By Anatoly Liberman
Tier, tear (noun), tear (verb), tare, wear, weary, and other weird words
Even the staunchest opponents of spelling reform should feel dismayed at seeing the list in the title of this essay. How is it possible to sustain such chaos, now that sustainable has become the chief buzzword in our vocabulary? Never mind foreigners—they chose to study English and should pay for their decision, but what have native speakers done to deserve this torture? The answer is clear: they are too loyal to a fickle tradition.
Nowadays not only the “public” but also prospective linguists have insufficient exposure to the history of language, while English majors, who are taught to view every text through multiple “lenses” (another great academic buzzword), may graduate without any knowledge of the development of English, for no optical tools have been invented for examining this subject. Even the few graduate students who choose the past stages of language as their main area of expertise and risk staying independent scholars (this means “unemployed”) for the rest of their lives will usually study Old and Middle English but come away with the haziest idea of what happened between the 16th and the 19th century, though it was during the early modern period that the system of English vowels was hit the hardest. This holds not only for the so-called Great Vowel Shift that gave long a, e, i, o and u their present values and drove a wedge between the pronunciation of letter names in English and the rest of Europe. All vowels before r were also caught in this storm
To begin with, er turned into ar. We are dimly aware of this process because we still have Clark, parson, and varsity alongside clerk, person, and university. Providentially, some words like star and far are now spelled with ar, but in the past they too had er. Later, er reemerged in English and stayed unchanged for some time. Our vowels are still called short and long, but these terms are misleading, because the sounds designated by a, e, i, o, and u in mat, pet, bit, not, and us are not simply shorter than those in mate, Pete, bite, note, and use: they are quite different. One gets an idea of short versus long (as in Latin, Italian, Finnish, Swedish, and many other languages), while comparing Engl. wood and wooed. Several pairs of such vowels existed in early English. One more factor played an outstanding role in the history of words like tier and tear. There were two long e’s: closed (approximately as in pet) and mid-open (approximately like e in where), but having greater duration than in those modern words.
Although neither of the two e’s has continued into present day English unchanged, we can guess which stood where while comparing the spelling of meet and meat. To the extent that our erratic spelling reflects an older norm, ee points to closed long e and ea to its more open partner. But in the absence of a recognized standard, many words were not spelled in accordance with their pronunciation. Besides, as far as we can judge, a great deal of vacillation characterized the use of mid-open and closed long e. Apparently, the two vowels were hard to keep apart. This conclusion is borne out by the fact that they eventually merged. The verb tear, which goes back to Middle Engl. tere(n), had open long e, so that its spelling is justified. Tear “a drop of water in the eye” had the same open long e. Consequently, its spelling is also correct from a historical point of view! But its vowel became closed, and this event found no reflection in spelling. Er, with closed long e, joined the kaleidoscope and sometimes became ir. (Sounds are like spiders in a jar: when one is affected, the entire configuration shifts.) That is how weir acquired its modern pronunciation. It has been spelled weir and wier, and in modern dialects wair and ware have been attested, pointing to various pronunciations. Tier, from French, had a similar history.
The reflexes, that is, continuations, of ar and er (whose vowels were long in Middle English) merged too; hence bare and bear. For some words, especially those of French origin, the spelling air was adopted, whence pair and air. Engl. air (the element) and air, as in give oneself airs and with an air of superiority, go back to different French nouns (the second of them is seen in debonair, from de bon aire). Air “melody” and heir are, of course, different from both of them. Every word of this type—beer, bier, bare, bear, peer, pair, fare, fair, fire, fear, hair, hare, here, share, shear, wear, ware, weary, and hundreds of others—have a story similar to those outlined above, though every now and then a footnote is needed, for example, to account for the difference between hear, heard ~ herd, and heart ~ hart. Sometimes the spelling of such words is a trustworthy picture of their former pronunciation, sometimes it is the result of confusion, and not too rarely it reflects a struggle between different diphthongs before r. It would be nice to clean up this mess, but the Augean stable is an unattractive place even for great heroes.
In this context, only one word deserves special treatment. Weird was a noun in Old English (“fate, destiny”), as still seen in the archaic phrase to dree one’s weird “to suffer one’s fate.” It was a common word, especially in heroic poetry and myth, and had cognates in other Germanic languages. The adjective werde “controlling one’s fate” would have probably been lost if Shakespeare had not used it in Macbeth (weird sisters). He found it in Holinshed’s chronicle, and Holinshed borrowed it from his Scottish sources (in the post-Old English epoch, weird had a strong northern coloring). The weird thing about the adjective is not only the present degradation of its elevated meaning but also its pronunciation. It should have rhymed with bird. Obviously, at one time its long i was replaced with long closed e, a process usual in southern dialects before r, but not in the north. Several ingenious hypotheses have been put forward to explain the substitution of long e for long i in weird, but even Karl Luick, one of the greatest historians of the English sound system, who grappled bravely with this word, finally gave it up. The spellings wirid, werid, and werd are on record, but they are of little help.
Another revolutionary change was the merger of er, ir, and ur, so that today we have the same vowel in fern, fir, and fur. However, in the standard pronunciation of Modern English this vowel is not a diphthong; therefore, its history can be left for the future.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”