What English Would Sound Like If It Was Pronounced Phonetically

The English language presents itself to students and non-native speakers as an almost cruelly capricious entity, its irregularities of spelling and conjugation impossible to explain without an advanced degree. It wasn’t until graduate school that I came to understand how spellings like “rough” and “knight” survived several hundreds of years of linguistic change, and preserved vestiges of phonetic pronunciations that had long since disappeared in historic upheavals like the Great Vowel Shift and subsequent spelling wars.

The importation of huge numbers of loan words from other languages, and exportation of English to the world, has made it a polyglot tongue that contains a multitude of spellings and pronunciations, to the consternation of everyone. Unlike French, which has a centralized body that adjudicates language change, English grows and evolves wildly. Dictionaries and linguistics departments struggle to keep up.




One almost wants to apologize to non-native speakers for the following sentence: “Though I coughed roughly and hiccoughed throughout the lecture, I still thought I could plough through the rest of it.” As Aaron Alon, narrator of the video above, points out, the “incredible inconsistency” of words with “ough” in them “can make English incredibly hard to master.” What if a governing body of English language scholars, like the Académie française, came together to prescribe a phonetically consistent pronunciation?

For one thing, they would have to deal with the diversity of vowel sounds—like the “a” in “father,” “ape,” and “apple.” As the video proceeds, we hear these regularized in the narrator’s speech. Students of the language's history might immediately recognize something like the sound of Shakespeare's Early Modern English, which did have a more phonetically consistent pronunciation. Soon the sounds of Romance languages—French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian—and the accents speakers of those languages bring to English, start to emerge.

By the time Alon has regularized the vowel sounds, and launched into a recitation of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, his pronunciation begins to sound like Chaucer’s Middle English, which you can hear pronounced above in a reading of The Canterbury Tales. If we hear the accent this way, the exercise shows that English once made far more phonetic sense (and had a more pleasing musical lilt) than it does today. Alternately, we may hear, as Jason Kottke does, an accent that “sounds a little like Werner Herzog doing an impression of someone from Wales doing an impression of an Italian who doesn’t speak English that well.” Which, he writes, “makes sense because that’s pretty much how the language came together in the first place!” More or less….

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The 1,700+ Words Invented by Shakespeare*

One of the favorite reference books on my shelves isn’t a style guide or dictionary but a collection of insults. And not just any collection of insults, but Shakespeare’s Insults for Teachers, an illustrated guide through the playwright’s barbs and put-downs, designed to offer comic relief to the beleaguered educator. (Books and websites about Shakespeare’s insults almost constitute a genre in themselves.) I refer to this slim, humorous hardback every time discussions of Shakespeare get too ponderous, to remind myself at a glance that what readers and audiences have always valued in his work is its lightning-fast wit and inventiveness.

While perusing any curated selection of Shakespeare’s insults, one can’t help but notice that, amidst the puns and bawdy references to body parts, so many of his wisecracks are about language itself—about certain characters’ lack of clarity or odd ways of speaking. From Much Ado About Nothing there’s the colorful, “His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes.” From The Merchant of Venice, the sarcastic, “Goodly Lord, what a wit-snapper you are!” From Troilus and Cressida, the derisive, “There’s a stewed phrase indeed!” And from Hamlet the subtle shade of “This is the very coinage of your brain.”




Indeed, it can often seem that Shakespeare—if we grant his historicity and authorship—is often writing self-deprecating notes about himself. “It is often said,” writes Fraser McAlpine at BBC America, that Shakespeare “invented a lot of what we currently call the English language…. Something like 1700 [words], all told,” which would mean that “out of every ten words," in his plays, "one will either have been new to his audience, new to his actors, or will have been passingly familiar, but never written down before.” It's no wonder so much of his dialogue seems to carry on a meta-commentary about the strangeness of its language.

We have enough trouble understanding Shakespeare today. The question McAlpine asks is how his contemporary audiences could understand him, given that so much of his diction was “the very coinage” of his brain. Lists of words first used by Shakespeare can be found aplently. There’s this catalog from the exhaustive multi-volume literary reference The Oxford English Dictionary, which lists such now-everyday words as “accessible,” “accommodation,” and “addiction” as making their first appearance in the plays. These “were not all invented by Shakespeare,” the list disclaims, “but the earliest citations for them in the OED” are from his work, meaning that the dictionary’s editors could find no earlier appearance in historical written sources in English.

Another shorter list links to an excerpt from Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Shakespeare Key, showing how the author, “with the right and might of a true poet… minted several words” that are now current, or “deserve” to be, such as the verb “articulate,” which we do use, and the noun “co-mart”—meaning “joint bargains”—which we could and maybe should. At ELLO, or English Language and Linguistics Online, we find a short tutorial on how Shakespeare formed new words, by borrowing them from other languages, or adapting them from other parts of speech, turning verbs into nouns, for example, or vice versa, and adding new endings to existing words.

“Whether you are ‘fashionable’ or ‘sanctimonious,’” writes National Geographic, “thank Shakespeare, who likely coined the terms.” He also apparently invented several phrases we now use in common speech, like “full circle,” “one fell swoop,” “strange bedfellows,” and “method in the madness.” (In another BBC America article, McAlpine lists 45 such phrases.) The online sources for Shakespeare’s original vocabulary are multitude, but we should note that many of them do not meet scholarly standards. As linguists and Shakespeare experts David and Ben Crystal write in Shakespeare’s Words, “we found very little that might be classed as ‘high-quality Shakespearean lexicography’” online.

So, there are reasons to be skeptical about claims that Shakespeare is responsible for the 1700 or more words for which he’s given sole credit. (Hence the asterisk in our title.) As noted, a great many of those words already existed in different forms, and many of them may have existed as non-literary colloquialisms before he raised their profile to the Elizabethan stage. Nonetheless, it is certainly the case that the Bard coined or first used hundreds of words, writes McAlpine, "with no obvious precedent to the listener, unless you were schooled in Latin or Greek.” The question, then, remains: “what on Earth did Shakespeare’s [mostly] uneducated audience make of this influx of newly-minted language into their entertainment?”

McAlpine brings those potentially stupefied Elizabethans into the present by comparing watching a Shakespeare play to watching “a three-hour long, open air rap battle. One in which you have no idea what any of the slang means.” A good deal would go over your head, “you’d maybe get the gist, but not the full impact,” but all the same, “it would all seem terribly important and dramatic.” (Costuming, props, and staging, of course, helped a lot, and still do.) The analogy works not only because of the amount of slang deployed in the plays, but also because of the intensity and regularity of the boasts and put-downs, which makes even more interesting one data scientist’s attempt to compare Shakespeare’s vocabulary with that of modern rappers, whose language is, just as often, the very coinage of their brains.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Hear Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight Read in Their Original Old and Middle English by an MIT Medievalist

Many a mocking critique floats around pointing out that some people who tell their multilingual neighbors to “speak English” seem to have a lot of trouble with the language themselves. I must confess, I find the observation more sad than funny. I’ve met many English speakers who struggle with understanding the peculiarities of the language and do not know its history. Increasingly, such things are not taught to those who don’t devote themselves to language study.

When people do learn how the language evolved, they can be shocked that for much of its history, English was unrecognizable to modern ears. Indeed, the study of Old English—or Anglo-Saxon, the language of Beowulf—satisfies foreign language requirements in many English departments. Originally written in runic before it incorporated the Latin alphabet (and retaining some of those early symbols afterward), this Germanic language slowly became more Latinate, and gave way among the reading classes in Britain to Anglo-Norman, a Germanic-French cousin, for a few centuries after 1066.




That's the very short version. These strains and more eventually commingled to form Middle English, the language of Chaucer, which also sounds to modern ears like another tongue, though we recognize more of it. In the video above, Medievalist and MIT professor Arthur Bahr gives us demonstrations of both Old and Middle English in readings of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as part of his 2014 course, “Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf." (You can still visit the course site, read the syllabus and download course materials.)

Bahr reads the first 20 lines of the ancient epic poem, which begins:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, 
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. 

“Besides being the language of Rohan in the novels of Tolkien,” he writes, “Old English is a language of long, cold, and lonely winters; of haunting beauty found in unexpected places; and of unshakable resolve in the face of insurmountable odds.” For all its distance from us, we can still recognize quite a lot in Old English if we listen closely. Much of its vocabulary and inflections survive, unchanged but for pronunciation and spelling, in modern English, including many of the language’s most basic words, like "the," “in” and “are,” and most common, like "god," “name,” “me,” “hand,” and even “old.”

After the Viking and Norman invasions, Old English became “the third language in its own country,” notes Luke Mastin at his History of English site. More spoken than written, it “effectively sank to the level of a patois or creole," with several distinct regional variants. English seemed at one time “in dire peril” of dying out but “showed its resilience once again, and, two hundred years after the Norman Conquest, it was English not French that emerged as the language of England," though it remained a diffuse collection of dialects. As you’ll hear in Bahr’s Middle English reading, it was also an English entirely transformed by the languages around it, as it would be once again a few hundred years later, when we get to the English of Shakespeare.

via Laughing Squid

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Professional Scrabble Players Replay Their Greatest Moves: Their Most Improbable, Patient & Strategic Moves of All Time

If ever the creators of the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are casting about for sequel-worthy source material, we suggest they look no further than The New Yorker’s video above, in which professional Scrabble players replay their greatest moves.

The bingo—a move in which a player uses all seven tiles on their rack, earning a bonus 50 points—figures prominently.

It seems that top ranked players not only eye their racks for potential bingos, they’re constantly calculating the odds of drawing a next-turn bingo by getting rid of existing tiles on a three or four letter word.




And what words!

The desire to win at all costs leads top seated players to throw down such ignoble words as “barf” and “mayo” in an arena where rarified vocabulary is the norm.

How many of us can define “stopbanks," 2017 North American champion Will Anderson’s winning word?

For the record, they're continuous mounds of earth built near rivers to stop water from the river flooding nearby land….

The pros’ game boards yield a vocabulary lesson that is perhaps more useful in Scrabble (or Banangrams) than in life. Look ‘em up!

aerugo

capeskin

celom

enginous

gox

horal

jupon

kex

mura

oxeye

pya

uredele

varve

zincate

Don’t neglect the two-letter words. They can make a one-point difference between a major win and total and unmitigated defeat.

ag

al

da

ef

mo

od

oe

qi

xi

yo

Careful, though—“ir” is  not a word, as Top 40 player Jesse Day discovered when attempting to rack up multiple horizontal and vertical points.

Bear in mind that challenging a word can also bite you in the butt. Busting an opponent’s fake word play costs them a turn. If the word in question turns out to be valid, you sacrifice a turn, as top 100 player, Princeton University’s Director of Health Professions Advising, Kate Fukawa-Connelly, found out in a match against David Gibson, a previous North American champ. Had she let it go, she would’ve bested him by one point.

Appear even more in the know by boning up on a glossary of Scrabble terms, though you’ll have to look far and wide for such deep cuts as youngest North American champion and food truck manager, Conrad Bassett-Bouchard’s “forking the board,” i.e. opening two separate quadrants, thus preventing the opposing player from blocking.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on March 20 for the second installment of Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Read A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a Hilarious & Informative Collection of Early Modern English Slang (1785)

A deep appreciation for profanity may rate high as a mark of a sophistication and authenticity. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has made the neuroscience of swearing an object of study; legendary comic actor, writer, and “language enthusiast” Stephen Fry declares the practice a fine art; studies show that those who swear may be more honest than those who don’t; and if you have any doubt about how much swearing contributes to the literary history of the English language, just do a search on Shakespeare’s many profane insults, so rich and varied as to constitute a genre all their own.

Not all vulgar speech is considered “swear words,” referencing sex acts and bodily functions, but many a critic and lexicographer has nonetheless decided that slang, obscene or otherwise, doesn’t belong in polite company with formal diction. Samuel Johnson, the esteemed 18th-century essayist, poet, and compiler of the 1755 Dictionary of the English Language deemed slang “unfit for his learned tome,” writes The Public Domain Review. So, enter Francis Grose to correct the error thirty years later with his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a “compendium of slang” chock full of hilarious idioms of every kind.




There is the bawdy (“Sugar stick—the virile member”), the scatological (“Cackling farts—eggs”), the oddly obscure (“Kittle pitchering—to disrupt the flow of a ‘troublesome teller of long stories’ by constantly questioning and contradicting unimportant details, especially at the start”). Puns make their inevitable way in (“Just-ass—a punning name for justice [judge]”), as of course do comic images for body parts (“Tallywags/Whirligigs—testicles”). Much of this Early Modern English slang sounds to American ears just as colorfully askew as contemporary English slang does (“Dog booby—an awkward lout”; “Captain queernabs—a shabby ill-dressed fellow”).

Grose, compiler of the dictionary, “was not one for library work” and preferred to collect his specimens in the field where slang lives and breathes—the streets, pubs, and houses of ill-repute. “Supported by his trusty assist Tom Cocking [your joke here],” Grose “cruised the watering holes of Covent Garden and the East End, eating, boozing, and listening. He took pleasure in hearing his name punningly connected to his rotund frame. And he produced a book brimming with Falstaffian life.” Very much a Shakespearean bon vivant, Grose appears as something of a ribald doppelganger of the rotund, yet moralistic and often scowling Dr. Johnson. (See his portrait here.)

The so-called “long 18th-Century”—a period lasting from the restoration of the Monarchy after the English Civil War to around the French Revolution—presents a tradition of lewd witticism, from the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, to Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” to the sordid fantasies of the Marquis de Sade. Such pornographic humor and rude earthiness offered a counterweight to heady Enlightenment philosophy, just as Shakespeare’s insults provide needed comic relief for his bloody tragedies. Grose’s dictionary can be seen as adding needed comic local color to the many serious dictionaries and studies of language that emerged in the 1700s.

But A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is also an important academic resource all its own, and “would strongly influence later dictionaries of this kind,” notes the British Library—those like J. Redding Ware’s 1909 Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase. We can see in Grose’s work how many slang words and phrases still in common use today—like “baker’s dozen,” "gift of the gab," “birds of a feather,” “birthday suit,” and “kick the bucket”—were just as current well over 200 years ago. And we get a very vivid sense of the world in which Grose moved in the many metaphors employed, most involving food and drink. (A “butcher’s dog,” for example, refers to someone who “lies by the beef without touching it; a simile often applicable to married men.”)

But we needn’t worry too much about scholarly uses for Grose’s work. Instead, we might find ourselves motivated to do as he did, hit the streets and the bars, and maybe bring back into circulation such locutions as “Betwattled” (surprised, confounded, out of one’s senses), “Chimping merry” (exhilarated with liquor), or, perhaps my favorite so far, “Dicked in the nob” (silly, crazed).

Page through Grose’s dictionary above or read it in a larger format (and/or download as a PDF or ePub) at the Internet Archive.

via Public Domain Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Shakespeare’s English Sounded Like, and How We Know It

A common joke has Americans overawed by people with British accents. It’s funny because it’s partly true; Yanks can grant undue authority to people who sound like Sir David Attenborough or Benedict Cumberbatch. But in these cases, what we generically call a British accent should more accurately be referred to as “Received Pronunciation” (or RP), the speech of BBC presenters and educated Brits from certain middle- and upper-class areas in Southern England. (If you like Received Pronunciation, you’re going to love “posh” Upper RP.) Received Pronunciation is only one of many British accents, as comedian Siobhan Thompson shows, most of which we’re unlikely to hear narrating nature documentaries.

RP is also sometimes called “the Shakespeare accent,” for its association with famous thespians like John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, or Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. But as we’ve previously noted in a post on the work of linguist David Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, the English of Shakespeare’s day sounded nothing like what we typically hear on stage and screen.




What linguists call “Original Pronunciation” (OP), the actual Shakespeare accent, had a flavor all its own, likely combining, to our modern ears, “flecks of nearly every regional U.K. English accent,” as Ben Crystal tells NPR, “and indeed American and in fact Australian, too.”

You can see the Crystals explain and demonstrate the accent in the video above, and make sense of many Shakespearean puns that only work in OP. And in the animated video at the top of the post, get a whirlwind tour from Chaucer’s Middle English to Shakespeare’s Early Modern variety. Along the way, you’ll learn why the spelling of English words—both American and British—is so confusing and irregular. (“Knight,” for example, which makes no sense when pronounced as nite, was once pronounced much more phonetically.) The range of regional accents produced a bedlam of variant spellings, which took a few hundred years to standardize during some intense spelling debates.

You’ll get an introduction to the first English printer, William Caxton, and the “Great Vowel Shift” which changed the language’s sound dramatically over the course of a couple hundred years. Once we get to Shakespeare and his “Original Pronunciation,” we can see how rhymes that don’t scan for us sounded just right to Elizabethan ears. These lost rhymes provide a significant clue for linguists who reconstruct OP, as does meter and the survival of older pronunciations in certain dialects.

When the Crystals brought their reconstruction of Shakespeare’s English to the stage in hugely popular productions at the Globe Theatre, members of the audience all heard something slightly different—their many different dialects reflected back at them. Listen for all the various kinds of English above in Ben Crystal's recitation of Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” speech in Original Pronunciation.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Where Did the English Language Come From?: An Animated Introduction

If you've ever deliberately studied the English language — or, even worse, taught it — you know that bottomless aggravation awaits anyone foolish enough to try to explain its "rules." What makes English so apparently strange and different from other languages, and how could such a language go on to get so much traction all over the world? Whether you speak English natively (and thus haven't had much occasion to give the matter thought) or learned it as a second language, the five-minute TED-Ed lesson above, written by Yale linguistics professor Claire Bowern and animated by Patrick Smith, will give you a solid start on understanding the answer to those questions and others.

"When we talk about ‘English,’ we often think of it as a single language," says the lesson's narrator, "but what do the dialects spoken in dozens of countries around the world have in common with each other, or with the writings of Chaucer? And how are any of them related to the strange words in Beowulf?"




The answer involves English's distinctive evolutionary path through generations and generations of speakers, expanding and changing all the while. Along the way, it's picked up words from Latin-derived Romance languages like French and Spanish, a process that began with the Norman invasion of England in 1066. So also emerged Old English, a member of — you guessed it — the Germanic language family, one brought to the British isles in the fifth and sixth centuries. Then, of course, you've got the Viking invaders bringing in their Old Norse from the eighth to the eleventh centuries.

English thus came to its characteristically rich (and often confusing) mixture of words drawn from all over the place quite some time ago, leaving modern linguists to perform the quasi-archaeological task of tracing each word back to its origins through its sound and usage. Go far enough and you get to the tongues we call "Proto-Germanic," spoken circa 500 BC, and "Proto-Indo-European," which had its heyday six millennia ago in modern-day Ukraine and Russia. English now often gets labeled, rightly or wrongly, a "global language," but a look into its complicated history — and thus the history of all European languages — reveals something more impressive: "Nearly three billion people around the world, many of whom cannot understand each other, are nevertheless speaking the same words, shaped by 6,000 years of history."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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