The Great Vowel Shift

Here’s something interesting I read the other night in a book calledĀ The Celebrated Pedestrian. This thin “toilet read” is a compilation of questions posed by readers of BBC History Magazine. (I prefer to read it in bed not on the potty, just in case you were wondering.)

In the chapter on language, one of the questions was, “how far back in history could we [English speakers] go and still be understood?” Great question.

The answer is a bit complicated and there’s still some debate going on about it, but one of the authors focuses on a very significant change that occurred in England sometime between 1390 and 1420. This change was called the “Great Vowel Shift,” and it came about after “the abandonment of French as the language at court.” (You see, when the Normans conquered England in 1066, they naturally brought their language along with them, and in doing so demoted the local Saxon tongue to second class status. Some Brits have argued that this is where their obsession with hierarchy started.) When the French language left court, it changed the way people pronounced their vowels. For example, the word mouse had once been pronounced moose.

Moose trap anyone?

Factoring in the vowel shift with a loss of inflection (before 1100 English was an inflected language like German), the author states that present-day English speakers “would seriously struggle to understand the spoken word around 1300.” Or rather, Fectoing in da voowel shiift…well, you get the picture and I don’t want to try to write like that for one second more.

Did this vowel shift occur only once? Hardly. In fact, it’s happening right now…in America.

I Heart Etymology

I love learning about how words developed. This is called etymology. Actually the proper definition of etymology is “the derivation of a word,” but let’s not mince words.

On Sunday I went to the Huntington Library and Gardens with my wife. We brought along the book “A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us” which is a reference guide to trees that populate our home state of California. This made us feel like nerds.

We decided that we’d learn about five different types of trees, but I had a hard time getting past the Ginkgo tree. Or rather Ginkgo biloba. What was so interesting about it? Certainly not its sad, naked branches. Rather I found myself geeking out on its name. Gingko biloba simply put meansĀ “Silver Apricot Two Lobes.” Doesn’t sound as elegant or mysterious when you break it down into its component parts, huh? Come to think of it, it sounds like a gangster’s nickname. Sidney Two Lobes.

Silver apricot (“ginkgo” is originally from the Chinese) refers to its fruit and two lobes is a reference to the shape of its leaves (from the Latin bis loba–two lobes). I like the leaves bit the most because it reminded me of the book I’m reading by Mark Forsyth, aka the Inky Fool. It’s called “The Etymlogicon” and it’s curiously under-priced for Kindle readers ($1.99). In it, Forsyth, a London-based pedant and wit, links together words and their origins into an informative, erudite and often hilarious exploration into that bastard tongue of ours. I’ve read a number of books with a similar theme over the past year including Bill Bryson’s informatively charming “Mother Tongue” and Henry’s Hitchings’ (often) dense, but nevertheless enjoyable “The Secret History of Words.” Forsyth manages to actually spin a kind of narrative out of all the definitions, history and clever interjections.

Right off the bat, Forsyth engages you with the story of how the word biscuit developed. Turns out it means “cooked twice” and is from the French bi-cuit. From there he links to the origins of the words “bicycle” and “bisexual.” The latter word leads him to “masochism.” (The two were coined by the same person.) This “circular stroll” as Forsyth puts it, continues on for the rest of the book. Now that I’m 80% of the way through it (the Kindle won’t tell me what page I’m on which is utterly ridiculous) I can say with confidence that it’s the best book I’ve read this year. Chances are it might remain so.