A Word Taster’s Companion: The long and short of it

Today: the sixth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

The long and short of it

There’s something you should know about long and short vowel pairs in English.

They’re not.

Oh, the short vowels are short. And they’re even slightly shorter before voiceless stops than before voiced ones (the [æ] in mat is a bit shorter than the one in mad, for instance).

And the long ones are longer. But not because they’re long versions of the short ones. “Long i” is not actually a long version of “short i,” nor is “long o” an extended version of “short o.” “Long a” doesn’t have any of the sound of “short a” in it at all. Same goes for “long” and “short” e. And u? Even worse.

Let me show you what I mean. Pretend you’re at the doctor and say “ah.” Say it quickly first. There’s your short a. OK, now say “aahhhh,” nice and long. There’s your long a: a long version of a short a. But it’s not your “long a” at all. You know what “long a” is: the sound in fate. But if it were really a long version of “short a,” you would say that word like “faat.”

So why don’t we do that?

Well, we used to. Then something changed.

English “long” vowels actually were long versions of the short ones centuries ago. But accents change over time, pronunciation of phonemes shifts, and there was a big change during the 15th and 16th centuries, a thing called the Great Vowel Shift. The long vowels all moved up in the mouth while the short ones stayed put. The vowels at the top couldn’t move any further up, so they became diphthongs starting lower in the mouth and moving up.

So the word we used to say as “baat” is the word bate. The word we used to say as “bate” is the word beet. The word we used to say as “beet” is the word bite.

Meanwhile, things went even nuttier in the back. The word we used to say like “boat” is the word boot (hence the oo spelling) and the word we used to say like “boot” is the word bout. But what we call “long o” is really the shifted version of a long version of the sound in bought. What we call “long u” is another thing that happened to that vowel: the sound we used to say as in “booty” is the sound in beauty.

Does that seem stupid? Consider that in some versions of English (much Canadian English, for instance), the word stupid – which because of the vowel shift became like “styoopid” – is now back to a pre-shifted “stoopid.”

Meanwhile, the short vowels pretty much stayed put, resulting in these mismatched socks. Watch the zigzag your tongue makes as you say the vowels in bat, bait, bet, beet, bit, bite, in order. You might find it clearer if you say just the vowels and leave off the [b] and [t]. Now try them in the order of bat, bet, bit; bait, beet, bite.

Congratulations. You’ve had your tongue for how long? And you may just be getting to know its ways better now.

But why would this happen? Does it seem too strange for words? Well, in fact, changes to pronunciation keep on happening, everywhere, all the time. A language never stops changing as long as it’s in active use by people who speak it as their first language. The Great Vowel Shift is just the best-known vowel shift. There’s one in the United States called the Northern Cities shift that is in progress now and is responsible for the raised and fronted “short” vowels you hear from Buffalonians and others on and near the Great Lakes (why Ann can sound like “Ian” and gone can sound like “gan” to people from elsewhere). Think, too, about how people from the southern US often say their vowels – they’re different from the way Northerners say them even though way, way back in the mists of time all English speakers said them about the same way. Think about the “Canadian raising” I talked about in “Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes”: eyes versus ice, loud versus lout.

And listen around for some other changes that might be more evident in some groups of the population than others (younger people, for instance) – such as a lowering that makes test sound more like “tast.” Listen for changes to consonants too, and differences between different speakers. The one constant in language is change. And sometimes that change can get pretty weird.

Next: on to consonants.

2 responses to “A Word Taster’s Companion: The long and short of it

  1. Pingback: A Word Taster’s Companion: The vowel circle | Sesquiotica

  2. Reading this lead me to think about the curious effect of double Ls.

    Why does the a sound in “pal” change to “pall” with the double L? Why not just spell it pol? After all, cat does not change to catt to get cot, nor does pat become patt to get pot. And, we still have calligraphy, so the double Ls aren’t even consistent.

    I can detect a difference in what my tongue does when saying of vs. off, so I get that a double consonant can be a tool for subtle pronunciation changes; I’m just wondering what the rule is because it’s not consistent. I’d win a bet that abetting sounds the same, as well as set/setting, wet/wetting makes no change to the sound that the e makes.

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