “ee” in “free” but with rounded lips. In IPA it is /y/.
The “y” in Old English eventually started being pronounced like the “i” in “pit” in the East Midlands dialect. This dialect becomes important later as it is the dialect of London and Standard English is based on the dialect of this area. People who grew up in the East Midlands pronounced “busy” as “bisy” and spelled it as “bisy” because this was a bit before standardisation of spelling.
But around this time trade around the country started to increase and a lot of trade came through London. Traders from all over the country came through London and brought their pronunciations and their spellings with them. The “y” in Old English developed differently in the dialects of the West Midlands and the south. The “y” started being pronounced as a “u” (like in “tune” or “June”) and they wrote their version of the word as “busy”. In IPA this would be /busi/.
Standardisation didn’t happen over night and spelling was still quite flexible. People might have used one or the other. Sometimes they used one that didn’t really reflect their pronunciation but the differences weren’t so big that people couldn’t work it out. Dialects and spelling started to mix. But at the same time spelling started being standardised. It is almost like tree sap slowly flowing down a tree and trapping a mosquito.
Both spellings were in common use. It’s like the language was wearing different outfits depending on where someone was from or what writings they had encountered. But bit by bit that sap flowed over the tree and this particular word became trapped like a mosquito in amber. As time went on and London became more influential and its dialect starting spreading around the country. At the same time English spelling became more standardised. Bit by bit the language settled down to a particular spelling of each word.
Another word that this happened to was “bury”. This one too came from an Old English word containing “y”. In this case it was “byrġan”. It was spelled with a “u” too, just like “busy”, because the “y” changed to a “u” sound in the West Midlands and the south.
But we pronounce “bury” like “berry”, so what happened here? It is because of how it was pronounced in one of the dialects of Middle English, in this case the dialect of Kent. In this dialect, the Old English “y” sound eventually became an “e” sound so it would have been written as “berien” by these speakers. But like with “busy”, the spelling of “bury” reflects the pronunciation from a different dialect.
If all the dialects had mixed sufficiently that a common spelling emerged before standardisation then the two words that are the stars of this article would probably have more sensible spellings. But society was changing, trade was increasing and people were moving around just at a time when the language was being standardised.
Spelling can sometimes be really boring but in this case it’s a fascinating snapshot of a very interesting time in the history of the English language.
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We have a magazine all about language and linguistics. We have published 12 issues (all of which you get access to with a subscription) and a new issue is published every month. We also have a literary magazine called Nebula Tales which you can read about below.
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Translation and analysis by Rolf Weimar of Iditguovssu (Dawn Light)
Me, myself and I – An exploration of a weird phenomenon in Modern English
An overview of Northern Sami
History of “-y” in English
An exploration of the past tense of ‘yeet’
When Writing Gets Hard: The Bilingual Problem
Examine the rationale and effectiveness of attempts in the late 17th and 18th century to rectify the English language
What “yes” and “no” can tell us about how people think
How many languages are there?
Proto Language – Reconstruction and vowel Development
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What does the “were” in werewolf mean? It comes from an Old English word “wer” which means “man” so it actually makes sense. A “werewolf” is a man-wolf. The word “wer” eventually stopped being used but the word “werewolf” stuck around and once the word “wer” was a distant memory people began to wonder what the “wer” meant.
This eventually lead to people reinterpreting the “were” to mean “monster” such as the game “Sonic the Werehog”. In this usage the were- part is clearly refering to Sonic’s transformation into a monster type creature. This new meaning of “were” was used by the writer Curtis Jobling in his “Wereworld” series of books. In this fictional world the animals that some people can turn into are called “werecreatures”.
Now you might be wondering what this has to do with wives?
Well, in Old English times a man was called a wer or a wermann and a woman was called a wīf or a wīfmann. Back then “mann” just meant a person like it does in other germanic languages. Over time the meanings of “wīf” and “mann” changed. Eventually the word “wīf” became associated with a married woman.
In this use it is quite similar to how in German a married woman is just called a “Frau”. Whether someone is married or unmarried you can just called them a “Frau”. In Old English times it was the same. A woman was a wīf regardless of whether she was married or not.
This was the case for a long time but for some reason the form wīfmann eventually became more popular than the form wīf. These things happen. Words are a bit like fashion and tastes change.
Over time people started pronouncing the ī in wīf as an o giving us “woman” and that’s where the modern word “woman” comes from. What’s fascinating though is that it is actually still present in the plural and that is why we say “wimen” when talking about more than one woman.
So a word which started out meaning a male human (wer) now means “monster”, a word meaning just a female human (wīf) eventually came to mean “married female” and a variation of the term female human (wīfmann) didn’t merge in meaning with the word “wīf” but actually got its own meaning.
So that’s the story of woman, wives and werewolves
Language learning tips
By Oana Papuc
How merry and bra are related
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Once long ago there were a group of people known variously as the Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Franks. We don’t know what they called their language but we call it Proto Germanic. It is called this because it is the ancestor of all Germanic languages. The Germanic languages include languages like English, German, Dutch, Frisian, German, Luxembourgish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese and others.
My favourite part of linguistics is looking at how languages change over time. Language is part culture and part biological entity. It is passed down from generation to generation like other aspects of culture but it also changes slightly over the generations and sometimes also within a generation. We can look at texts in modern Germanic languages and compare them with their older forms and see how things have changed.
Did you know what the English word “name” used to be pronounced “nah-muh”? In IPA that would be /naːmə/. English used to sound a lot more like the other Germanic languages but then the Great Vowel Shift happened and now it sounds very different. In Modern German it is still pronounced as /naːmə/. Sounds are changing in languages all the time. What I find really interesting is how we can go further back and work out the sounds of the original Germanic language.
This is done by painstakingly comparing examples of the oldest Germanic languages. Gothic, Old English, Old High German, Old Saxon, Old Norse, they all have differences and similarities. We can look at the similarities and make some educated guesses about the original words and sounds of the language. Let’s look at the word “stone” for instance.
In Middle English it was written variously as stone, ston or stan. In Old English it was stān. In Old High German however it was stein. In Old Norse it was steinn and in Gothic it was stains. So we have “ā” (long A), “ei” and “ai”. What is the ancestor of those sounds? Well, gothic is the oldest so it might have been “ai”. To be sure we need to find another example of “ai”. And actually we can.
There is actually a step in between Proto Germanic and Old Norse called Proto Norse. We don’t have any extensive texts in it like we do with Old Norse, but we do have some inscriptions on stone which reveal that the original sound in their word for stone was “ai”. So Proto Norse has stainaz, and Gothic has stains. Both of these languages are the oldest Germanic languages we can find so we can be pretty sure the original sound was “ai”. This is pronounced like Modern English “eye” or the “igh” in “high” or “light”. IPa for it is /ai/.
So if you look up the etymology of the word “stone” and it gives the Proto Germanic form it will be listed as *stainaz. The star indicates that the word is reconstructed. Now that we have reconstructed the word we can do something cool. We can go back down from the Proto Germanic form and see how it developed into the languages we actually have texts for.
So Proto Germanic *stainaz became Old English stān. The “ai” sound became an “ā” sound like the sound you make when you say “ah!”. In IPA it is /a:/. It is now a different sound. When we have two sounds next two each other we call it a diphthong. “ai” pronounced as IPA /ai/ is a dipthong. This sound changed to a monophthong (which is just one sound) “ā” IPA /a:/ in Old English and this didn’t just happen once. Here is how stone and other words with the same sound developed from Proto Germanic. The first term is Proto Germanic, the second term is Old English and the third term is Modern English. The “þ” is pronounced like “th”.
*stainaz stān stone
*haimaz hām home
*aiks āc oak
*aiþaz āþ oath
*bainaz bān bone
We can do the same thing for German. The first term is Proto Germanic, the second term is Old High German and the third term is Modern German.
*stainaz stein Stein
*heimaz heim Heim
*aiks eih Eich
*aiþaz eid Eid
*bainaz bein Bein
I discussed the development of the word “stone” in a previous article but I wanted to go a step further. Not all words with “ai” in Proto Germanic developed into Old English “ā”. What? Not a completely regular change?! How could language be so irregular! Well, languages were spoken by people and sometimes people don’t follow the rules and languages are just generally messy anyways.
Sometimes “ai” in Proto Germanic became ǣ in Old English. It is the sound of the first letter of the word “apple” except elongated. In IPA it is /æ:/. Here are some examples with Proto Germanic, Old English and then Modern English.
*dailiz dǣl deal
*mainijaną mǣnan mean
*saiwiz sǣ sea
*taisilō tǣsel teasel (a type of plant)
*uzdailiją ordǣl ordeal
*braidį̄ brǣdu breadth
*flaiską flǣsc flesh
As you can see, ǣ often becomes “ea” in Modern English but not always. This could be for many reason. The letters around the word sometimes affect how the vowels behave. If a word is easier to pronounce in a different way then the alternate way might become the more popular way of saying it. Another reason is simply because someone said it differently one day, other people copied them and it just became the most popular pronunciation over time.
Lets look how these Proto Germanic words developed in German. The first term is Proto Germanic, the second term is Old High German and the third term is Modern German.
*dailiz teil Teil
*mainijaną meinen meinen
*saiwiz sēo See
*taisilō zeisala Zeisel
*uzdailiją urteil Urteil
*braidį̄ breitī Breite
*flaiską fleisk Fleisch
“ai” generally became “ei” in German but again no sound shift affects all words of a language. It is more of a general trend rather than a universal. What we can see from this is that in English “ai” might become “ā” or “ǣ”, but in German it mostly just becomes “ei”. This is what is interesting about sound changes. They seem to have a mind of their own. They might affect almost all words, or maybe just a subset of them.
Once we know this we can find some interesting examples of it. Why are “great”, “steak”, “break” pronounced like they are? The “ea” in them should be pronounced like the “ea” in “tea”, “steam” and “beam”. “great” and words where the “ea” is pronounced like that are examples of words that for some reason didn’t follow a sound shift like other words.
In Middle English words with “ea” were pronounced very similarly to how we now pronounce “great”. In Dutch, “break” is “breken” which sounds similar to our word “break”. Another example of a group of words that didn’t change is words with “oa” that are pronounced like “broad”. Most of the words with “oa” eventually changed to sound like the sound in “road”. I mentioned the Great Vowel Shift earlier. Well “broad” and “great” are two examples of words that did not go through the expected shift and still have their old sounds.
Why did they not go through the shift? Maybe one dialect held onto the older sound for longer and for some reason used the word more often so people heard their version of the word more often so they ended up using their version. But it could just be random. That’s what’s funny about language. It has a lot of structure and also systematic change. But it also has a lot of random change. It’s a lot like a biological organism that sometimes keeps an old trait that wasn’t that useful but never bothered getting rid of.
I remember that these changes that didn’t affect 100% of words used to bothered me. But now I see it as a constant reminder of the vitality and ever changing picture of language. It’s like a tide coming in and out. Sometimes the tides reveals more and sometimes less. Its always different. And same with sound changes. Sometimes they affect almost all words and sometimes the shift affects far fewer words. But either way they are examples of the constant movement and vitality that makes studying languages so interesting.
Thanks for reading 🙂
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I need to get better at doing language learning consistently. You have a week long streak and then you get busy and you forget to do it. Oh well, at least I work with languages for a living so even when I am not Duolingo’ing I am still learning language stuff 🙂
Phrases in Old English
The IPA transcription appears after the phrase
Eala /eːala/ – Hello
Hū gǣþ hit þē? /huː gæːθ hit θɛː/ – How are you? Hit gǣþ wel /hɪt gæːθ wɛl/ – Fine
Hu hātest þu? /huː haːtɛst θuː/ – What is your name? Iċ hāte ___ /ɪt͡ʃ haːtɛ/ – My name is ___
Gēse /jeːzɛ/ – Yes
Nēse /neːzɛ/ – No
Iċ ne mæġ (Eald)1 Englisc spreċan /itʃ͡ nɛ mæj (ɛald) eŋglɪʃ sprɛtʃ͡ an/ – I can not speak (Old) English.
Iċ (ne) þæt underġiete /itʃ͡ nɛ θæt ʊndɜrjɪɛtɛ/ – I (don’t) understand
Spriċþ man (Nīw) Englisc hēr? /sprɪt͡ʃθ man (niːw) eŋglɪʃ her/ – Is there someone here who speaks (Modern) English?
Hwanen cymst þu? /ʍanɛn kʏmst θu/ – Where are you from?
Iċ cume of ___ /itʃ͡ kʊme of/ – I am from ___
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