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Episode 159: Elizabethan Voices

by Kevin Stroud
May 18th 2022
In 1569, an English scholar named John Hart published a manuscript called ‘An Orthographie.’ The text argued for a phonetic spelling system, and it provided one of the earliest detailed descriptions o... More
Welcome to the history of english podcast, a podcast about the history of the english language. This is episode 1 59 elizabethan voices in this episode, we're going to turn our attention to the sound of elizabethan english. Beginning in the late 1560s, several scholars in England attempted to describe the way words were pronounced in English. They even developed an early phonetic alphabet to represent the sounds of the language. Those works allow modern linguists to trace the evolution of english pronunciation in the early modern period. So this time we'll explore what those sources tell us about the changing nature of the language in elizabethan England. But before we begin, let me remind you that the website for the podcast is history of english podcast dot com and you can sign up to support the podcast and get bonus episodes at patreon dot com slash history of english. One other quick note before we begin this episode is about sounds and sound changes within english and we're going to be covering quite a bit of information If you find these types of discussions to be a little overwhelming.

I just wanted to remind you that a transcript of the episode is available on the website under episode 159. So if you prefer, you can read along with the episode or if you don't want to hear me talk, you can just read it at your own convenience. But I just wanted to let you know that that option is available. Now, last time we looked at how the english government embraced the plantation concept as a way to expand its presence in Ireland and as a way to secure a foothold in the new world and I noted that one of the early advocates of the plantation strategy was a spelling reformer named Sir thomas smith smith thought that english spellings needed an overhaul because they didn't reflect the way words were actually pronounced Smith spelling reforms were composed in Latin in 1568. But in the following year, another English scholar named John Hart composed an extensive work on spelling reform in English. His work was called an Ortho graffiti and it's extremely important to historians of the language because much of the text was dedicated to english pronunciation, Heart wrote about pronunciation because he shared smith's goal of a phonetic writing system.

He wanted words to be spelled the way they were actually pronounced, so that meant he needed to describe english pronunciation in some detail. He wrote extensively about the sounds of english and the way the alphabet should be applied to those sounds. And his work was so advanced and so sophisticated in its approach that it's considered to be the first major work on english phonetics. He even devised a phonetic alphabet, which was really a precursor of the modern international phonetic alphabet that linguists used today. That's the alphabet you see in dictionaries that shows you how to pronounce a particular word again. Heart created his own version of that alphabet and in the following decades, other scholars adopted the same general approach to describe the sounds of english. By putting all of these works together. Modern scholars can actually trace the changing pronunciation of English from the late 1500s. This development is especially important in light of that discussion about plantations and colonies in the last episode.

That's because these detailed accounts of english pronunciation coincide with England's expansion in Ireland and the new world over the next century or so. The english language would establish new footholds in those regions. But over time the version of english that evolved in those regions became more and more distinct from the english spoken in Britain. The english language was about to fracture into several major dialects that were geographically separated from each other and that means that the language described by john Hart is the ultimate source of most of those dialects in recent years. There's been quite a bit of research and scholarship dedicated to the pronunciation used during the time of William, Shakespeare, which of course is essentially the same language that john Hart described just delayed by a couple of decades that Shakespearean pronunciation is sometimes called original pronunciation or O. P. For short, it refers to the original pronunciation that was used in Shakespeare's plays.

There are even modern acting companies that present his plays using that original pronunciation. One of the leading experts in original pronunciation is Ben Crystal an actor and son of the british linguist David Crystal, who was instrumental in reconstructing the sound of Shakespeare's plays. Ben teaches the OPI accent to acting troops around the world. And here's an example of his recreation of the opening speech of Shakespeare's play Richard the third No, is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this in new york. And all the clouds that lowered upon arose in the bosom of the ocean buried now our bros bound with victorious wreaths, our bruised arms hung up for monuments are stirring alarms changed to merry meetings, our dreadful marches to delightful measures, grimm visage war hath smoothed his wrinkled front and now, instead of mounting barbed states to fright the souls of fearful adversaries, he capers nimbly in a lady's chamber to the lascivious placing over love.

Now some people who hear that accent describe it as a blend of various modern english accents, including those of Ireland and north America, especially due to the prominent are sound. And that accent and that description actually makes sense if we consider that elizabethan english was the common ancestor of those various accents. So as we look more closely at that earlier form of speech, you'll probably notice some familiar elements, no matter which accent of english, you happen to have. Again, as I noted, much of our knowledge about elizabethan pronunciation really begins with those early spelling reformers like Sir thomas smith and john hart because they advocated for a phonetic spelling system, even though they're spelling reforms were largely ignored. Their description of the language is an extremely valuable resource for anyone interested in the historical pronunciation of english. In this episode, I'm going to focus on the writings of john Hart because his work was very detailed, very thorough, very modern in its approach.

And it was also composed in english hearts. Knowledge of the way sounds were made in the mouth was aided by the fact that he lived at a time when researchers were studying human anatomy in detail, including the vocal tract. In fact, the word larynx appeared for the first time in an english document around the current point in our story, like a lot of medical terms, the word larynx was ultimately derived from greek. And the larynx is actually important to our story because it's the part of the vocal tract where sounds are actually voiced. In fact, it's sometimes called the voice box. The larynx is a cavity in the upper part of the wind pipe that contains the vocal cords. Or as they're more precisely known, the vocal folds because they're not actually cords. The vocal folds are small, muscular flaps that can be left open to allow the air to flow through freely when you breathe or they can be constricted and brought together just enough so that they flutter or vibrate when the air travels through them and that vibration or buzzing of the vocal folds is what creates the voicing sound when we speak, that's why the larynx is sometimes called the voice box.

Now when we speak some of the sounds we make with our mouth are voiced in this way but not all of them. Some of them don't use the voice box at all. For example if you make the s sound you don't actually use your vocal folds. The sound just flows through the wind pipe unrestricted and the sound is actually made in the front part of your mouth. But notice what happens when we make the same sound and then we constrict those vocal folds to make them vibrate. The sound goes from two. It goes from a whisper to a buzz. So the sound switches from an S. Sound to a Z. Or zed sound and I'll just say Z. Going forward. But all of this is really important because activating the voice box causes the sound to switch from one sound to another. The same thing happens with the C. H. Sound. It's the sound we hear at the beginning and end of the word Church.

It's a voiceless sound. So the vocal folds are open and silent when we make that sound. But if we constrict those vocal folds and make them vibrate the sound switches from two. So it becomes the J. Sound sometimes called the soft G. Sound like at the beginning and end of the word judge again. This sound is just the voice version of the C. H. Sound. We actually have several pairs of sounds that work the same way in modern english. And in this episode we're going to explore those pairs in some detail. Now you may be wondering why these voiced and voiceless pairs are so important. Well it's partly because this issue of voicing is one of the main triggers for sound change over time. As we'll see, voiced sounds are attracted to each other and voiceless sounds are also attracted to each other. When a voiceless sound is surrounded by voiced sounds, the voiceless sound tends to become voiced as well.

The voice box will sometimes stay engaged all the way through and make all of those sounds voiced and when that happens, the sound in the middle changes. Of course the opposite can happen if a voiced sound is surrounded by two voiceless sounds in that environment. The voicing in the middle can get turned off. In this episode, we're going to see how that linguistic phenomenon shaped english during and after the elizabethan period. The other reason why this issue of voicing is so important to our story is because that's how John Hart described the consonant sounds in his 1569 text called an Ortho Graffiti. Hart was one of the first english scholars to describe the voicing of consonant sounds in detail and as he analyzed the sounds of english. He tended to deal with them as voiced and voiceless pairs and I'm going to take the same approach in this episode. So you can see how this very simple idea shapes so much of the language we speak today.

But before we go any further, let me note that I'm only going to focus on those voiced and voiceless pairs in this episode. All of the other consonant sounds and all of the vowel sounds are always voiced. So I'll deal with those sounds in future episodes. So let's begin our look at these voiced and voiceless pairs by focusing on some of the pairs where the contrast can be a little hard to hear. And let's start with the P sound and the B sound, they're almost the same sound mechanically. We pronounce them in the exact same way except for the fact that the vocal folds are left open and silent when we make the P sound but they're narrowed and activated when we make the B sound so is voiceless and is voiced. Pet pet pad, Bad pit bit. Now that may be hard to hear because those two consonant sounds are pronounced very quickly before the vowel sound kicks in.

And remember that vowel sounds are always voiced. So it can be difficult for the ear to detect whether that sound at the beginning is voiced or not. But if you were to take this episode, this MP three file and you were to slow it down and a media player so that the words were pronounced very slowly. You would probably notice the slightly delayed voicing in the words with the P. sound because the P is voiceless. And if you were to put the audio in a digital editing program where you can actually see the audio as wave forms, you would notice that the wave forms show a slight delay in the voicing of those words with the P sound, it only lasts for a few milliseconds, but it's there. Well, john hart had a very good ear and he also understood that the P and B sounds were distinguished only by the voicing of one of the sounds. So he discussed them together in his manuscript, but he didn't really have much to say about them because both letters have been remarkably stable over time. For the most part, words that were pronounced with one of those sounds in the distant past are still pronounced with that sound today.

Now, while that tends to be true for english, it isn't necessarily true for french. As we saw back in episode 153 called Zombie Letters, a lot of Latin words were slurred and shortened as they passed through French and they sometimes lost a P or B sound along the way. And some of those words then passed into english where a letter, P or B was added back into the words to reflect their original latin pronunciation that gave english. Quite a few silent P's and B's, like the P in receipt and the bees in doubt and debt. But john hart hated those spellings, remember that he wanted a phonetic spelling system where there were no silent letters. So he wanted english to get rid of those silent P's and B's. Of course most of them are still there today but some were dropped over time. For example the word condemned was often spelled with a P.

At the time. C. O N D. E M P N E D. Well hart said the piece should be dropped in that word and it was eventually lost over time. Now there was one situation where A. B. Sound was once very common in english but it's disappeared over time and that was at the end of words like dumb lamb, climb, comb and womb. Those are all old english words that end in L. B. And they end in M. B. Because the B. Sound was once pronounced as doom, lamb, clem, calm and warm. English also inherited a lot of french words that were spelled in the same way either because those words ended in a. B. Sound or had ended in A. B. Sound in the distant past that included words like tomb bomb and succumb. The problem with all of those words is that many middle english speakers found it difficult to pronounce that M.

B. Combination at the end of a word. The B. Sound was kind of awkward there. So they started to drop it It appears that that be sound was starting to disappear at the end of those words as early as the 1300s. And by the elizabethan period, it's believed that that be sound was mostly silent, john hart seems to confirm that with his phonetic spelling system, he spelled the words lamb and limb without a B at the end. So that seems to confirm that the B was no longer being pronounced in those words, but we also have the spellings of that other spelling reformer Sir thomas smith and he included the B in his phonetic spelling of the word womb in his manuscript from around the same time as hearts. So some speakers may have held onto that final B. As a more traditional or conservative pronunciation, It was probably more common in formal speech. But by the early 1600s phonetic transcriptions by other scholars dropped the be all together and Shakespeare's works also tended to drop the B.

In his plays, words like climb and dumb and lamb were all spelled without a B. He also rhymed climb and time and crime and he rhymed dumb with come. So it appears that that final be sound in those words was largely gone during the elizabethan period, though it might have still been heard among some very educated speakers in very formal situations. So as we've seen, the B sound has disappeared at the end of certain words in english and both the B and P sounds disappeared in some latin words as they passed through french. But all in all those sounds have been relatively stable throughout the history of english. Now let's turn our attention to another pair of sounds that are related by voicing and have also been relatively stable over time. Those are the T and D sounds. Again, they're essentially the same sound except the t sound is voiceless and the D sound is voiced so we leave the vocal folds open when we say and we narrow and vibrate them when we say again.

Those sounds tend to be pronounced very quickly before vowels so it can be hard to hear the difference but it's there and again, john hart also discussed those two sounds together now back in that earlier episode where we looked at how silent letters were placed in some words to reflect their latin and greek roots. We saw that some words with a T sound got a new spelling through that process. In some words that came from greek, the tea was changed to T H to reflect a specific sound that had existed in ancient greek. And over time people started to pronounce those words like they were spelled. So the T sound in those words started to be pronounced as TH simply because of the revised spelling from two team became theme thrown became thrown, Catherine became Catherine and so on. But sometimes mistakes were made in some cases a latin word received the same new spelling because it was mistaken for a greek word and the new t H spelling changed the pronunciation of the latin word as well.

That's how the latin words, water and maturity became author and authority. Well John Hart's phonetic spellings indicate that those new pronunciations had not yet emerged in the late 1500s. For example, he spells Catherine with a single T as Catherine and he specifically says that author and authority should be spelled with a simple T because they were pronounced with a simple T sound. So he used the traditional pronunciation in those words. Now it's certainly possible that some people at the time were starting to pronounce those words with their modern th sound. But many of those th spellings were brand new in the 1500s. So there had not been enough time for the spellings to alter the pronunciations. But within a few decades, in the early 1600s, we can find scholars who were confirming the newer th pronunciations. So heart lived shortly before that change took place.

So spelling changes eventually caused the T sound to switch to a T. H. Sound and a lot of words. But there were also several situations where the T sound completely disappeared in a word. This phenomenon was especially common when the T. Sound appeared in the middle of a word and was surrounded by other consonant sounds. In that situation, the T sound often got lost in the mix. One scenario where that tended to happen was in words with two syllables where the first syllable ended in S. T. That T sound was often lost in the transition from the first syllable to the second syllable. That's how christmas became christmas in many dialects, Postman became postman and waistcoat became Westgate. We also have a lot of other words where the tea became silent after an S. In the middle of a word that includes words like apostle, bristle, castle, hustle, nestle, thistle, whistle, wrestle, fasten, hasten, listen and moisten.

Of course all of those words are still spelled with A. T. But it's almost always silent in standard english. Now among the words I just mentioned john hart only used the word castle, but he spelled it phonetically as K A S. T L. So that indicates that the tea was still being pronounced in some of those words in the elizabethan period, at least in educated London speech. So he would have said Castell instead of castle. Now in most dialects, the T sound also disappeared in the middle of a word when it followed an F. Sound like in the words often and soften. So again, those words are spelled with a T. Today, even though it's usually silent. The history of often is a little bit complicated. It began with the old english word oft, which later acquired the E. N suffix. So it was presumably pronounced as often by the elizabethan period.

Some people pronounce the T and some people didn't for example, john hart included the T. In his phonetic spelling of the word, but queen Elizabeth usually dropped the tea when she spelled the word in her various writings. So heart apparently said often and Elizabeth said often By the 1700s, most sources suggest that the tea was completely silent, but in the last century or so it started to reappear in the pronunciation. So today you may hear the word pronounced as often, presumably because there's still a T in the spelling. But again, that T had largely become silent until the past century or so. Now in contemporary english, that T sound has continued to be unstable. In the middle of words, for example, some english dialects will drop the T sound altogether in the middle of a word where it comes before a sound like un or N or on.

So cotton becomes cotton button becomes button, kitten becomes kitten, latin becomes latin and so on. Now that's especially common in american english. And you may have noticed that I often used those pronunciations as well. Well, when we look at john hart's writings, we can see that the tea was routinely pronounced in words like that during the elizabethan period. For example, he included the T. In his phonetic spelling of the word latin. Another development that is especially common in american english is the change of the T sound to a. D. Sound in the middle of a word, especially when it's followed by an R sound or an L. Sound. So letter becomes letter little becomes little water becomes water and so on. Now I described that sound as A. D. Sound. But linguists who study this type of thing actually say that it's a tap.

The tongue just briefly touches the ridge behind the upper teeth. But they also believed that the sound evolved from an initial T. Sound to a. D. Sound and then two more of a tap in contemporary english. So something like letter to letter to letter. Anyway, looking at john hart's transcriptions, it seems pretty clear that he pronounced those words with their traditional T sound. He spelled words like letter little later water and writer all with teas. Again the common american pronunciation with a D. Sound or a tap is generally considered to be a more recent development in the language. But there is some evidence that some people use the same type of pronunciation in middle english. We can find the word bottom spelled B O D. D O M. And we can also find the word water spelled W A D E R.

Now those examples are rare exceptions but they suggest that that type of pronunciation could be heard in earlier periods of english as well. But there is something very interesting about that type of pronunciation where the T sound becomes a. D sound or a tap in the middle of a word and it has to do with this larger issue of voicing the T sound is voiceless. So we don't activate the vocal folds when we make that sound we leave them open so they don't vibrate. But when we pronounce the D. Sound or that similar tap sound, it is voiced. We narrow the vocal folds a bit so that they vibrate and flutter when we make that sound. So when we think about that american pronunciation of letter as letter rather than thinking of it as a change from one letter to another. We can think of it as a switch from a voiceless sound to a voiced sound because that's really what's happening.

So why would that sound in the middle become voiced? Well in those types of words that T sound in the middle has a vowel sound on each side and vowel sounds are always voiced. So a word like later has a voiced a sound before the T. And a voiced sound after the T. So in order to pronounce that word that way a speaker has to constrict and activate the vocal folds to make the a sound. Then he or she has to relax them to make the voiceless T sound. And then he or she has to constrict them again to make the or sound at the end of the word. So it isn't surprising that some speakers tend to cheat a little bit and they keep those vocal folds constricted and narrowed all the way through when they do that. It means that all of the sounds are voiced and that automatically changes the T sound in the middle of the word. So in that sense, the pronunciation of later as later can be seen as a natural development that occurs when all the sounds are voiced in that sequence.

Well, if you've listened to the earlier episodes of the podcast, that description may ring a bell because I described a very similar situation that occurred in the old english period. That situation involved the F. Sound at the end of words like leaf and thief and wife. And it explained why that F sound switches to a V. Sound when those words are made plural, thereby becoming leaves, thieves and wives. Now that's a very old development in the language and it appears because the F and V sounds are another one of those voiceless and voiced pairs. Again, they're essentially the same sound except that the f sound is voiceless and the v. Sound is voiced and that's why it's easy for the F sound to become a V. Sound and vice versa. In the case of that specific change from wife to wives. It occurred because of the specific plural suffixes that were used in old english.

Unlike the simple s ending that we use today. The older plural suffixes were distinct syllables like on and whom and us. So a word like wife or wife as it was pronounced then became we fuss and that meant that the voiceless F sound was located between two vowels which as we now know, are always voiced. So you have a voiced E followed by a voiceless followed by a voiced. Ah we fas. So in that environment it was natural to just let the vocal folds vibrate all the way through. That meant that the f became voiced from two and that produced the V. Sound in those plural forms that we still have today notice that words that were borrowed into english in later centuries don't usually make that change. In the plural form. The french word chef becomes chefs, not shelves and the Arabic word giraffe becomes giraffes, not giraffes.

That further confirms that the F. Two V. Change took place during the old english period when that plural suffix was still a distinct syllable and when it resulted in a vowel sound on both sides of the F. Now in the examples we just looked at, we saw how a plural suffix added to a noun caused an F sound to switch to a V. Sound. Well that same scenario also affected verbs because verbs also had distinct verbal suffixes in old english. Now the details here aren't really essential. It's just important to know that the suffixes attached to verbs also tended to cause the final sound to be voiced and in this case caused the F. Sound to switch to a V. Sound. So you might have a belief with an F. Sound at the end. But if you put that belief into action, you believe with a V. Sound at the end. You might have a life with an F. Sound. But if you put that life into action, you live with a V.

Sound. Other examples include strife and strive and thief and thieve french had a similar phenomenon. And many french words were borrowed into english that work the same way like safe and save and proof and prove. So in summary we have one thief but two thieves who go thieving. Those plural suffixes and verbal suffixes were really the key to that sound change. Now for the most part, english spelling has accounted for these old sound changes and today we use the letter V. To show that change. And john hart also confirms that these same changes were in place in the elizabethan period. He distinguished the sounds and the words belief and believe and life and live and safe and save. But I should note that those spelling distinctions were not always so clear and that's because the anglo saxons used the letter F.

For both sounds both the sound and the sound. So they just thought of those two sounds as a single sound or two slightly different ways of rendering the same sound. Now that may seem a little weird but it shouldn't because we do the same thing today with the T. H. Sound as I've noted before. There are really two different th sounds in modern english, even though we spell them both the same way again. One is voiced and one is voiceless. It's the difference between the I. I. As in thy kingdom come and thigh as in the muscle in the leg. Obviously the guy and thigh are distinct words with distinct pronunciations, but we spell both of them with a th. And we tend to think of those initial sounds as the same sound or slight variations of the same sound. Well, that's how the anglo saxons thought about the and the sounds. So they spelled them both with the same letter F.

Well, that old spelling convention still lingers into modern english notice that the word of is spelled O. F. And not Ov. That's the lingering influence of old english. But interestingly when we look at john hart's transcriptions, we see that he spelled of both ways, suggesting that there was some variation in the pronunciation. A close look at his spelling's shows that he usually used the voice version of when it appeared before words that begin with a voiced sound. And he usually used the voiceless version of when it appeared before words that begin with a voiceless sound. So it seems that the pronunciation of the word of could vary in elizabethan english as either or of depending on the sound that followed it. But by the middle of the following century, the transcriptions used by scholars showed that it was always pronounced of like today, by the way the pronunciation of of with an F.

Sound still survives in a way it survives as the word off O. F. F. Believe it or not, of and off were once the same word, but off became distinct over the course of the middle english period and has retained an older F sound at the end. Now, a moment ago, I mentioned that we actually have two T. H. Sounds in english, even though we don't really distinguish them in spelling. The difference depends on whether we constrict those vocal folds and voice the sound so we have and the first is the voiceless sound heard at the beginning of the word thank. The second is the voiced sound heard at the beginning of the word them. Again. That difference may be hard to hear it first, but you can clearly hear it if we reverse the two sounds, thereby giving us thank and thim. Now, even though we don't clearly distinguish those th sounds today, when we spell them, scholars like john hart thought that they should be distinguished again.

He wanted a clearly phonetic spelling system. So he proposed bringing back the old english letters, thorn and F to distinguish those two th sounds as an alternative. He suggested that english could use the greek letters, delta and theta. Of course neither proposal was ever adopted in english, but Icelandic did adopt thorn and eth to distinguish the two sounds there at any rate, because heart did distinguish the two sounds in his phonetic spelling system, it sheds light on the way those two sounds were pronounced at the time. And that's important because we normally can't see the distinction with regular spelling where th is used for both. So let's look at what heart spellings. Tell us about those two th sounds. The first thing to note is that the voiceless th sound was common at the end of certain sounds just like today and just like that voiceless f sound that we looked at a moment ago.

So we had words like cloth and breath and bath and so on. And just like we saw with the f sound when those words were made plural, the voiceless became voiced. Now this old distinction has been worn down over time. But john hart's phonetic spelling system confirms that it was still in place in the elizabethan period. So he shows us that the elizabethans had one breath but several breaths or breaths. He doesn't really give us any other clear examples. But we know that the plural of cloth is clothes which shows the same distinction by the way. It's really difficult to pronounce that voiced th sound before an s clothes. It's very awkward and that voiced th sound tended to disappear in words like that. That's why many people today wear clothes, not clothes they don't pronounce the th sound in the word.

In fact that th sound largely disappeared from the word clothes or clothes. But thanks to the th and the spelling, it has started to reappear in english. So today some people do pronounce that th sound in the word, even though it's kind of hard to do. That. Heart spellings suggest that the elizabethans would have had one bath but several baths and they would have referred to one birth but several births. Again it's a little hard to say today because we stick a simple s on the end. But in older forms of english it would have been easier to say because the ending was a distinct syllable bad, this bird, this and so on. But when that ending was reduced to a simple s sound it just became easier to say baths and births. So that's part of the reason why that voice ending is worn down over time. So again we see how that plural suffix caused the sound at the end of those words to become voiced.

But remember that the same thing happened to verbs because they also had voiced suffixes and older forms of english. So when we compare the noun and verb forms of these old words, we see the same distinction that we saw earlier. The nouns end in a voiceless th sound and the verbs end in a voiced th sound, we have breath and breathe cloth and clothes. Bath and bathe, we can refer to a child's tooth or a child who is teething. Again, these are old distinctions that predate john hart and still exist to this day. Another pair of sounds that work basically the same way as those we've already looked at is the S sound and the Z sound. As I noted at the beginning of the episode. Those two sounds are also distinguished only by their voicing. We can begin with a voiceless S sound and when we constrict those vocal folds, they start to vibrate and becomes Z.

So the Z sound is just the voiced version of the S sound again. Historically, those sounds were not clearly distinguished in english. The anglo saxons just used the letter S for both sounds and that approach was used well into the elizabethan era. In fact, outside of scholars like john hart who wanted to represent sounds phonetically. Most people didn't even bother with the letter Z or zed. Both names were used for the letter at the time. In fact, Shakespeare even alludes to this fact. In his play, King Lear in the play, The Earl of Kent berates the servant of one of his enemies. He suggests that the servant is worthless and he says thou whoreson Zed thou unnecessary letter. So even Shakespeare included a little joke about the limited use of the letters E at the time. Even today, the letter Z has a limited use in english. We still tend to use the letter S for both the voiced Z sound and the voiceless s sound.

Think about words like as is was has and his. There are some of the most common words in english. They're also very old words and even though they are pronounced with a Z sound at the end, we spell them with an S. Interestingly when we look at john hart's transcriptions, we see more of a mixed bag words that have a consistent pronunciation today tend to vary. In his writings. He spelled words like this and us with both an S and a Z, suggesting that people sometimes pronounced them as this and us and sometimes pronounced them as this and us words like as and is and was were also spelled both ways, suggesting that they were sometimes pronounced like today and sometimes pronounced as as and a closer look at his spellings shows that he tended to take the same general approach that I described earlier in regard to the f and V sounds.

He used the voiceless S before words that begin with voiceless sounds and he used the voiced Z. Before words that begin with voiced sounds. If that was the way elizabethan english worked, it's changed over time because modern pronunciations don't tend to vary in that way. They're a bit more fixed. But as we look at modern english, we can see lots of examples where the letter S. Is pronounced with a Z sound when it's surrounded by vowels on each side like easy, busy visit music reason, dismal and cousin Again. We see how those vows on each side tend to produce voicing all the way through the middle of the word. Again. We also see how the final S. In some of these words became a voiced Z sound when a verbal suffix was added. So that gave us the distinction between choice and choose abuse and abuse.

Use and use close and close, refuse and refuse advice and advise peace and appease. And here's one you may have never noticed before. Grass and graze grazes what animals do on grass. Now john hart confirms that these distinct pronunciations also existed in elizabethan english. He spells abuse and use and close with an S. And abuse and use and close with a Z. But notice that we don't actually spell any of those words with the letter Z. Today choose abuse, use clothes, advise they're all spelled with either an S or a C. We really limit the use of letters E in english. Now even today the verbal suffixes we use tend to be influenced by voicing in spelling, we add an S.

Or E. S. To a verb to indicate present tense in third person he jumps, she walks and so on and we had an E. D. To a verb to indicate past tense, he jumped, she walked. But something very interesting happens when we pronounce those words with those endings. The pronunciations actually vary depending on the final sound and the verb, you may not have noticed it because the spelling tends to mask it. But standard english follows the voicing at the end of those words. If the verb ends in a voiceless sound like the P. Sound and jump, then the suffixes also voiceless, either an S. Sound or a. T. Sound. So we say he jumps with an S. Sound and we say he jumped with a T. Sound at the end. I know we spell it E. D. But it's not jumped it's jumped with a T.

Sound just like skipped and helped and tapped. Sometimes we even spell those forms with a T. Like slept and wept and kept again. We pronounce them with a voiceless T sound because the verbs end in a voiceless P. Sound. The suffix matches the ending. But notice what happens when we have a verb that ends in a voiced be sound like rub. We say he rubs and he rubbed again. The pronunciations match the ending but in this case they're reversed since rub ends in a voiced be sound. The past tense suffix ends with a voiced D. Sound rubbed and in present tense. The suffix ends in a voiced Z. Sound rubs. We can also hear that disease sound at the end of other verbs that end in a voiced sound like rob's reads, loves gives and so on.

So did this same pattern exist during the elizabethan period. Well yes to an extent scholars think the modern system developed over the course of the middle english and early modern english periods as the grammatical suffixes became more regular and the voicing became more consistent. Unfortunately john hart's writings only provide us with limited evidence. He does show the use of the T pronunciation in past tense after a voiceless sound. For example, he has touched as the past tense of touch and he specifically says that the past tense of Miss is missed with a T and the past tense of bless is blissed with a T. So all of that is consistent with the modern pronunciation rules, but there are inconsistencies, especially when it comes to the S ending. His final manuscript in 1570 is actually the most consistent in the way these suffixes are represented.

Most scholars think the modern pronunciation rules were largely in place during the elizabethan period, but there was still some variation however, by the middle of the following century, the transcriptions provided by scholars showed that the modern system was fully in place. Now, I should note that we can still find some variation between the S sound and the Z sound in modern english. If you eat a piece of pizza with a lot of pepperoni on it, you might describe it as greasy or as greasy in american english. Greasy is more common in the south and the midwest. But again, that pronunciation isn't surprising because greasy has a voiceless s sound between the two voiced vowels. E. So in that environment we would expect that some speakers would constrict and activate the vocal folds all the way through there by voicing the consonant in the middle.

And in fact that's exactly what we do with the word Eazy, E A S Y. So here some speakers do the same thing and convert greasy into greasy. Now so far we've explored several voiced and voiceless pairs but there's still a few more to consider. As I noted earlier in the episode, we have the C. H. Sound at both ends of the word church. It's a voiceless sound. But if we constrict those vocal folds and make them vibrate, we can voice that sound, thereby converting it from two. That's the J sound. So you might not think of those two sounds as being related, but they are in modern english. We have two common ways of spelling that sound. We can use the letter J. Or the letter G. The word judge has the sound at each end, the first spelled with a J. And the second with a G. But interestingly the letter J did not exist during the elizabethan period.

The letter J evolved out of the letter I. And it emerged as a distinct letter in the 1600s and 1700s. Well look at that development in a future episode. But for now in the Elizabethan era, it was common to use the letter I to represent that sound. The spelling with letter G was borrowed from french. That's the so called soft G. Well, all of that posed a problem for john hart, who wanted a specific letter for each sound in the language. He didn't have a letter J yet. And the letter I was obviously used as a vowel letter. And of course the letter G was also used for the hard G sound. So he needed a unique way to represent the sound. He came up with his own way to represent that sound, which is actually used by some linguists to this day. He used a D followed by that old english letter yoga, which looked sort of like a cursive Z. But other than that unique spelling, heart didn't really have much to say about that sound.

I mainly mentioned it here because I wanted you to be aware that the letter J was still not in place yet. So let's turn our attention to another sound. The voiceless sound, that's probably the most appropriate voiceless sound because it's the sound we make when we want someone to be quiet. Of course we spell that sound with the letter combination S. H. But notice what happens when we voice that sound becomes. That's the sound we hear in words like genre and beige and in the middle of words like vision and pleasure. You'll notice that we don't have a specific letter for that sound and that's because it's really a brand new sound in the english language. It isn't clearly documented until the 1600s. Some scholars think it developed within english because it provided balance to the language. It gave the voiceless sound a voiced alternative.

And as we've seen, voiceless sounds sometimes become voiced in certain situations. So it made sense for the language to have a sound to complement the sound. We can actually trace the development of this sound within english. It came from two different sources. The first was a natural development within english itself and the other source was french. As I noted, there's no clear evidence of the sound during the elizabethan period. So john hart did not mention it in his writings. We don't really have any solid evidence of the sound in English until the 1640s. So I'll save a detailed discussion about that development for a future episode. However, heart does give us an indication that the sound was starting to develop in the language during his lifetime. So let's just take a brief look at how this sound evolved. It appears that the sound evolved out of what was originally an S. Sound in certain words, especially words that ended in S.

I. O. N. Like derision and occasion and vision. Originally those words would have been pronounced like they were spelled so derision, location and vision. As we've seen, the S sound is voiceless. But at some point the s sound in those words started to become voiced. So it became a Z sound. So derision Ocha's ian and vision. And then in the 1600s, the sound continued to evolve into that voiced sound derision and occasion and vision. The same basic development also occurred in the middle of some words like the word pleasure which evolved from pleasure to pleasure to pleasure. Now john hart didn't show that final development to the zoo sound, but he did show that intermediate step with the Z sound.

He spelled the words occasion and pleasure with a Z, which reflects the first step in the change. Now, I should note that many other words ending in S. I. O. N. Actually experienced a separate but parallel development. They developed a voiceless sound at the end like nation and impression and heart spelled those words with a voiceless S. So heart was already distinguishing those words with either a voiceless S. Or a voiced Z. And again that voiceless S evolved into shun and the voiced Z evolved into Gene That sound is clearly documented in the 1600s and after then French words were borrowed into English with the same sound like genre, prestige camouflage entourage and sabotage.

Those words apparently retained that just sound in english because the same sound was being used in english by that point. Again, we'll look at those developments in more detail in a future episode. Now we have one other voiced and voiceless pair of sounds that we need to consider in this episode. And those are the K. And G. Sounds, those are sounds that are made in the back of the mouth in the throat region. The K Sound is voiceless, but if we constrict the vocal folds and make them vibrate, the sound becomes voiced and it switches from two john hart doesn't have much to say about those sounds. But there was an interesting development concerning those sounds during the elizabethan period and hearts writings shed some light on what was happening. That development concerned the pronunciation of those two sounds before the letter N. At the beginning of words, we still see the K.

N. Spelling at the beginning of words like knife and knee and night as in a knight in shining armor. The K was originally pronounced in those words, so they were pronounced more like beef and connect. We find the same thing in words that begin with G. N, like nat and no. Again that G was originally pronounced, of course the K and G. And those words are silent today. So when did those initial sounds disappear? Well, heart didn't have any examples of words that begin with G. N. But he did have the words no, K, N, O, W, and knowledge. And when he transcribed those words, he included the K at the beginning. So that implies that the K was still being pronounced before the end at that time. Last time I mentioned that other spelling reformers, sir, thomas smith and he also included the K.

In his phonetic spellings, Other scholars from the late 1500s and early 1600s also indicate that the K&G sounds were still being pronounced before the end, but William Shakespeare suggests the opposite. In his works, he used a lot of puns where a word pronounced one way could have two meanings and he made puns with words like night as in the opposite of day and night as in a knight in shining armor. He also made puns with knack and neck known and none and not K, N O T and not N O T. So that suggests that the K and G. And those words were already silent. We can probably reconcile that conflicting evidence by noting that those types of changes tended to happen in common colloquial speech first, and then they spread to formal educated speech, which was the type of speech represented by people like john hart.

So it appears that those initial case and Gs were starting to disappear in the speech of the common people during the elizabethan period, but they were retained in more formal speech. It also appears that where those sounds were retained, they were being pronounced more softly as more of an H sound. Some writers of the period described the sound as aspirated. So that was probably an intermediate step before the sound disappeared altogether. So from something like can if two knife, two knife, two knife. At any rate, those initial K&G sounds were completely silent by the late 1600s and early 1700s, even in formal educated speech. Now I mentioned that those initial K and G sounds may have become more aspirated as before they finally disappeared. Well that would make sense because that sound in english was also disappearing during the elizabethan period.

I noted in earlier episodes that english once had a lot of words that were pronounced with that aspirated sound. There were actually two slightly different sounds. One was pronounced in the back of the throat after back vowels like a, O and U. So it was like the the original version of the, and there was also a version that was pronounced higher towards the palate after front vowels like E and I, that's the sound we hear in a word like lift the original version of light. As we know those sounds came to be spelled with the letter combination G. H. In the middle english period. Of course, most of those G H. S are silent today. So when did those sounds disappear? Well, as you might expect, it didn't happen overnight. Some of the earliest evidence for the disappearance of those sounds can be found in the 1400s. You might remember that. I talked about the letters of the past and family way back in episode 138.

They were written in the mid and late 1400s. So about a century before the Elizabethan period and they contained some of the first evidence that the sound was starting to disappear. Several words in those letters were spelled without their normal G. H. And without any other letter to represent that sound. The patients lived in Norfolk in the east of England and some linguists think that the sound started to disappear there first and then gradually spread westward and northward. By the mid 1500s, the sound was still being pronounced in places like London, but it seems to have been softened perhaps to a little more than a slight aspiration or H. Sound. In the 15 forties, a welsh scholar named William Saulsberry compared the english sound to the similar sound found in welsh as well as in Scots and german. But he said the english sound was softer and lighter than those other sounds during the elizabethan period.

The sound was represented in the transcriptions of both of the well known spelling reformers, Sir thomas smith and john hart, but they did drop it in a few words smith did not include the sound in his version of the words fight and light and though suggesting that the sound had disappeared in those words and heart, omitted the sound and his transcription of the word through, but only in that word. In every other case, he indicated that the sound was still pronounced a couple of decades later, other english scholars reported that the sound was routinely dropped in words, especially when the sound appeared at the end of a word like though and through they also report that it was lightly sounded when it was pronounced. And by the mid 1600s it seems that the sound had completely disappeared except in Scotland and parts of the north. So licht had become light and nicked had become night.

So based on all of that evidence, it seems that the sound was still common when Elizabeth became queen, but it seems to have largely disappeared over the course of her long reign, especially among the common people. There was one other interesting development though, in some cases the sound didn't disappear completely. It actually evolved into a new sound since that sound sometimes followed a vowel sound that was pronounced with rounded lips like ooh or oh or our. That process of rounding the lips led some people to continue that motion and finish it off by letting the bottom lip touch the top teeth and that produced an F sound. And through that process, the sound evolved into a sound in some words. By the way, that's the same process that led some french speakers to pronounce lu as leaf, which produced an alternate pronunciation of lieutenant as leftenant, which became a lieutenant in british english.

So in much the same way in english, the and sounds became, and in fact before spelling became completely standardized, it was common to find lots of words in english where G. H was replaced with an f implying that the sound had changed to an F. Sound in those words, for example, the word daughter is sometimes found with an F. In the middle suggesting that some people pronounced it as doctor. The word through is sometimes found with an F at the end presumably pronounced as proof. And the word dough can also be found with an F pronounced as duff. In fact that pronunciation still survives in the name of a traditional english dessert called plum duff, which is literally plum dough. So there was a period when a lot of these words had many different pronunciations, one with the traditional sound, one with a sound and one with no sound at all in that position, those various pronunciations were sorted out over time with some words like laugh, cough, tough and enough retaining that F sound, but in most cases the sound was lost altogether.

Of course by that point, english spelling had become fixed. So we still have all those G H. S. Today in spellings, most of which are silent Now I noted that john hart represented the sound in his phonetic spelling system. He was probably a little bit conservative in his approach representing the speech of the educated classes rather than the speech on the street. Now you may be wondering how heart represented that sound in his phonetic spelling system. After all the letter G was used for the sound. So it didn't really make sense to use it with the H to represent this sound. So instead he just used the letter H. But of course the letter H also represented the normal H sound. Huh? So why did he also use that letter for the sound? Well, presumably because he thought of them as the same basic sound, Maybe one was a little stronger or rougher, but they were still variations of the same sound.

Remember that other writers of this period described the sound as being pronounced very lightly or softly. So it may have been little more than a heavy breath and therefore basically the same type of sound normally represented with letter H. And that takes us to the final sound that I wanted to discuss in this episode. The H sound as I've noted in prior episodes, the H sound is one of the weakest sounds in the language. It's voiceless and it's really little more than a slight breath. And throughout its history it's had a tendency to become silent, especially at the beginning of a word that was also true for latin, where the H sound largely disappeared during the late latin period and it remained silent in the early romance languages as well. So by the time french emerged as a distinct language, the letter H was still being used in spellings, but french speakers weren't pronouncing it.

And of course a lot of those french words poured into english after the norman conquest that gave english lots of words with silent Hs. Meanwhile, english had its own words with the H sound like head and house and heart and 100. And during the middle english period, those native words became mixed in with all of those new french loan words. So english became this jumble of words where the H was sometimes pronounced and sometimes silent. And as people became more literate, they became even more confused by the spellings. They weren't sure if the H was supposed to be pronounced or not. So it became common for people to pronounce the H in some french words where it was supposed to be silent and to ignore the age. In some english words where it was supposed to be pronounced so that h became a real problem. And that was still the case during the elizabethan period. Even a very perceptive scholar like john hart sometimes struggled with the sound and his phonetic spellings.

For example, when he wrote the french word honor, he generally left out the H suggesting that honor was pronounced much like today. But in a couple of passages, he spelled it with an age at the front. So that implies that the word was sometimes pronounced as hahner and sometimes he dropped the H in words that were normally pronounced with an H sound like nothing for huffing and humming for humming. But in most cases heart showed that the H was pronounced in most words that began with the letter H and that reflects a trend that had started to emerge in early modern english in general, people were becoming more literate and spelling was becoming more fixed and people were increasingly pronouncing words like they were spelled. And that meant that people were generally pronouncing the ages at the front of almost all of those words that began with the letter H.

And that's how the silent H. In all of those french words came to be pronounced in modern english like in host and hospital history, habit, heritage and so on. And hearts transcriptions are generally consistent with that pattern. But there were a handful of stragglers where the H remained silent like honor honest. Our hou, our air H E I. R. And at least in american english, the word herb. But that's about it. Otherwise people started pronouncing their ages. And most of those words, well, sort of in the 1800s it once again became common in England for people to drop their ages. But that's a separate development that will explore in a future episode. So why does that initial H sound keep disappearing? Not only in english, but in other languages as well. There may be an answer and it may lie in the same issue of voiced and voiceless sounds that we've been exploring in this episode.

Here's the thing about that H sound, as I said, it's really nothing more than a slight breath, it's voiceless. So the vocal folds are left open and silent and the sound isn't really articulated in any specific part of the mouth. In fact there's something really interesting about that sound in modern english, it always appears before a vowel sound. And linguists who study this sound note that when we pronounce it we actually shape our tongue and mouth like the vowel sound that follows it. So if we want to say hi, we set our tongue to make the I sound and just before we make that sound we precede it with a slight breath. That's the H sound high. And if we want to say he, we set our tongue to make the E sound and again we just precede that sound with a little breath. He, well as we know by now vowel sounds are always voiced.

So some modern linguists think of the h sound as essentially a voiceless vowel sound. That's actually how we pronounce it. We shape the vowel sound and we proceed it with a little voiceless breath. Well we've seen throughout this episode that a voiceless sound next to a voiced sound will sometimes become voiced. All we have to do is just activate those vocal folds a few milliseconds early and the h sound becomes voiced. But here's the thing if that h sound is nothing more than a voiceless vow then if we voice, it it literally becomes the vowel that follows it that means it disappears. So if we look at it from that perspective, the H sound has a tendency to disappear at the front of words because it sometimes gets voiced just like so many other sounds do in the course of normal speech. So with that final note about voicing, you're probably getting tired of my voice by now.

So I'll wrap up on that note next time we'll continue our look at elizabethan english by focusing on some of the remaining consonant sounds and we'll see what john hart's writings tell us about those sounds as well. After that, we'll check on the status of the great vowel shift by looking at how the vowel sounds were evolving during this period and with that we should have a good foundation for the state of english prior to the time of William Shakespeare and prior to the spread of english around the world. And that will also allow us to trace how the language evolved in various regions between the elizabethan period and today. So until next time. Thanks for listening to the history of english podcast

Episode 159: Elizabethan Voices
Episode 159: Elizabethan Voices
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