Lies your English teacher told you: “Long” and “short” vowels

I remember, long ago in elementary school, learning how to spell. “There are five vowels,” our teachers told us, “A, E, I, O, U. And sometimes Y.” (“That’s six!” we saucily retorted. (We were seven.))

“When a vowel is by itself,” our teachers continued,”it’s short, like in pat. When there’s a silent e at the end, the vowel is long, like in pate1.” Then there were a dozen exceptions and addenda (including the fact that A could be five different sounds), but the long and the short of it was, there are long vowels and there are short vowels.

And you know something? There are long and short vowels in English. We actually briefly discussed this before, many moons ago during our introduction to vowels, but I wanted to add a little more detail today.

The first important thing to remember is that writing is not equivalent to the language itself.2 Our spellings are generally standardized now, but they are only representations of words, and they do not dictate how a word actually sounds. Furthermore, English orthography uses five or six symbols to represent more than a dozen different vowel sounds (not exactly an efficient system). In our example above of pat and pate, these words actually contain two distinct vowels pronounced in two different places in the mouth. The same is true of the other “long” and “short” vowel pairings. It’s almost like these sounds ([æ] and [eɪ], in IPA) aren’t really related, they just timeshare a spelling.

In another sense, though, it’s not so incorrect to say that pat has a short A and pate has a long A. To illuminate this claim, we’ll need two ingredients: an understanding of vowel tenseness in English, and an important sound change from the language’s past.

For scholars of English, a more important distinction than vowel length is vowel tenseness. Like the long/short vowel spelling distinction, linguists have identified pairs of vowels that are separated by no more than a little difference in quality. The difference, though, is not a matter of length, but whether the vowel is tense or lax, i.e. whether the muscles in the mouth are more tensed or relaxed in the production of the sound. These pairings are based on the sounds’ locations in the mouth and are therefore a little different than those traditionally associated with the letters. Pate and pet demonstrate a tense-lax pairing, as do peek and pick. The sounds in these pairs are very close together in the mouth, pulled apart by the tenseness, or lack thereof, of their pronunciation.

In some dialects of English, like RP or General American, tense vowels (and diphthongs) naturally acquire a longer duration of pronunciation than lax vowels. In short, the tense vowels are long. Therefore, it wouldn’t actually be false to say that pate has a long A and pat has a short A, but the length of the vowels is an incidental feature of English’s phonology and isn’t really the important distinction between the sounds (not for linguists, anyway).

It isn’t always that way in a language, and in fact, it wasn’t always that way in English. We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s pertinent, so I’ll cover it again: in some languages, you can take a single vowel (pronounced exactly the same way, in the same place in the mouth), and whether you hold the vowel for a little length of time or for a longer length of time will give you two completely different words. This is when it become important and appropriate to talk about long and short vowels. Indeed, farther back in English, this was important. In Old English, the difference between god (God) and gōd (good) was that the second had a long vowel ([o:] as opposed to [o], for the IPA fluent). In all other respects, the vowel was the same, what many English speakers today would think of as the long O sound.

In a way, these Old English long/short vowel pairings are really what we’re referring to when we talk about long and short vowels in English today (even if we don’t realize it). The historic long vowels were the ones affected by the Great English Vowel Shift, and the results are today’s colloquially “long” vowels. The short vowels have largely remained the same over the years. Maybe in this sense, as well, it’s not so bad to keep on thinking of our modern vowels as long and short. So many other quirky aspects of English are historic relics; why not this, too?

In the end, maybe the modern elementary school myth of long and short vowels isn’t entirely untrue, but there’s certainly a lot more to the story.

Notes

1 This is a delightful, if somewhat archaic, word for the crown of the head. I love language.
2 I imagine some of our longtime readers are fondly shaking their heads at our stubborn insistence on getting this message across. Maybe it’s time we made tee shirts.

One Nation, Many Languages

Lies your geography teacher told you

We all know that each country has one and only one language, right?

In China they speak Chinese, in England they speak English, in Iran they speak Farsi, and each language is neatly contained within the borders of its respective state, immediately switching to another language as soon as these are crossed.

Well, if you’ve been reading our blog, you have probably become rather sceptical of categorical statements like this, and for good reason: it turns out, in fact, that a situation like the one described above is pretty much unheard of. Languages spread across borders, sometimes far into a neighbouring country, and even within the borders of a relatively small state it’s not uncommon to have four or five languages spoken, sometimes even more, and large countries can have hundreds or more.

Then there’s the island of New Guinea, which fits 1,000 languages (more than some continents) in an area slightly bigger than France.

And yet, this transparent lie is what we are all taught in school. Why? Well, you can thank those dastardly Victorians again.

Before the rise of nationalism in the late 18th century, it was common knowledge that languages varied across very short distances, and being multilingual was the rule, not the exception, for most people. Even as a peasant, you spoke the language of your own state and one or two languages from neighbouring countries (which at the time were probably a few miles away, at most). Sure, most larger political entities had lingua francas, such as Latin or a prestige language selected amongst the varieties spoken within the borders (usually the language of the capital), but this was never seen as anything more than a way to facilitate communication.

It was the Victorian obsession with national unity and conformity which slowly transformed all languages different from the arbitrarily chosen “national language” into marks of ignorance, provincialism, and, during the fever pitch reached in the 1930s, even treason; this led to policies of brutal language suppression, which resulted the near-extinction of many of the native languages of Europe.

Why then is this kind of thing still taught in schools? Because, sad to say, things have only become slightly better since those dark times. Most modern countries still accept the “One Nation, One Language” doctrine as a fact of life without giving it a second thought. Some countries still proudly and openly enact policies of language suppression aimed at eliminating any language different from the national standard (je parle à toi, ma belle France…).

Which brings me to our case study: my own Italy.

La bella Italia

Given my tirade above, it should not come as a surprise to you now when I tell you that Italian is not the only language spoken in Italy. Not by a long shot. In fact, by some counts, there are as much as 35! The map below shows their distribution.

What is today known as Standard Italian (or simply Italian) is a rather polished version of the Tuscan language (shown as TO on the map). Why not Central Italian, the language of Rome? For rather complex reasons which have to do with the Renaissance, and which we won’t delve into here, lest this post become a hundred pages long.

Even though Italy stopped enforcing its language suppression policies after WWII, it is a sad fact that even the healthiest of Italian languages are today classified as “vulnerable” by UNESCO in its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, with most of them in the “definitely endangered” category.

The Italian government only recognises a handful of these as separate languages, either because they’re so different it would be ludicrous to claim they’re varieties of Italian (such as Greek, Albanian and various Slavic and Germanic languages spoken in the North), or because of political considerations due to particularly strong separatist tendencies (such as Sardinian or Friulan, spoken in the Sardinia and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions, respectively). All other languages have no official status, and are generally referred to as “dialects” of Italian, even though some are as different from Italian as French is![1]

Stereotypically, speaking one of these languages is a sign of poor education, sometimes even boorishness: in the popular eye, you’re not speaking a different language, you’re simply speaking Italian wrong.[2]

To see how deep the brainwashing goes: suffice to say that it’s not uncommon, when travelling to areas where these languages are still commonly spoken, to address a local in Italian and receive an answer in the local language. When it becomes clear to them that you don’t understand a word of what they’re saying, the locals are often puzzled and surprised, because they’re sincerely convinced they’re speaking Italian!

To better highlight the differences between Italian and these languages, here’s the same short passage in Italian and in my own regional language, Emilian (Bologna dialect):

Italian

Si bisticciavano un giorno il Vento di Tramontana e il Sole, l’uno pretendendo d’esser più forte dell’altro, quando videro un viaggiatore, che veniva innanzi avvolto nel mantello. I due litiganti convennero allora che si sarebbe ritenuto più forte chi fosse riuscito a far sì che il viaggiatore si togliesse il mantello di dosso.

Emilian

Un dé al Vänt ed såtta e al Såul i tacagnèven, parché ognón l avêva la pretaiśa d èser pió fôrt che cl èter. A un zêrt pónt i vdénn un òmen ch’al vgnêva inànz arvujè int una caparèla. Alåura, pr arsôlver la lît, i cunvgnénn ch’al srêv stè cunsidrè pió fôrt quall ed låur ch’al fóss arivè d åura ed fèr in môd che cl òmen al s cavéss la caparèla d’indòs.

Pretty different, aren’t they?

You can hear the Italian version read aloud here, and here is the Emilian version[3].

Here’s the English version of the same passage for reference:

The North Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger, when a traveller came along wrapped in a warm cloak. They agreed that the one who first succeeded in making the traveller take his cloak off should be considered stronger than the other.

It is pretty hard to argue that these two are the same language, and yet this is what most people in Italy believe, thinking of Emilian as a distorted or corrupted form of Italian.

Compare this to the situation during the Renaissance, when Emilian was actually a very prestigious language, to the point that Dante himself once wrote an essay defending it from those who would claim the superiority of Latin, calling it the most elegant of the languages of Italy.

Conclusion

Italy is by no means an isolated example, as I’ve already made clear in the first section of this post: wherever you go in the world, you’ll find dozens of languages being suppressed and driven to extinction due to myopic language policies left over from an era of nationalism and intolerance.

The good news is that the situation is improving: in Italy, regional languages are not stigmatised as they once were. In fact, many people take pride in speaking their local language, and steps are being taken to teach it to the youngest generations and preserving them through literature and modern media. However, the damage done in the past is enormous, and it will take an equally enormous effort to restore these languages to the level of health they enjoyed a hundred years ago. For some of them it might very well be too late.

So if you speak a minority language, or know someone who does, take pride in it. Teach it to your children. They’re not “useless”, they’re not marks of poor education, they are languages, as dignified and deep as any national language.

And don’t mind the naysayers: whenever someone tells me Emilian is a language for farmers, incapable of the breadth of expression displayed by Italian, I remind them that when Mozart studied music in Bologna, he spoke Emilian, not Italian; and that when the oldest university in the western world opened its doors in 1088, and for 700 years after that, it was Emilian, not Italian, that was spoken in its halls.

  1. Lisa discussed the tricky question of  what’s a language and what’s a dialect here
  2. The same thing that happens to Scots or AAVE. See here
  3. The passages are taken from a short story used to compare different italian regional languages. All currently recorded versions can be found here.