Karl Luick – Patron Saint of February 2020

It’s a new month! Time for yet another of our monumental people in the linguistic field! Today, I want to introduce you to Karl Luick!

Luick was born on the 27th of January, 1865, in a town called Floridsdorf, which is now the 21st district of Vienna. Although later moving around quite a bit, he got all of his degrees from the University of Vienna, specialising in English.

Luick was, and remains to this day, a monumental name in the field of historical phonology. His Historische Grammatik der englischen Sprache was published in two volumes and remains, in its 1964 edition, a key text in historical phonology.

Another key text of Luick’s is the earlier publication Untersuchungen zur englischen Lautgeschichte, which was published as early as 1896. In this publication, Luick focused on the Great Vowel Shift and developed a tentative hypothesis, now called the push chain hypothesis.

Some background first.

Middle English /u:/ diphthongised, eventually becoming modern /au/, in large portions of England. However, it had not done so in Scotland and parts of the north.

Noticing this, Luick suggested that there must be some kind of causal relationship between the non-diphthongisation of /u:/ in those northern areas and the fronting of /o:/, which had previously occurred in the northern dialects.

As a result, the push-chain hypothesis suggests that lower vowels basically raised and push the higher vowels out of their place – thus forcing the highest vowels to lower and diphthongise. 1 As the northern dialects no longer had /o:/ in its original place, it couldn’t raise and push /u:/ to diphthongise!

Although Luick never pursued this idea further, 2, it became quite famous and a discussion about whether the Great Vowel Shift was indeed a push chain or a drag chain3.

Regardless of whether you believe in the push or drag chain (or have no preference), I believe we can all agree with Bauer, who once stated that:

Luick always had fresh insights, some of them of almost revolutionary potential[.]

Gero Bauer (1985: 10)

and as a brief acknowledgment of the amazing work done by this linguist, he is the HLC’s Patron Saint of February 2020!

Want to learn more about Luick? Check out my references and footnotes below!

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References

As my German, unfortunately, is not good enough to read Luick’s own works (don’t worry – I’m working on it!), I have relied on:

Dieter Kastovsky/Gero Bauer. (eds.). 1985. Luick revisited. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag Tübingen (particularly the introduction for this post).

If your German is better than mine though, you can find volume 1 of Historische Grammatik der englischen Sprache here and volume 2 here. You can also find Untersuchungen zur englischen Lautgeschichte here.

I’ve also had a look at Wikipedia’s page on Karl Luick.

Enjoy!

The history of the English language – Middle English phonology

Another Thursday, a new blog post!

Today, we keep working on HEL – the History of the English Language – and we have reached my favourite time period: Middle English! Today, we’re looking closer at specifically Middle English phonology, so, although it is my favourite time period, it is not necessarily my favourite topic – I am not a phonologist after all.

However, something interesting about Middle English is its spelling (hold your horses, I know we’re talking about phonology here, we’ll get there!).

You see, unlike modern English, where its current spelling system has given rise to memes such as this one:

But…

That’s right! English didn’t use to be like that at all! However, you might find the alternative way rather disappointing (and confusing… and hair-pulling lie-awake-at-night frustrating). But, hey, that’s all in a day’s work!

So, during most of the Middle English period, words were generally spelled according to how the writer would have pronounced them – or how they sounded to the writer if someone else said them, perhaps.

This all changed, of course, once standardisation started.

Standardisation followed rather naturally after printing became a thing, though things had been moving in that direction for a while.

The problem?
The Great Vowel Shift.

You see, the phonology of Middle English was, like most things Middle English, in a transitional period. A lot changed during a reasonably short amount of time (you’ll find that historical linguists have a very odd idea of what is “short” or “recent” – for me, 600 years (as in this case) is a reasonably short time, while “recently” may be anything from yesterday to thirty years ago. When you study really old things, your perception gets a bit skewed.)

Anyway, things were changing. Generally speaking, the Middle English consonant sound inventory isn’t all that different from Old English (which we saw last week):

 LabialDentalAlveolarPostalveolarPalatalVelarGlottal
Nasalmn(ŋ)
Stopp bt dt͡ʃ d͡ʒk g
Fricativef vθ ðs zʃ(ç)(x) h
Approximantrjw
Laterall

There are some differences, of course, but generally speaking, they look quite similar, don’t they? Here is the Old English one for comparison:

 LabialDentalAlveolarPost-alveolarPalatalVelarGlottal
Nasalm(n̥) n(ŋ)
Stopp bt dk g
Affricatetʃ (dʒ)
Fricativef (v)θ (ð)s (z)ʃ(ç)(x ɣ)h
Approximant(l̥) lj(ʍ) w
Trill(r̥) r

The vowels… that’s a different story.

To remind you, these are the Old English vowels:

 FrontBack
unroundedroundedunroundedrounded
Closei i:y y:u u:
Mide e:(ø ø:)o o:
Openæ æ:ɑ ɑ:

And these… are the Middle English vowels.

 FrontCentralBack
UnroundedRoundedUnroundedRounded
Closei i:(y y:)u u:
Close-mide e:(ø øː)(ə)o o:
Open-midɛː(œː)ɔː
Opena a:

Quite a different set, wouldn’t you say? First, we have a new distinction in the mid-vowels. Where Old English only had the distinction mid, Middle English had yet another: close-mid and open-mid. Note, however, that this affected only the long vowels – not the short ones.

Additionally, we see the addition of several “new” vowels – such as /ɛː/ and /ɔː/ – and the loss of /æ/. So, it’s different.

So, what has this to do with spelling?

Well, when the Great Vowel Shift (which I talk more about in an earlier post) came along (technically, it likely started beforehand, but writing takes a long time to catch up to changing pronunciation), spelling had already started to standardise.

But, the spelling became standardise words as they sounded before the vowel shift. As a result of this “disconnect” between orthography and pronunciation, we have a rather odd spelling system in English.

And it would come to change even more in Modern English, but that is the topic for next week! Join me then, and in the meantime:

(Have you checked out Steve the vagabond and silly linguist on Facebook? If not, you really should – the page is great!)

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References

For this particular post, I’ve really just checked out Wikipedia, which I used to model the tables.

For the rest, I’ve picked up a few things over the years of studying Middle English, some of it from these resources (which I highly recommend and, as last week, come with a small comment from me):

J.A. Burrow. Thorlac Turville-Petre. 2013. A book of Middle English. (3rd ed.) (I keep returning to this book, it gives a very interesting account of Middle English)

R.D. Fulk. 2012. An introduction to Middle English. (An easy overview, which currently graces my shelf as it provides easy access to some basic information that one occasionally needs to remind oneself of).

Simon Horobin. Jeremy J. Smith. 2002. An introduction to Middle English. (A thin volume that I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used. Really, it gives a very easily-read and understood introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the Middle English language)

Roger Lass. 1999. Phonology and morphology. In Roger Lass (ed.). The Cambridge History of the English language. Vol. III. 1476-1776. (This chapter gives an excellent overview of some of the more dramatic changes in phonology that occurred during the Middle English period. It is really worth a read if you want to get more information).

Fernand Mossé. 2000. Handbook of Middle English. (A tad bit more complex but, as all of these resources, one that I keep returning to).

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (I referenced this for Old English last week, but it spans basically all of the phonological history of English and gives just as a wonderful account of Middle English as it does for Old English)

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.

Chaos? Nah, just a vowel shift

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I!  Oh hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!

 

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

Finally, which rhymes with enough —
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

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Gosh, English pronunciation can be really tricky at times, can’t it? Interested in knowing why?

Well, of course you are! Let’s dive into it together!

As the excerpt above clearly shows, English spelling is often considered a bit ’off’, poorly corresponding to the written word. That’s true, it often doesn’t. But why is that?

Well, while it is not the only reason behind this tricky correspondence between the spoken and written word, today’s topic does explain a lot: the ‘Great’ English Vowel Shift (let’s stick to calling it the GVS from now on) came along and messed things up quite a bit.

Some of you will probably have heard about the GVS before; it was a significant sound change that occurred primarily during the Middle Ages. This sound change affected the long vowels of Middle English, causing them to shift like so:

 

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Great, so… we done here? You now know everything there is to know about the GVS, right?

Nah, not really.

First, the GVS is actually considered by a lot of linguists to be a process of at least two phases3:

The first phase is considered to have lasted up until approximately the year 1500. During this phase, the long high Middle English vowels /i:/ and /u:/, pronounced similar to the vowels in Modern English meet [mi:t] and lute [lu:t], diphthongised and eventually became the modern English diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/, the pronunciations you find in mice [maɪs] and mouse [maʊs]. The vowels immediately below them, that is /e:/ and /o:/4, raised one position, falling into the slots previously held by /i:/ and /u:/.

In the second phase, often considered to have been active between the late 16th to mid-17th centuries, the remaining vowels, that is /ᴐ:, a:, ɛ:/, raised one position in height.

What we eventually wind up with is a system of vowels completely changed from its predecessor.

Now, why would that happen?

As with a good number of things in historical linguistics, we don’t exactly know. However, there are two leading hypotheses out there.

The first is the so-called push-chain theory, which was introduced by the great German philologer Karl Luick as early as 1896. Luick argued that the GVS must have been initiated by the movement of the lower vowels /e:/ and /o:/. The two vowels, for some mysterious reason of their own, started to move toward the high vowels /i:/ and /u:/. As they drew nearer, /i:/ and /u:/ started panicking because, it is sometimes argued, they couldn’t raise any higher and remain vowels (instead becoming yucky consonants, bläch).

Well, can’t have that, can we? In pure desperation, /i:/ and /u:/ look for a way out. And they find one—move in (or out, if you will). So, that is precisely what they do, they move in: they become diphthongs, lower and, suddenly, Middle English /i:/ and /u:/ become modern English /əɪ/ and /əʊ/, eventually becoming /aɪ/ and /aʊ/. Tadaa, we have the first steps to a modern English vowel system.

Luick’s hypothesis is actually quite elegant in a way because it successfully explains the lack of diphthongisation of /u:/ in the northern dialects of British English. In these dialects, the vowel /o:/ had previously fronted, becoming /ø:/. The northern dialects therefore didn’t have a vowel /o:/ to push /u:/ out of its place, and the diphthongisation never happened there (pretty neat, huh?).

The second of our hypotheses, the drag-chain theory, was introduced by Otto Jespersen in 1909. Now, Jespersen argued that it was equally likely that the diphthongisation of the high vowels initiated the shift. Basically, Jespersen’s reasoning was like this:

The high vowels, i.e. /i:, u:/, shifted and became diphthongs. That left a ‘gap’ in the vowel system. Horrified, the lower vowels scrambled to move up the ladder to fill the gaps. All of the sudden, Middle English /a:/ became early Modern English /ɛ:/, Middle English /ɛ:/ became early Modern English /e:/ and so on (the back vowels tagged along, too), and so, harmony was restored.

Now, the (to me, at least) flaw of this hypothesis is that it doesn’t account for the non-diphthongisation of northern /u:/, but then again, Luick’s hypothesis claiming that the high vowels couldn’t raise any higher has been noted to be somewhat limited—the high vowels could have done several other things to avoid becoming consonants5. But that’s a different discussion.

Regardless of which of these hypotheses you want to consider more likely, this is the ‘Great’ English Vowel Shift: a huuuuge chain shift that took centuries to complete and affected all long vowels of Middle English. That’s a pretty big deal.

Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with spelling, right? Well, you see, the thing is that English spelling started to become standardized during the ongoing GVS. What this means is that we have a bunch of words where the written form corresponds to a pronunciation that is centuries old. So, basically, meet and meat, both pronounced [mi:t] in British English, are spelled differently because, when those high and mighty people speaking Middle English decided that there was a correct way to spell those words, they did have distinct pronunciations!

So, next time you get annoyed by having to look up how you spell something, just stop and consider that you’re actually spelling the word the way it was pronounced about 600 years ago. Pretty cool, huh?

 

 

 

 

Oh, oh! I almost forgot! Have you been asking yourself why I keep using ‘’ around ‘Great’? No? Well, I’m going to tell you anyway!

The ‘Great’ was introduced by Jespersen and, frankly, while the GVS did indeed have a huge effect on the English language, vowel shifts happen all the time. So, take the ‘Great’ with a pinch of salt and a shot of tequila and we might get on the right track of things.

 

 

 

 

Side notes

1.   There is nothing to say that either of these hypotheses is an accurate description on the initial process of the GVS. Long before I took my first bumbling steps into academia (actually, about a year before I was even born), Donka Minkova and Robert Stockwell noted that it may just be the desire to see a systematic aspect of language and discount its random quirks. So, don’t take it too seriously.

2.     If you’d like to read more about the GVS and other hypotheses, please take a look at Gjertrud Flermoen Stenbrenden’s dissertation work The Chronology and regional spread of long-vowel changes in English from 2010. It’s a really interesting read and introduces a lot more on the subject than I could possibly cover here.

Sources

1 This is an excerpt of the excellent poem The Chaos by Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité (Netherlands, 1870-1946). Translated by Pete Zakel.

2 This is one of the common ways to depict the GVS, a similar one can be found in most textbooks on the subject. See, for example, Historical Linguistics by Theodora Bynon (1977: 82)

3 See for example The Cambridge History of the English Language (2008) in which Roger Lass writes about this division into two phases. A similar explanation can be found in most textbooks on linguistics that deal, in some way, with historical linguistics (though I really recommend reading Lass’ explanation if you wish to know more about this).

4 Really, I would like to give you examples of these sounds, but I can’t. They’ve basically disappeared from modern English, though they can, most likely, be found in some dialects of English today. Examples can be found of /e:/ in some variants of Scottish English, for example in mate [me:t], but other than that, I can’t seem to find enough examples. If you do find them, though, please let us know! We would love to know more!

5 See, for example the critique by Charles Jones in A History of English Phonology (1989).