ТНE PROBLEM OF SPELLING PRONUNCIATION

The spelling of Middle English is much more phonetic than that of Modern English. The trouble was not merely that English spelling was bad, for it is still bad today, but that there was no generally accepted system that every one could conform to. In short, it was neither phonetic nor fixed. The confusion was increased when certain spellings gradually became conventional while the slowly changed. And here we must confine ourselves to а few observations about the importance of sound-changes and their representation in writing.

In considering the changes in pronunciation which English words underwent passing from Old to Middle English we may say that qualitatively they were slight. Changes in the consonants were rather insignificant, as they have always been in English. Some voiced consonants became voiceless, and. vice versa, and consonants neither were occasionally lost nor were they’re much alteration in the quality of vowels in accented syllables. Most of the short vowels, unless lengthened, passed over into Middle English unaltered. The Old English diphthongs were all simplified, and all diphthongs in Middle English are new formation. If the quality of Old English vowels did not change much in passing into Middle English, their quantity or length was subject to considerable alteration. All these changes in length are little noticeable in the spelling.

When we come to the vowel changes in Modern English we see the importance of the factors that determined the length of vowels in Middle English. All Middle English vowels, which were long, underwent radical alteration in passing into Modern English, but the short vowels, in accented syllables, remained comparatively stable. So far as the short vowels areconcerned it is clear that а person today would have little difficulty in understanding the English of any period, of the language.

The situation is very different when we consider the long vowels. In Chaucer's pronunciation these had still their so-called 'continental' value, as for instance Modern German vowels. But in the 15th с. all the long vowels gradually became raised and those that could not became diphthongs. These major vowel changes from about 1350 mark the shift from Middle English to Modern English, and they are usually termed the Great Vowel Shift. It will be noticed that the Great Vowel Shift is responsible for the rather disorganized useof the vowel symbols in English, spelling. The spelling of English had become fixed in а general way before the shift and therefore did not change when the quality of the long vowels changes. Consequently English vowel symbols no longer correspond to the sounds, which they once represented in English and. still represent in the other modern languages in which vowels have their 'continental' value accurately represented by well fixed symbols.

Norman scribes introduced some confusion in English spelling even before the Great Vowel Shift when they tried to write а language that they imperfectly knew and carried over habits that they had formed in writing French. In some cases а further confusion in spelling arose when letters were inserted in words where they were not pronounced (like the -b- in debt or doubt) because the corresponding word in Latin was so spelled (debitum, dubitare), or in other cases (for example, the -gh- in delight, tight) by analogy with words similarly pronounced (light, night) where the -gh- had formally represented an actual sound [х].

All in all spelling was one of the problems that the English language began consciously to face in the 16th c. During the period from 1500 1о 1650 it was fairly settled. Mention should be made of the fact that the detailed history of English spelling has yet to be written.



Before 1798 the system of polite language, which had developed in the 18 century, was under strain. It can be highlighted only four of them. According to W. Blake the first is freeing up of restrictions on newsprint and copyright. The second is the American Revolution leading to the independence of the former American colonies. The third is the French revolution and the impetus that provide for democratic movements and the inevitable backlash from those who wanted to preserve conservative values and social standards. The fourth is the discovery by Sir William Jones that Sanskrit was related to Latin and Greek as well as possibly other European languages. These events became associated with other developments which took place during the 19th century to put the old system under pressure.[Blake, 273]

In the 18th century copyright law was uncertain, but the fear of prosecution under the law inhibited many printers from publishing material for that they thought they could be put in prison. In 1774 the limits of copyright were clarified and it became far easier to publish material that might previously have been considered suspect. This is not immediately stop the prosecution of those who published material to which the government took exception, and during the Napoleonic wars various acts restricted liberty and freedom of expression. However, the end of the copyright and the general availability of newsprint meant that many cheap editions were issued so that those who could read might have better access to reading matter other than the Bible.

During the 19th century circulating libraries grew in importance and there was a growth in literacy. Newspapers became more widespread, and in 1835 the repeal of the newspaper stamp duty meant that newspapers came down in price and could reach a wider audience.

It should be pointed out that there is another theoretical approach to the problem under discussion. This theory says that the generally accepted view that English orthography bears little relation to English phonology is in fact quite false. The pronunciations of words are quite generally predictable from their spelling. Moreover, quite aside from pronunciation, this orthography preserves information about the history and meaning of words that is of great value in human communication.

As R. Burchfield states that of all the main languages of the world none is widely disseminated and more subtly sliced and severed than English, and all within the space of only 1500 years. From the diversity of the earliest records of the Anglo-Saxons it can be assumed that it already divided into a multitude of linguistic subgroups using different modes of pronunciation, grammar and usage even though they remained mutually intelligible. [Burchfield]

In the period since 1800 most of the observable changes to received pronunciation have been brought by Mitford factor – in other words by sociological change and not by phonetic change. They include the substitution of [ei] for [i:] in words like deity, homogeneity and spontaneity; and the replacement of a soft g in gynaecology by a hard one.

This is not to deny that there are quite а few no phonological, no phonetic spellings in English. Clearly, there is some orthography that is of no value. Standard spelling persists over the decades and centuries. The resistance of standard spelling to change reflects, rather, an important fact of historical linguistics. The underlying phonological spellings of language that are represented by alphabetic writing systems are themselves quite resistant to change. And the complicated interaction between Modern English orthography and pronunciation is а striking example such resistance.

 


LECTURE 4.

 






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