Episode 96: From Alpha to Omega

During the early Middle English period, the long vowel sound represented by letter A started to shift to a new sound represented by letter O.  In this episode, we explore this early vowel shift, and we also explore the dispute between King John and Pope Innocent III over the selection of a new Archbishop of Canterbury.


25 thoughts on “Episode 96: From Alpha to Omega

  1. You mentioned a book on the Bible. It’s called Revelation, not Revelations.

    Phlippians is addressed to the churches in Philippi. Galatians, to those in Galatia. Revelation, to those in seven cities in Asia Minor, none of them named Revelatia. It’s a pet peeve of mine. 🙂

    Before I listened to this I was listening to Old Blind Dogs, which sings mostly in Scots.

    “He’s ta’en the fiddle intae baith his hands
    And brak it o’er a stane.” -MacPhersons Rant

    Keep up the good work. Blessings

    • “He has taken the fiddle intO bOth his hands
      and brOk it over a stOne.”
      In Danish:
      “Han har taget fiolen i baegge sine haender
      og braekket den over en sten”
      quite alike… 🙂
      …Aha, so even the word stone was pronounced with an ”aa”: ”staan”.
      In German it is “Stein” pronounced “shtaain”.
      In Danish it is “sten” pronounced like English “stain” (spot).

      // Helge (Helyae)

      • I love the contributions made by people who share examples of their own mother tongue to enrich our understanding of this fantastic family of languages. Thank you Helge.

        • I agree with Denis — thanks, Helge. Your example is especially interesting in Danish, given the early history of Danes/Vikings in England & their influence on early English. So many similarities still exist!

  2. I started listening to The History of English podcast more than a year ago, and I finally caught up! So now get it in gear; I need more episodes!

    I supported the podcast through Patreon for a while, then had to suspend, but I just resigned up. Great, great stuff. Thank you so much for doing this.

      • ” … once a month!”.
        This thought, and the terror it holds, keeps me awake at night.
        To calm my nerves I listen to “The History of English Podcast” and to my eternal shame, often enough finish my current episode and move on to the next one, which of course brings me closer to my worst nightmare. There’d better be a discussion of “recursion” in here somewhere (GRIN)

        I am “going off” Kevin; he seems to be peddling an insidious form of addiction. (HUGE grin)

    • Thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast. I’m trying to release a new episode every three weeks, so keep an eye out for new episodes based on that schedule.

  3. Took me a while to get around to listening to this, but it was completely fascinating! Had me wondering about the exceptions – the internet says “name” is from OE “nama”, but we don’t pronounce it “nome”. Does your research indicate why some words were subject to this shift and not others?

    Keep up the good work, Kevin!

    • Thanks for the question. This is actually a reply to both Rootboy and Michael Grant below regarding the exceptions to the A-O sound change. First of all, this is one of the big challenges with any discussion of English vowel changes. There are always LOTS of exceptions.

      As I noted in the episode, the sound change occurred with the ‘long’ A sound. It didn’t occur with the ‘short’ A sound. So that accounts for some of the exceptions. I think that ‘name’ (nama) and ‘make’ (macian’) had short A sounds in Old English (at least according to my resources). That probably explains why those words didn’t become ‘nome’ and ‘moke’ in Modern English. Presumably, the short vowels in ‘nama’ and ‘macian’ were elongated in Middle English, and then changed again with the Great Vowel Shift to their modern /ay/ sound. I haven’t researched the history of those words in any detail, so those are just my quick thoughts.

      Words like ‘father’ and ‘what’ are exceptions because they also had a different vowel sound in Old English. Both had the /æ/ sound found in modern words like ‘hat’ and ‘bat.’ ‘Father’ was typically spelled as ‘fæder,’ and ‘what’ was typically spelled as ‘hwæt.’ Again, this sound shifted to the /ah/ sound in later periods of English.

  4. Fascinating stuff. But I too was left wondering over the words with an A that didn’t make that transition; the ones that immediately occurred to me were “father” and “make”.

  5. I was expecting nama to finish up being nom.

    My thought was that in Old English a short “a” before a nasal m/n/ng was pronounced as an “o”. This also included an alternative spelling with an “o”. I thought that in Middle English people would have been used to the “o” pronunciation but not the old “a” spelling.

    This seems to have happened with fram > from, lang > long and strang > strong. However and, hand, lamb and man finished with the short “a”. The noun sang gave us song whereas the verb sang gave us sang. Nama seems to be very strange as it gave us name with the modern long “a”.

    Interestingly it seems that name did appear as “nome” in Middle English and hand did appear as “honde” in Middle English.

    It would be interesting to hear the different processes.

  6. Great episode, Kevin! Are most of the words that had this sound change represented by the “oa” spelling? As in “boat,” “oak,” “toad”? I guess that reflects the in-between phase of the “open o.”

    • Yes and no. In Modern English, the long O sound is usually represented by either “oa” (as in boat, goat and road) or “o + (consonant) + silent e” (as in home, stone and rope). So those Old English words are usually spelled with one of those two spelling conventions in Modern English. I am not sure that “oa” was originally intended to mean ‘the sound between o and a.’ I think it has a more complicated history, but I would have to dig back through my research notes to recall the full story.

  7. So my crusade is to ensure the correct pronunciation of short-lived. You pronounced lived with a short i even though it is the past tense of the noun, life, rhyming with hived. I understand from your podcasts that language is always evolving, however, my ears are greatly disturbed when I hear this pronounced incorrectly.
    I love your podcasts, by the way. I have been listening for a couple of years and have almost caught up with the newer episodes. I appreciate all of your research.

    • I’m curious if you are from the UK? The OED says that the proper pronunciation of “short-lived” is with a long I (as in “life”). But the Merriam-Webster dictionary says the proper pronunciation is with a short I (as in “lift”). Merriam-Webster does acknowledge the pronunciation with a long I as an alternate pronunciation. Frankly, I don’t think I have ever heard the word pronounced with a long I. I wonder if this is mainly a difference between American English and British English, perhaps with some American accents retaining the British pronunciation.

      • Thank you for your response. I live in the southern US, East Tennessee, specifically, and I was taught the proper way to say this is with a long I due to it being a past tense of a short life. There are just some things that I have trouble letting go of!
        I really enjoy your podcasts and occasionally you will mention a word that you say is no longer used, or perhaps, not widely used and it will be something that I use in conversations quite often. I do not wish to be called archaic! LOL

        • Got it. Of course, any discussion of a ‘proper’ pronunciation gets into the never-ending debate between prescriptivism and descriptivism, but that’s a debate for another day. (And it’s a debate in which I find myself somewhere in the middle.) Glad you’re enjoying the podcast!

      • I haven’t noticed anyone pronouncing Short-Lived with a long ‘I’ either and I was born and have lived my entire life in UK . But as you say complete OED gives primary pronunciation with long I but also allows short I and shortlife-d. So all three are correct in England.

        GREAT podcast btw.

    • I’m from the UK, and I think I can confidently say that I’ve never heard “short-lived” (or long-lived” for that matter) pronounced with a long I. In this context, “lived” is the past participle of the verb “to live”, so should be pronounced the same as in “he has lived a good life”. It’s possible, of course, that it may have been pronounced differently in the past, but not today.

  8. One question came into my mind listening to this excellent episode – if OE ghast turned by the standard means into modern ghost, why did the adjective ghastly retain its original vowel?

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