Tag Archives: English vowels

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.


Who am I? What is this I that I perceive? The most essential thing in the universe or a pure illusion? Is it as solid as a metal beam or as evanescent as a candle in the wind?

Reflect, Grasshopper. Reflect on yourself, because your self is mere reflection. This shining I is a mere mirror, and even the mirror is not there when you – with your eye, your seeing part, which you may mistake for your I – look for it.

You look in the mirror, and you say, “I see.” And indeed I C spells the source of I: in Old English, I was ic, said sometimes as “eek” and sometimes as “each” – the two sides of the self, one of fear, withdrawing, the other of distribution, sharing, outgoing. It was sometimes after written ich. Make this capital: ICH. In a serif font, the formal way, an I is like a steel beam (an I-beam, in fact), reminiscent of an H on its side. Make it more like an H on its side and you have 工, the Chinese character for gong, “work.” But Chinese for “I” is wo – the self is only half of work, for action is the rest. The character for wo, however, is a slashing pattern of seven strokes, 我, half of which is a spear and the other half of which is said to be a hand, or grain, or another spear: fighting, action.

The self is the ready hand: the letter I began as an arm and hand, Phoenecian yod, which lost first the hand, then the elbow and wrist, and soon became the smallest of letters, a mere stroke, iota, ι, the famed jot of jot and tittle, the small wisp of Hebrew yod, י. You see the strong hand, but when you follow it, it vanishes into smoke, it is the merest small thing.

But I was not I then. In Hebrew, when you speak of yourself, you do not say an I, you say ani. In Greek, like English an Indo-European language, “I” the speaking first person was – is – ego, written in Greek letters εγο; in Latin, it is ego written first EGO (as we ever write our selves in our own minds). These little letters we love, e g o i etc., came about later, as scribes shrank them in brisk writing: the I became a little single stroke, at risk of being taken for one half of an n, one third of an m, so they added a dot, like a finger, a flag… a flame. We are a candle burning down. No, we are not: we are only the flame. We consume the wax, but the matter of the wax passes in other forms into the air; when it is burnt, however, the flame – which was only ever an ongoing reaction, not a discrete object – is gone. Ay, gone.

Ay. This is how we say I. This is not how we always said it. Our long vowels shifted half a millennium ago. Before that, the ich lost the fricative at the end and we said it “ee”: simply the narrowest opening at the tip of the tongue. Tighten the tongue a little more as you say it, and whisper as you do so, and you have German ich. But when “ah” became “ey” and “ey” became “ee” we needed this sound of I to be more distinctive, and so we swooped into it, starting at “ah” and narrowing down, like a hand swinging through the air and pointing at a spot.

In other languages it widens from the spot. In Scandinavian languages, you have jeg – the j a glide, like our y – or similar words. In Slavic languages, you have ja and similar words. In Romance languages, you have Spanish yo, Portuguese eu, Italian io, French je – this last has a fricative, but it was once a glide, too, as its first letter has descended from none other than I. Thereby hangs a tale: what we see now as j was first an ornamental i with a tail; when the glide sound came from the vowel, it was written the same way at first, but when we decided we needed a separate letter for the glide – or for the fricative or affricate it had become – we kept the j for that. If we needed another version still, we used y. And sometimes, in English, where the i seemed too small for the vowel, we wrote y instead. See that y: like an i and a j joined. In Dutch, words once written with y – such as the river Y – are now written with ij (and the river is het IJ). The self plain and the self fancy, extended: together you have branching, division, or you have dowsing, divination, depending on your direction. Widening or narrowing: your self is your choice. Which shall you do?

We aggrandized our little i. When we stopped saying ich we were left with a jot and a dot. It was not big enough; the I does not want to pass unnoticed. So it gained an infusion of capital. In other languages, politeness may dictate the upper case for the formal other person: Sie in German, U in Dutch (which, informally, says je for “you”). Honour may dictate it for royalty and deity: Your Grace, His grace. But we, we who see ourselves as the axis of all, we plant a flagpole at our north pole of the self: I. How we forget that when all rotates around a point, the point around which is rotates has no size, no dimension. It is a perfect nothing. Without it the action could not be happening, but it is only there as a result and part of the action. It itself does not move; it is still, there. And when the action stops it is not still there.

I is not the most common word in English; it sits, according to wordcount.org, at 11th place – ay, ay, 11. The most common pronoun, in eighth place, is it. The most frequent actual noun is in 66th place, after so many function words, pronouns, auxiliaries, and staple verbs. It is what the I exists in: time.

What does the I stand for? among other things, I stands for the heaviest element commonly used by living organisms, an element rare in many places but soluble in water and so concentrated in seawater: iodine. It stains and it stings, but we need it. Without it our thyroids underdevelop, with bad effect; iodine deficiency is the leading cause of preventable mental retardation.

But our little candle, the small i, takes us to the root of this all. And if our self is defined in opposition – the spear against spear, the ego that opposes, the reversal seen in reflection, the inevitable entropy of the candle – then our self is a negative one. And the root of negative one is i: an imaginary number, not countable or accountable in the real world, but still usable for describing and calculating things in our lives. The square root of 1 is 1; the square root of –1 is i. One less than nothing, and reduced by one dimension.

This is your I, grasshopper: a useful illusion, a mere effect of and part of action. You see a line between yourself and the world, but I, the line, is all there is, and even that is nothing real.

An Appreciation of English: A language in motion

This is the text of a presentation I made at the Editors’ Association of Canada Conference in Vancouver, June 10, 2006. It came with a handout, “A brief history of English,” which is available as a PDF. It traces the history and development of the English language and the nature and function of language change.
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the long and short of English vowels

A colleague mentioned an exercise she was editing in which adult ESL students are asked to sort words according to whether the vowel sound is short or long. She asked, “Where did this terminology come from, anyway? And is there any other way of effectively describing this sound-spelling relationship?” Continue reading