Episode 88: The Long and Short of It

The Middle English document called the Ormulum is a goldmine for historical linguists because the text explicitly indicated how the vowel sounds in the text were to be pronounced.  The text was written at a time when the vowels in many words were changing. Some long vowels were being pronounced as short vowels, and vice versa.  The Ormulum captured many of these changes for posterity. In this episode, we explore the concept of long vowels and short vowels, and we see how Modern English uses many of the same spelling innovations first documented in the Ormulum.

31 thoughts on “Episode 88: The Long and Short of It

  1. Throughout the episode, you use king and ring as example of words that have a long e (“ee”) sound, like the one in the words teach or eat, saying that they are example of words that retain the old long i sound from before the vowel shift.

    Don’t they, rather, have a short i sound, like in hit? Looking up the pronunciation seems to confirm this. Is this a difference between Southern American versions of English and those used elsewhere?

    • Hi. Thanks for the question. As I’ve noted before in the podcast, I find the topic of vowel pronunciations especially challenging because it is difficult to find words with vowel pronunciations that are universal. So let me explain my logic in using “king” and “ring” as examples.

      In Modern English, the ‘long’ I sound is the diphthong found in words like “time” and “find.” The ‘short’ I sound is the sound found in “hit” and “miss.” As you noted, the vowel sound of “king” and “ring” is technically classified as a ‘short’ I because it is usually pronounced like the traditional short I of “hit” (or it is pronounced similar to that sound). However, some accents (like my own) tend to pronounce it more like /ee/. In this episode, I was looking for an example of a word where the letter I represented the long /ee/ sound heard in Old English. In my accent (and many other US accents), the I in “king” and “ring” is very close to that traditional /ee/ sound. And I tried to give it that pronunciation in the episode. So that was my thought process in using “king” and “ring” as examples of words where the I has the sound found in Old English. But you are correct, the vowel is technically classified as a short vowel today.

      • It seems to me that the letter e has the most pronunciations. You introduce the long sound in Modern English as the sound in “enough”, but I pronounce that word more like UH-nuff, with the same sound in both syllables. Also, I would never pronounce tube as tyube I always say toob, but I do say cube the way you said it, and it has the same vowel as huge. I’m from Chicagoland, and I’ve been told that we pronounce our vowels weird.

        • Thanks! As I noted in the episode, vowel pronunciations are highly variable. But they also give the language lots of unique and charming accents. 🙂

      • I am so relieved to have come here and found this already brought up and answered! This was driving me crazy! I have never actually heard anyone else pronounce the words k-ee-ng or r-ee-ng in all the years I’ve been consuming media. Do you have any information on areas of the world that pronounce it like that? Now that I’m thinking about it it may be that way in eastern canada as well but I’m not certain about that.

        • Hi Nick. I am not sure if that pronunciation can be broken down by region. Obviously, it is found in parts of the South. It is my understanding that it also exists in parts of California. In retrospect, it was probably a poor example. I should have used “pizza” which I think I used in prior episodes.

  2. If you are interested in hearing the vowels as they were Dutch is a good source. All the early-middle English vowels you named are still used like that in present day Dutch. Which makes for pretty tricky spelling: your a is our ee and your e is our ie for example.

    • Thanks for the note. That’s very interesting. It is a subtle example of the historical link between Old English and Dutch.

      • It’s also where you see remainders of the original g (with the guttural sound like the German -ch), like dag (day) and gister (yesterday)

  3. A question I have noticed, but I do not know if it is a “rule” or not. It sees to me, when a four letter word is set up by Consonant, Vowel, Consonant, the letter e, the Vowel in the middle is long. (pin, pine, pan, pane, etc.) Is this an actual rule created by some one or is it just a think I noticed?

    • You have definitely discovered one of the basic spelling rules of Modern English – and I will discuss it in some detail in the next episode. The key is really the silent -e on the end. The silent -e was adopted in Middle English as a way to represent a long vowel sound. Stay tuned for the next episode!

    • The rool that I learned in skule was that if two vowels (including an ‘y’ that is pronounced as a vowel) are separated by a SINGLE consonant, then the first vowel is long. If you don’t have a second vowel handy, you can throw in a silent ‘e’.

      I once had a friend and colleague named ‘Jony’ — and people who had only seen it name written pronounced it “Joanie” — whether or not they had learned the rool in skule. But he pronounced it as “Johnny”.

  4. We just recently discovered your podcast and are enjoying it greatly.
    I’ve always been interested in history and also genealogy or family history. I could not help but wonder if this episode might not help explain something that has been quite puzzling about my surname, “Elliott” which has over 80 variants throughout primarily the British Isles & France as well as a few other European countries.
    Keith Elliot Hunter, historian for the Elliot Clan Society in the UK writes that all Elliot surname variants in the British Isles originated from a contingent of Bretons who accompanied William the Conqueror in 1066 and who are thought to have originated in and taken their name from, the HALEGOUËT forest in Brittany. Evidently “haleg” mean “willow” in Welsh/Cornish/Breton.
    Greatly simplified, the evolution of the surname may have proceeded something like: HALEGOUËT >ELLÉGOUET > ELLÉOUET > ELLIGOTT > ELLIOT. Today, the most common variant by far is Elliott but throughout the British Isles are found Eliot, Elyot, Elliot, Eliott, Alliot, McElligott, and even Alyth (a town in Perthshire) to name but a very few of the more common.
    There is an old rhyme which commemorates the more common spelling differences:
    The double L and single T descend from Minto and Wolflee,
    The double T and single L mark the old race in Stobs that dwell.
    The single L and single T the Eliots of St Germains be,
    But double T and double L, who they are nobody can tell.
    It has long been clear that spelling was a free-for-all among early scribes, and since many, if not most, of those they created documents for were illiterate, there were few in any position to debate the scribes’ spelling choices. One can occasionally find multiple spellings of the same word or surname on the same page of some old documents.
    This episode of your podcast made me wonder if the various spellings, sometimes with double or single consonants, might not provide clues as to how our surname was pronounced as it migrated through various districts & dialects, and as it moved north from the West Country into Scotland and then Ireland.

    • I don’t know much about genealogy, but I can confirm that the spelling of words and names in Middle English did tend to reflect the pronunciation of those words and names. The tricky part is trying to discern what the scribe’s intent was when he spelled a word or name a particular way.

  5. Despite the efforts of the scribes of the medieval English chancery, with the advent of lay literacy English spelling remained as chaotic as the bewildering variety of accents in England, with their roots in the different accents of the West Saxons, East Saxons, Jutes, Mercians and Angles, and in the north, the influence of Danish, which can be heard today in the umlaut vowels of north-eastern England, in which ‘home’ sounds more like ‘herm.’ Educated Elizabethan gentlemen were increasingly mocked for their regional accents. Sir Walter Raleigh spoke with a West Country accent, e.g. Somerset = Zummerzett. Traces of 17th century accents can be heard in the USA, and this is confirmed by studying early 18th century English poetry, in which God can be seen to have rhymed with Gad. The dialect of the richer, more populous English eastern counties became the basis of ‘received pronunciation,’ which during the 18th century became afflicted by an artificially contrived, so called ‘plummy’ or ‘posh’ accent which emerged from the great private (called ‘Public’) schools, as an affectation designed to set the rich and educated apart from the rest. Late 18th century educated Americans may very well have been shocked by the mannerisms of redcoat officers. The same sort of affectations were adopted in the French spoken by ‘les precieux’ (the precious ones) in post-revolutionary France.
    I recommend “The Stories of English,” by David Crystal.

    • I have several of David Crystal’s books, and they are all very good. “The Stories of English” is a great overview of the History of English.

  6. I loved your list of 18 words that start with B and end with D and have different vowel sounds between! A great way to show there are far more than 5 vowels in English… if only I could hear them all. Can you share the full list as text? Thank you.

    • Thanks! Here is the list of words that I presented in the podcast: bead, bid, bed, bad, bard, bod, board, bud, booed, bird, bayed, bode, bide, bowed, boyd, beard, baird and bored.

      • Thank you for that list! Now, what English vowel sounds aren’t covered? I can think only of the soft “oo” of “good” or “hood”.

        “Bade” could go on this list, but you have “bayed” which I believe is pronounced identically. Though I would have said “board” and “bored” are pronounced identically… I would even say that YOU pronounced them identically in the podcast (which I replayed a couple of times)! But I guess I’m missing something.

        Thanks for this great episode – loved the linguistic depth and the true history of why we pronounce these words as we do.

        • I think you could add in the British short ‘o’ sound (as distinguished from the US short ‘o’ sound). I mentioned that distinction in the episode. I think you could also add in the short ‘e’ sound known as ‘schwa’ as heard in words like about and allow. This sound is distinct from the conventional short sounds of ‘a’, ‘o’ and ‘u.’ British English also uses certain diphthongs that are not typically used in US English. Those diphthongs include the sounds heard in ‘poor,’ ‘hair,’ and ‘hear’ if you pronounce them in standard Received Pronunciation (without the ‘r’ sound at the end).

  7. Great episode. It struck me as I was listening to the changes of the sounds of long and short vowels from Middle English to today that most of the Middle English long vowel sounds are very similar (the same?) as the names of the vowels in modern French.

    The name of “a” is the sound of the vowel in “hat”;
    the name of “i” is the sound of the long “e” vowel in Modern English;
    the name of “o” is the sound of the long o vowel today;
    the name of “u” is the sound of the vowel in rude or “oo” in boo.

    The one difference might be “e”, which in French does not sound like the e in the French word “cafe”, but more like the “eu” sound in the French word “bleu”.

    And of course, the name of “y” in modern French is I-Grec – “Greek I”.

    • Yes, the sounds of the Middle English vowels were very similar to French and most of the modern Romance languages. At the time, all of those languages were still working with the same basic Latin alphabet and most of its original pronunciations. However, English vowels underwent a great deal of change during the Middle English period (especially the long vowels).

    • Spanish, also, calls ‘y’ “i griega” (Greek I).

      This must be due to Latin not originally having this letter or the vowel sound (“ee” with your lips in an o shape, as Kevin said), but used the letter for borrowed Greek words.

      • The history of the letter Y is a bit complicated, but you are ultimately correct. The letter Y has its origins in Greek. It was borrowed into the Latin alphabet and called ‘Greek I’ because it was a borrowed letter.

  8. You spoke about “ld” pulling short vowels long, specifically “bold” and “scold”.

    But “bald” and “scald” (both short) immediately came to my mind when you said this. Is the ‘a’ vowel a consistent exception to this rule?

    Also, is ‘e’ a consistent exception to “nd”? e.g. “spend” and “send” (both short)

    • It occurs to me that “bald” and “scald” might be considered metrically long (i.e. “baaald”) before the vowel shift made long-a like in “hate”? But then why were these excepted from the vowel shift?

      • Hi PS,

        You have identified several exceptions to the general rule presented in the episode. This is the great challenge of discussing the history of vowel sounds in English – almost every rule has several exceptions (and many of the exceptions also have exceptions).

        First of all, I think “bald” and “scald” had vowel sounds that would be considered long vowel sounds similar to the long sound of ‘A’ that existed prior to the Great Vowel Shift. I haven’t researched those particular words, but it appears that the sounds in those words did not switch to the modern long ‘A’ sound during the Great Vowel Shift.

        I should also note that “bald” didn’t have its current ‘-ld’ ending until the 1500s. Prior to that, the word was “ballede” so the rule didn’t really apply to that word during the earlier time when certain short vowel sounds were elongated.

        The ‘e’ in “spend” and “send” is much easier to explain. After the vowels were elongated before ‘-nd’ and ‘-mb’ in late Old English and early Middle English, there was a later re-shortening of some of those vowels before those sounds in early Modern English. Specifically, the ‘a’, ‘e’ and ‘u’ vowel sounds re-shortened before ‘-mb’ in Modern English (thus modern “lamb” and “dumb”). And the ‘a’, ‘e’ and ‘o’ vowel sounds re-shortened before ‘-nd’ in Modern English (thus modern “band”, “hand”, “spend”, “send”, and “bond”).

  9. If the influence of -ld is so prominent if at the end of the word (so not followed by another syllable), then is there any specific reason for the persistent pronunciation of words such as “held”, “gild” and “meld”? Is there anything specific about these words, or are these words just exceptions to the rule?

    • Believe it or not, “meld” is a very recent word in the English language. The OED indicates that the earliest known use was in 1939. Since it was not around in early Middle English, it doesn’t show the changes covered in this episode. “Meld” may be derived from the word “melt,” which would probably explain its pronunciation.

      With respect to “held” and “gild,” those are exceptions to the general rule. Almost every rule concerning vowel pronunciations and spellings have exceptions. Most exceptions can be explained with a careful study of the word’s history and development, but I haven’t had a chance to dig into the history of the vowel sound in those particular words in any detail.

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