Why don’t ‘gain’ and ‘again’ rhyme?
By Anatoly Liberman
This is a story of again; gain will be added as an afterthought. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, dictionaries informed their users that again is pronounced with a diphthong, that is, with the same vowel as in the name of the letter A. (I am adding this explanation, because native speakers of English with no knowledge of phonetics seldom realize that the vowel in day, take, main consists of two parts: the nucleus and a glide; the formulation that, for example, a in bait is the “long counterpart of short a” in bat makes matters even worse.) Some people still rhyme again with fain, feign, fane. However, most rhyme it with Ben, den, ten; all the recent British and American dictionaries agree on this point.
The history of the adverb again is surprisingly checkered. In Modern English, the use of the digraphs ai, ay, and ei for short e is, as undergraduate students like to put it, not “very unique”: compare said, says, and heifer. But that does not make the puzzle easier, because says and said stand out as abnormal even in English, in which one can sometimes feel uncertain of how to spell the shortest words. Clearly, the spelling, irrational from today’s point of view, goes back to the pronunciation of old, but tracing the fortunes of each freak is no easy matter. This holds especially for heifer, but again too poses many difficulties.
Only the origin of again is clear. Among its cognates we find German entgegen “opposite” and Old Icelandic í gegn “against.” In the English word, the prefix a- goes back to the preposition on. Old Engl. ongean meant “in the opposite direction” and “back,” not “once more.” The oldest sense of -gain has been preserved in gainsay, literally “speak against.” The Germanic root of -gean and -gegn must have been gag-; its meaning need not occupy our attention, The vowel ea in ongean was long, which means that it consisted of two halves, each of which could be stressed, depending on the word’s place in the sentence, intonation, and emphasis. There was a time when in words of such structure stress shifted from e to a, though it is not clear whether the attested modern dialectal form agan owes its vowel to eá, from éa.
As far back as in Old English, the letter given here as g in ongean designated the sound we now hear in yes, you, and yonder. The interplay of g and y is common in the West Germanic languages. Those who have been exposed to the Berlin dialect know that, for instance, Gegend “area” sounds like yeyend there. In Middle High German, legt “lays” and trägt “carries” were spelled leit and treit. Old Engl. g- also changed to y- before i- and e-, and the modern forms yield and yearn bear witness to that change (their German cognates begin with g-: gelten and begehren). There would have been many more English words like those two but for the Viking raids. In the language of the Scandinavians, g remained “hard,” and that is why Modern Engl. get has not merged in pronunciation with yet. Also, give is a phonetic borrowing from the north, whether directly from the invading Danes or from the northern English dialects in which g- withstood “softening” to y-.
In Middle English, the most common form of again was ayen, still with a long vowel. To an unschooled observer the phonetic history of every well-documented language looks like an endless exercise in futility, a conspiracy invented for obfuscating beginning students. Long vowels become short and some time later undergo secondary lengthening, only to lose the hard-gained length a century or two later. Monophthongs turn into diphthongs, while diphthongs become monophthongs and occupy the slots vacated by their former neighbors. Wouldn’t it have been more natural for them to stay put and avoid playing lobster quadrille? Language is a self-regulating mechanism, and many changes only look erratic, but others are accounted for by the fact that sounds, like people, succumb to contradictory rules: from one point of view it may be expedient for a vowel to lengthen, but from another it would be better if it remained short or became long and then returned to its initial state. Phonetic system is like a modern democracy, which faces chaos and in trying to overcome it produces even greater chaos. There is no end to this process. In the history of again we observe how the original diphthong became a long monophthong, shortened, lengthened, and diphthongized. The coexistence of two modern pronunciations of again reflects those changes. Says and said exhibit partly the same picture, but only the short variants have survived.Somewhat unexpectedly, again is not pronounced ayen. In the fourteenth century, the Kentish English for “pricks (or rather “bite”) of conscience” was ayenbite of inwyt, as we know from the title of moralizing prose written in 1340 (compare backbiting). Ayen-bite is a morpheme by morpheme translation of Old French re-mors “remorse,” literally “biting with ever-increasing ‘mordancy’.” But by the seventeenth century the forms with ag- superseded those with ay-. As usual in such cases, suspicion falls on northern English or Scandinavian speakers. The reason why in this word the southern and central consonant gave way to northern g- has never been explained.
Against surfaced as an adverb: Middle Engl. ageines is agein followed by an adverbial suffix. Its final -t is, to use a scholarly term, excrescent. This “parasitic” sound has also made its way after s into amidst, whilst, amongst, and a few others. A well-known vulgarism is acrossed. A similar change affected Old Engl. betweohs ~ betwyx ~ betwux: betwix became betwixt(e), and the idiom betwixt and between is still alive.
In distinction from again, gain (noun and verb) has an easily recoverable past. It is a borrowing of Old French gain (masculine; feminine gagne); the verb was gaigner (Modern French gagner). But the ancient word came to Romance from the Germanic verb for “hunt” and acquired the senses “cultivate land” and “earn.” It follows that gain in gainsay, in which again appears without its old prefix, and gain, as in gainful occupation, are distinct words, and only chance turned them into homophones and allowed them to meet in Modern English. Such is the story of gain1 and gain2. It is more complicated than what one could expect from a blog posted in late December, but nothing venture, nothing win, as the British say, or nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say in America.
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 him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”