Episode 100: Decoding English

In this special 100th episode, we review the major consonant sound changes that have impacted English since the Proto-Indo-European language.  These sound changes provide us with a set of general rules that we can use to distinguish loanwords from native Old English words.


27 thoughts on “Episode 100: Decoding English

  1. Well done, Kevin; a remarkable achievement.
    The podcast has changed my understanding of the English language, its history, and its origins, and has been both a help and an inspiration in my teaching job.
    Thank you, congratulations and I look forward to hearing you continue the story.

  2. Happy 100! It’s been an amazing series to this point and I’m eager to hear what’s ahead. One question about Old English sounds: The gn and kn consonant clusters were originally pronounced. What about the wr in write or wright? Was it more of a breathy r or was it a w sound followed by an r?

    • As far as I know, the WR spelling in Old English represent a slight /w/ sound before the R. That /w/ sound has generally disappeared over time.

      • Thanks! I like trying to pronounce Old English words with what we believe was approximately their original sound. I’ve never been quite sure about wr. My interest in that particular consonant cluster stems from my last name partly, but also because of write. So, thanks for that answer.

  3. 100 episodes! Congratulations! I have thoroughly enjoyed the podcast and I am looking forward to the next 100 episodes! Keep up the good work!

  4. Just came across your podcast this week by accident it’s brilliant, I can’t believe you were under my radar. Congratulations.

    • Thanks! Glad you discovered the podcast. Be sure to start from the beginning because the podcast is structured chronologically. I hope you enjoy the entire series!

  5. Pingback: The History of English Podcast – Grammar Logic and Rhetoric

  6. It is wonderful that the language took centre stage again. I enjoy the history of the monarchs but I come here for the development of the language.

    • Thanks! My goal is to provide the historical context for the changing nature of English, but sometimes I like to focus solely on the language.

  7. I’ve been listening from the beginning and just reached this episode, Congrats! I look forward to the content to come!

    I’m particularly interested to hear once you get to your dialect research. I myself am from Ontario, Canada and often Canadian accents are dramatized in television, most commonly representing an eastern Canadian accent I believe. It would be interesting to know more about the roots and unique traits of our accents.

    Another note, I just returned from a trip to Liberia, Africa where the primary language is English. While they read and write common English they speak a dialect they call Liberian English. For a while I thought they were speaking an entirely different language! On this trip I was listening to your podcast and it made me wonder if you’ve gathered any information for Africa. Interestingly Liberia was never apart of the commonwealth.

    Thanks to your podcast I have a new understanding and outlook on the relationship between language, history and geography!

    Keep up the good work!



    • Thanks for the feedback. I believe that Liberia speaks English because it was once a US colony. Anyway, I will definitely try to explore the expansion of English into Africa, the South Pacific, and other parts of the world when I get to the Modern English period. I recently did a bonus episode at Patreon about modern English pidgins in the South Pacific. I would love to get more voice samples from these regions.

      With respect to modern English accents in Canada, US, Britain, Australia, etc., I am going to try to explore those developments as much as I can. That is why I am collecting voice samples. Stay tuned!

  8. Hi Kevin,

    Just starting listening to your wonderful podcast! I was wondering about English’s “th” sound. I always thought it was native because it seems like a unique sound in the Indo-European languages. Is it?

    • The ‘th’ sound is a very rare sound indeed, but it is not limited to English. It was one of the specific sound changes from the original Indo-European language to the Proto-Germanic language identified by Jacob Grimm. So it was once common in the early Germanic languages. It is still found in languages like English and Icelandic. Greek also had the same ‘th’ sound represented by the Greek letter theta. But you are correct that it is not a common phoneme in modern European languages.

      • Really, Greek HAS the “th” sound but historically DID NOT.

        Within Ancient Greek, most scholars agree that the “th” sound represented by theta (θ) usually came out as an aspirated/breathed “t” sound, though Doric probably had a fricative version (more like the English “th” sounds) and some other dialects lost the aspiration altogether and made a simpler “t” sound. The aspirated/breathed “t” sound comes out like you’re breathing really hard when you say a “t” sound (think of saying the word “top” into a cheap microphone and hearing that sort of popping “t” sound when you play it back).

        During the post-classical period, Koine Greek (a version of the Attic dialect that served as the Mediterranean linga franca) began to pronounce “th” as voiceless and voiced fricatives, yielding sounds familiar to English speakers (as in, “thanks” and “that,” respectively); this pronunciation persists in modern Greek.

        In this way, the shared pronunciations of “th” between contemporary Greek and English exemplify a sort of “convergent evolution;” in other words, these languages just happen to have produced the same sounds rather than having retained historically shared sounds. Icelandic and English, however, have indeed shared these sounds historically.

  9. Congrats Kevin! I would dearly love to see two wall charts available to buy based on this episode:

    1) A flow chart leading through the rules to determine where a word is likely to have come from.

    2) A chart showing the progression of sound changes in English through its history, along with word examples and IPA.

    I can think of no finer wall decoration 🙂

  10. Absolutely love this podcast, would you ever consider doing/have you already done an episode on Llanito? It’s a truly curious mix of British English and Andalusian Spanish, as well as Genoese and Haketia (a variety of Judeo-Spanish). Here’s a website in it: http://www.llanitollanito.com/

    • Thanks for the suggestion. At the very end of the podcast series, I intend to discuss the spread of English pidgins, creoles and other related dialects in the modern era. Maybe I’ll include Llanito in that discussion.

  11. I discovered this only at the beginning of the year and my wife and I are listening with great enjoyment about 5 a week. At this rate we will run out of episodes in mid-June.

    You said that boy and toy are of obscure origin. Well, bubbe is a word for boy in both Yiddish and Swiss German, so couldn’t boy just be an original word cognate with those? I have always assumed that toy is cognate with the German Zeug, pronounced with roughly the same vowel. Zeug means gadget or apparatus. Flugzeug is an airplane. The Danish cognate, also meaning airplane, is spelled flytøy.

    • Scholars have suggested a possible connection between between English “boy” and the root of the Yiddish/Swiss German word you mentioned (which is also cognate with Dutch “boef”). However, it appears that the connection hasn’t been fully accepted.

      With respect to the word “toy” and the German word “Zeug,” here is what the OED has to say:

      “… in Kilian 1599 ‘tuygh’, dialect ‘tuych’, ‘tugh’ (arms, implements, armaments, impedimenta, ornaments), = German ‘zeug’ (apparatus, tools, gear, furniture, stuff, trash, etc.), Low German ‘tüg,’ ‘tüüg,’ Middle Low German ‘tuch,’ ‘tûg’. But, if the sense-development shown above is historically correct, it is difficult to see in either of these suggestions, the origin of the English word. It is indeed true that Dutch ‘speeltuig’, German ‘spielzeug’, and Danish ‘legetoi’, mean ‘play-tool or implement, plaything, toy’, and that Sidney in 1586 used ‘playing toy’, which might conceivably be a rendering of one of these compounds; but this would still leave the earlier English history unexplained.”

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