Phonological developments in English after the standardization of the orthography and their consequences for the relationship between phonology and orthography
This essay first explains what sound change is and then describes differences between Middle English and New English concerning consonant and especially vowel patterns due to the Great English Vowel Shift. Then the standardization of the orthography and phonological changes after the 17th century are discussed. Finally, the results of these changes for the relationship between phonology and orthography today are depicted.
Sound change is referred to modifications in the language that lead to the introduction or loss of phonological elements (Lehmann 1992: 183). Sound change means a modification of distinctive features of the phonemes (Lehmann 1992: 191). Today sound changes are mostly indicated by means of distinctive features rather than by means of rules as it was in earlier times, because an indication by means of distinctive features is more precise. Generally, a sound can change in its place or manner of articulation, in the position of the velum or in its glottal articulation (Lehmann 1992: 191-193). Furthermore, changes may take place in the characteristic features of a vowel, i.e. in the degree of vowel opening, in the degree of fronting or in the labial articulation (Lehmann 1992: 193-194). A sound change can either be conditioned or unconditioned. Within a conditioned change an allophone of a phoneme changes only in a specific environment and stays the same in all others, whereas within an unconditioned change, a phoneme changes in all possible environments, which happens very seldom (Lehmann 1992: 190-191). Simple treatments of sound changes are normally unrealistic, i.e. to assume that all phonemes /x/ have become /y/ at time z (Lehmann 1992: 190). Usually a tabloid which shows that each phoneme /x/ became /y/ and each phoneme /y/ became /z/ depicts only the most common cases. But often a change is restricted to a certain environment and does not take place in others. Changes can be interpreted as addition, as alteration or as loss of a feature. Accordingly, when changes are described by rules they are described as rule addition, rule loss or rule recording. (Lehmann 1992: 204-205). A “sound change only occurs when there is a disruption of the phonological system”. This disruption may take place by two mechanisms, either by merger or by split. Merger means that a sound changes so much that its pronunciation falls together with the pronunciation of another phoneme. Split means that allophones of a phoneme move away from each other so far that they cannot be regarded as the same phoneme any longer and new phonemes are introduced. (Lehmann 1992: 196).
In the 15th century “more important phonological changes than in any other century” took place within the English language (Pyles 1971: 181). Some of these changes will be depicted below. These changes concern mainly the Middle English long vowels, which were raised, and therefore the sound change is referred to as the Great English Vowel Shift. Within the long vowels, for instance [e:] changed towards [i:] as in feet or [o:] changed towards [u:] as in boot. The long vowels which were already high in Middle English and could not be raised further became diphthongized, so [i:] became first [əI] and finally [aI] as in ride and [u:] became first [əU] and then [aU] as in house. (Pyles, 1971: 188). The short vowels and the consonants remained relatively stable. Among the short vowels only [a] changed towards [Q] as in that and [U] changed towards [Ã] as in but, all other short vowels stayed the same. Nevertheless, these changes cannot be generalized for all words, since in many words the old pronunciation is preserved or it underwent a different change: “Middle English short [U] […] was unrounded and shifted to [Ã], though the older value survives in a good many words”, for instance in bull, put and bush (Pyles 1971: 186). The Great Vowel Shift took place over a long period of time. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, there existed many variations in the pronunciation of vowels. The raising was already documented but it was not consistently used yet: “still in 1747 Johnson was troubled about rhyming great, whether with seat [i:] or with state [e:]” (Lehmann 1992: 199). Today there are still variations in English dialects, some of which still use a pronunciation with not shifted Middle English Vowels. So “even after six centuries the effects of the Great Vowel Shift have not become stabilized in English”. (Lehmann 1992: 199).
In the middle of the 17th century, a standardization of English orthography took place, with the effect that “spelling evolved from near anarchy to almost complete predictability” (Brengelmann 1980: 334). Before that, many competing spellings for one single word existed. The spelling differed because by that printers could “compensate for shortages or […] justify for margins” (Brengelmann 1980: 333). So often in the same text a word was spelled in different ways (Brengelmann 1980: 334). Brengelmann (1980: 335 ff) argues that the printers’ and correctors’ effort in regularizing the English spelling was often overestimated. Flexibility of spelling was an advantage for printers and the correctors’ proof reading was often careless. Phonetic research began in the 1660’s and it was the theorists’ aim to adjust the current spelling system to attain regularity (Brengelmann 1980 344-346). Achievements were among others the rationalization of the final e and consonant doubling and the regularization of morphemes borrowed from Latin (Brengelmann 1980: 347). “These measures left English spelling largely in the form we have today” (Carney 1994: 468). During the 16th and 17th century, a huge amount of Latin words was borrowed for English and there existed rules for adapting those Latin words, e.g. the Latin ending <-io> became <-ion> in English as, for instance, Latin inquisitio turned into inquisition in the English equivalent (Brengelmann 1980: 352-353). After the standardization of the orthography, English has been influenced by such borrowed words to a great extent. “The “irregular” spelling of thousands of loan-words and technical terms is close to the spelling of similar words in other European languages – much closer than a phonetic English spelling would be”. So it would probably be possible for a Frenchman who does not speak English at all to understand a scientific English text in general because of the similar spellings in his own language (Haas 1969: 5-6). The spelling of English recreation and French récréation, for instance, are nearly identical as it is the case with most nouns ending in <–ion>. Furthermore, vowels changed again, however, only to a certain extent. Vowel length, for instance, was altered in some environments and in others not so that one has different pronunciations for one and the same vowel in Modern English, e.g. the letter a in same, fat, call, fast (Haas 1969: 5).
When changes in pronunciation between Middle and New English took place, the old spelling was preserved. 15th and 16th century printers did not base their spelling on the current pronunciation but on the script of medieval manuscripts. (Pyles 1971: 181). So the present pronunciation of sounds is different from the earlier one but their graphic representation stayed the same, which has profound consequences for the relationship between phonology and orthography. The English orthography is only to a certain degree phonetic. It is rather based on several principles, one of which - but by no means the central one - is the phonetic principle. More likely, the English spelling can be described as morphophonemic. There is a tendency that the same morphemes are spelled identically or nearly identically, although they are pronounced differently to show that they are derived from each other, e.g. translation, which is derived form the verb (to) translate, is spelled with <t> although the phoneme is [S]. According to Carney (1994: 96), there are different spelling rules which are characteristic of different sectors of the English vocabulary. He assumes that there is a set of rules for each subsystem of English spelling, i.e. the “basic” English system, the “Romance” spelling system and the system of more exotic “non-English” spellings (Carney 1994:97). Whereas the English spelling in its present way became more or less fixed 500 years ago, the pronunciation still underwent considerable changes (Haas 1969: 5). It is due to these changes and a huge amount of loan-words from foreign languages, which follow different spelling conventions, that the relationship between orthography and phonology is such a difficult one. Because the same sound changed in some environments while it stayed the same in others, today one letter represents different phonemes and one and the same phoneme is represented by different letters. In contrary to some other languages, in English it is difficult to pronounce a word in the right way when one sees it for the first time because the pronunciation of a word is never exactly predictable on the basis of the spelling and the other way round.