Episode 34: Sounds Like Old English

The sound of English began to change as soon as the first Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain. We explore the specific sound changes which occurred and the impact which those changes had on modern English.


12 thoughts on “Episode 34: Sounds Like Old English

  1. It might help get one’s head around this vowel shift thing by considering some of the changes that are going on in American English right under our noses. For example The Low-Back Merger of job and dawn, and the The Southern Shift where sit and set are becoming more like see it and say it. I know it’s leaking into Canada, and I’d be curious to know about any similar phenomena in South Africa, India, Ireland, Australia, and so on. It’s all part of the natural divergence of language.

    • When we lived in the UK in 2003 – 2004 (we’re Australian by the way), we commonly saw questions in the local paper along the lines of, “How does one tell the difference between New Zealanders, Australians and South Africans?” My answer to this is that NZ vowels are narrow and peaked, Australian vowels are broad and flat, and South Africans sound like people from the Netherlands.

      • Hi Laetitia, I personally have no trouble telling the various antipodeans apart, having lived in London UK for many years. I find it amazing that so many North Americans can’t distinguish Australian from British, let alone Oz from Kiwi. What I meant was this. At one point the immigrants spoke the way they did back home in England. Then things went their separate ways. What I’m wondering is how things are evolving right now. E.g. are NZ & Australian English getting more different or more alike?

        • Hi John. It really depends on the region one lives in.

          We live on the eastern coast of Australia in an area that has (relatively to other areas and groups) a lot of New Zealanders, so there’s a fair bit of mixing, in terms of both accent and vocabulary, of the two. Various other groups from around the world have settled, in relatively large numbers, in different parts of the country so have influenced the accents and vocabularies in their areas similarly.

          I guess the result is that we are getting more regionalisms in terms of both accent and vocabulary. However, it may never get to be as strongly distinctive as the USA or the UK because our population, in this period of accent and vocabulary development, is much more mobile than populations in the USA and UK were when they were going through the same point in their developments (and never mind the influences of popular media that didn’t exist 100+ years ago).

    • John, in a later podcast episode (it’s one of those in the high 50s or low 60s, numerically), Kevin explains that the tendency to draw out vowel sounds like “sit” and “set” into “see-it” and “say-it” is old, going back to Wessex pronunciation. People who emigrated from Wessex, he says, tended to settle in the southern eastern seaboard of present-day USA. That’s in part the reason for the drawn-out vowels sounds of southern USA dialects.

  2. Regarding the mutated vowels in English, most of the examples cited must have either preceded the arrival of the language into Britain, or have been occurring concurrently across many Germanic-speaking areas. Consider:

    English: man, men; foot, feet; mouse, mice
    German: Mann, Maenner; Fuss, Fuesse; Maus, Maeuse

  3. Many continual thanks, Kevin, for this terrific series.

    You mentioned that “book,” “goat,” and “friend” were (for a time) among the words that followed the “-iz” plural form with accompanying vowel shift. My curiosity burgeons: What were the plurals for these?

    If “book” had the same vowel pronunciation as now (not a reasonable assumption, I know, but I have no better one), it’s not a direct transfer from the other vowel shift examples you gave. You mentioned in this episode that the vowel that sounds to me like an umlauted “u” was one of the front vowels toward which language tends to shift, and my guess is that the first vowel in “bookiz” shifted toward that umlauted “u” sound.

    What about goat and friend? Geetiz? Frindiz?

    Very fun. Thanks! : ^>

    • Hi Kirsten,

      It is my understanding that the plural ‘-iz’ form of those words occurred so early in the history of Old English (or perhaps even in the late Proto-Germanic period) that there is no surviving document to establish those particular plural forms. The ‘-iz’ plural forms are implied based on reconstructions.

      By the way, the surviving Old English documents confirm the following plural forms:

      Sing. – Plural
      goat – gait, gaet
      book – bec, boec
      friend – frynd, freond

  4. You said Old English kept ‘tusk’ unchanged, but I remember read ‘tush’ in a Kipling poem. It was in ‘The Jungle Book’ and the line ends ‘talon and tush and claw’, but the same line on the back cover was ‘talon and fang and claw’, so they definitely were talking about a big tooth.

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