Thursday, 20 November 2014

fricative or win, lose or drawl

Surely those early scribes and grammarians had a tough slog in figuring out how to adapt the Latin alphabet to English as she is spoken. After all, there were quite a number of foreign sounds to try to capture with the familiar letters at their disposal, and the committee of monks had to make some arbitrary decisions in spelling in order to apply the alphabet phonetically. Quite a few terminal j-sounds were found in Old English—like edge, bridge and judge, and the development of this sound was something separate from the shift in the romance languages that took place at the beginnings of words, like Iohan and Iupiter, so the monks did not want to represent the sound with an i (the letter j not invented unitl much later) but instead choose ʤ—being derived from the hard g-sound. 


Though the Romans had had their encounters with the Goths and other Germanic tribes, new utterances had come into being, like th-, sh- and ch-, and vowel sounds were slipping away from anything that the monks had heard before. Not that English is a direct descendant of modern German, but one wonders why we go from Brücke to bridge, Eck to edge, Schiff to ship or Freund to friend. These kinds of transformations happen among all languages and dialects, but all these shifts occur in the name of economy. I have noticed that I am sometimes quite lazy in my pronunciation of German and if I am doing it half right, my face aches a little. These changes are the mouth's attempt to align phonemes and reduce movement from the front to the back of the mouth. Not that continental Germanic languages are all harsh and breathy like Klingon, there was a tendency to cut back on the back and forth and eliminate throaty consonants paired with soft vowels. Though a lot of original forms are preserved for old time's sake—like win from won, buy from bought, feet from foot where the old, more awkward style is preserved in the less common past or plural forms—English does seem to have a particular penchant for slurring words. Although probably more due to the lack of an authoritative body to govern spelling and pronunciation among the Germanic-speakers unlike the institutions of the Roman Empire, some linguist believe this indolence and inertia is owing to the circumstances wherein the invaders took the island. Abandoned by Rome, the Anglo-Saxons found themselves in a place where there was not much to do other than plunder and drink, cultivating sloppy enunciation.