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….