How did they say it?

Apr 14, 2011 by

It is not difficult to find websites that offer recordings of historical dialects or even of long-ago dead languages. But how do we know how anything was pronounced in ages past?

Unfortunately, there are only three reliable ways to know how a language (any language!) is spoken: to listen to a native speaker making the sounds; to listen to a recording of a native speaker making the sounds; or to know the position of the tongue and mouth used to make the sounds of the language. Obviously, when it comes to languages of the past the first two methods are unavailable and the third is rarely available. So what are we to do?

Linguists have developed several strategies for triangulating historical pronunciation (although ultimately it is always a guessing game). First of all, sometimes we are lucky to have at least imprecise, vague and non-technical descriptions of how this or that sound/word was pronounced. For example, a poem by Catullus pokes fun at a man who, in his eagerness to speak correcly and not to omit his “h”s, overshoots the mark and adds “h”s where they do not belong (the technical term for this is “hypercorrection”). One example of this unnecessary “h” is the word for ‘ambush’, which the man is said to pronounce as [hinsidias] instead of [insidias] (cf. the English word insidious). What do we learn from this? Apparently, in Classical Latin the pronunciation of h caused problems already in the middle of the 1st century B.C.E.

Note that the “h”-troubles continue in English of today. And the main reason why has to do with one of the descendants of Latin — French. Many English words starting with “h” were borrowed from French — these words in English have a silent initial “h” (e.g., hour, honor, honest, heir). On the other hand, the initial “h” in native Germanic words is pronounced (e.g., happy, hot). However, this distinction is not as clear-cut as that; for instance, there are several English words that were borrowed from French but in which “h” is pronounced because of the influence of spelling (this is know in linguistics as “spelling pronunciation”). Some examples include hostel, hotel, haste. The “h”-situation has proved so confusing that some words are pronounced differently by different speakers, with or without [h]: herb, human, humor, humble.

But let’s return to Latin for a moment. The “weak” nature of “h” (and the tendency of the [h]-sound to drop out) already in Latin is further confirmed by another source of evidence about historical pronunciation: inscriptions. An inscriptions is any text that is not transmitted by manuscript, which would have been subject to repeated copying and corrections. Inscriptions may include tombstones, milestones, laws, decrees, dedications and more, but what they all have in common is that they are engraved on a durable material like stone and as a result are preserved intact. Another interesting feature of inscriptions that makes them particularly useful for determining historical pronunciations is that they are often written by people who are not professional scribes. As a result, inscriptions often contain spelling errors that are indicative of current (if perhaps informal or uneducated) pronunciation. Several Latin inscriptions contain the word onorem (rather than honorem) and other similar misspellings, indicating that “h” was not pronounced and confirming our conclusion based on Catullus’s poem.

Yet another way to access historical pronunciation is borrowings to and from the language in question and renditions of its personal and place names in other languages. For example, we can examine how Latin names are rendered in Greek. Take the name of Cicero: in Greek of the period it is always spelled with two kappas (the Greek letter “k”), which we know to have always been pronounced [k], never [s] or [ts]. Thus, we can conclude that in Latin too, Cicero was pronounced with two [k]-sounds.

The confusion about the pronunciation of the letter “c” carried into Modern English as well (again because of French, as we shall see immediately below): it is pronounced [k] in carry and comic, but as [s] in mice and grace (I am leaving aside the cases when “c” is followed by “h”, where it can be pronounced either [tsh] in cherry, or [sh] in chaperone, or even [k] in maraschino cherry). In the Old English period, the letter “c” could be pronounced either as [k], as in cyssan ‘kiss’ and cneow ‘knee’, or as [tsh], as in cild ‘child’ and ceap ‘cheap’. In the latter set of words it was later consistently replaced by the spelling “ch”. In the former set of words, the letter “c” was replaced by “k” already by the Middle English period. Crucially, in the Old English period the letter “c” was never pronounced [s]. This use of the “c” came to England with Norman scribes, who — being trained to write in French — used the French spelling conventions even when writing English. Hence, the mice and grace.

One particular situation when borrowings are especially helpful in determining historical pronunciation is when the same word was borrowed twice at different periods of time, which has happened to many French words that were borrowed into English as it were twice. Take, for example, castle and chateau. Both came to English from French, but in different periods. The differences in pronunciation reflect that: compare the initial [k] in castle with the [sh] in chateau, illustrating a phonological change that happened in French in the period between the two borrowings. Another phonological change (which is a little less obvious) is the disappearance of the medial [s], still present in castle, but not in chateau. This process of s-deletion in French was accompanied by the so-called compensatory lengthening, which made the preceding vowel /a/ longer (in French, this is encoded in spelling via the diacritic, circumflex accent, over the the letter “a”).

However, borrowings and translitterations across languages can also be misleading as far as historical pronunciation is concerned: for example, neither the Russian pronounciation [garvard] ‘Harvard’, nor the English pronunciation [‘moskou] for the Russian [mas’kva] is indicative of how the place name is pronounced in its original language.

Finally, one other strategy for figuring out historical pronunciations has proven very useful: rhyming poetry. Of course, its usefulness is limited to the languages and historical periods when rhyming poetry was popular enough to leave us enough material to work with, but it has been extremely helpful in figuring out how words were pronounced in the times of such great poets as Chaucer and Shakespeare. For example, Chaucer rhymed breeth and heeth, while our breath and heath do not rhyme. In a similar fashion, Shakespeare rhymed tongue and wrong, which indicates that one of these words has changed its pronunciation some time in the last 400 years. So following “with open eye” the “melodye” of rhyming poetry can shed some light on historical pronunciation (and yes, for Chaucer these two rhymed as well, as can be seen from the famous Prologue from The Canterbury Tales).

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