Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The Oddest English Spellings,
Or, the Unhealing Wounds of Tradition (Part 1)

by Anatoly Liberman

Once out of school, we stop noticing the vagaries of English spelling and resign ourselves to the fact that rite, right, Wright (or wright in playwright), and write are homophones without being homographs. In most cases such words sounded different in the past, then changed their pronunciation, but retained their spelling. Such loyalty to tradition is good for those who study the history of English (they constantly have antiquated forms before their eyes) and for no one else. Yet some spellings look more bewildering than others and may be worthy of a few comments in our discussion of etymology.
Shouldn’t wind “air in the motion” and pint exchange their vowels? Wind is especially troublesome. It rhymed with find in Byron and Shelley, whereas the verb wind (as in wind the clock, an almost forgotten operation) still rhymes with find, as it did 200 years ago. Its preterit wound rhymes with found, but the noun wound “injury” does not. As late as the beginning of the 19th century, the verbal form wound and the noun wound had the same vowel. Finally, pint, in defiance of all rules, does not rhyme with hint. All books on the history of English comment upon those inconsistencies; it is the history of individual words that baffles the learner.
Old English, like Latin, had short and long vowels. The terms “short” and “long” should not be understood in the modern sense (short i, as in fin, long i as in fine; short a as in fat, long a as in fate, etc.). For that epoch “long” meant a prolonged variant of “short.” Thus, short i as in bid, long i as in beady; short o as in hot, long o as in haughty, and so forth. In early Old English, short vowels were lengthened before ld and nd. End was spelled eend(e). Chaucer wrote loond “land.” If his pronunciation had survived, land would have become a homophone of loaned. But in Middle English, long vowels were shortened before most consonant groups (that is, before two or three consonants). To a casual observer, and often to a seasoned linguist, sound changes look like an exercise in futility or like an analog of erratic, unpredictable human history: first vowels lengthen, then shorten in the same position. On the surface we see chaos, but some logic regulating it exists.
The shortening of vowels before consonant groups affected long e and long o, so that eend and loond once again became end and lond (lond and land are dialectal variants of the same word, like long and lang ~ Lang and even like bond and band, which are now different words). However, long i and long u withstood the shortening in most cases. Some time between Chaucer (1340-1400) and Shakespeare (1564-1616) long vowels acquired the shape familiar to us, and this is when the verbal forms wind—wound began to be pronounced in the modern way. Note the phrase in most cases, above. Length prevailed in the majority of words with i and u, but not in all. Such fluctuations are governed by the interplay of necessity and chance and can seldom be accounted for. Sometimes dialect mixture is responsible for present day forms. A vowel might be long in the north, but short in the south. Since the Modern Standard has absorbed forms from various parts of England, differences in the treatment of similar forms arise. Sometimes a more common word would keep its traditional pronunciation, whereas a rarer word would succumb to the change. Or a word would be pronounced on the analogy of another one. Occasionally there would be a conscientious effort to avoid homonymy.
We do not know why the regular pronunciation of the nouns wind and wound changed between two and three hundred years ago. Educated people, including Noah Webster, condemned wound with a short vowel and watched with dismay the spread of what they called “capricious novelty” and “recent innovation.” They could not explain the pernicious fashion (neither can we), tried to resist the new trend, and failed, like all language conservatives before them. We owe it to vowel shortening before three consonants that today i is pronounced differently in child and children, and it has been suggested that the noun wind, too, got a short vowel under the influence of words with three consonants after i. This explanation does not go far. The change happened at a time when shortening and lengthening had stopped being living processes. Besides, the word wind must have been used much more often than windfall, windward, and so forth. The influence, if any, would have more likely been in the opposite direction. The second element in long-winded has a reflex of a short vowel, while wind “sound a horn” is pronounced with a diphthong. No regularity can be observed here. In the genteel parlance of etymological dictionaries, hint is a word of obscure origin. Yet this verb is most probably native, and its vowel has always been short. Pint is a borrowing from Old French. Its source had long i; hence its modern pronunciation. Could the vowel in pint have been shortened? Undoubtedly. But it did not.
To be continued in the foreseeable future…

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Email your questions on word origins to him at [email protected].

Recent Comments

  1. Greg

    extremely surprised and pleased to find this interesting column. I am doing some research into the etymology of the words “laugh” and “laughter” for a linguistics class, trying to answer the question “where did the ‘-ter’ come from?” No other English word that I could find has this same construction, except for slay/slaughter, which no longer match. And i got to thinking about the vowel sounds in laugh. Dictionaries tell me that “hlaihan” and “hleator” were the OE ancestors of laugh and laughter, from an Anglian relative of proto-Germanic. But I wonder what the ME version sounded like. “Law-Ugh-Huh”? Any insight into this question?

Comments are closed.