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A Few Shining Examples




By Anatoly Liberman

Strange things have been observed in the history of the verb shine, or rather in the history of its preterit (past). To begin with, a reminder. Verbs that change their vowels in the formation of the preterit and past participle are called strong (for instance, sing—sang—sung, shake—shook—shaken, smite—smote—smitten), in contradistinction to verbs that achieve the same results with the help of -t or -d (for instance, shock—shocked—shocked, cry—cried—cried). For practical purposes this division is almost useless, for weak verbs can also change their vowels, as in sleep—slept, and mixed types exist (the past of strew is strewed, but the past participle is usually strewn). Set, cast, cost, and many others do not change at all, so that they are neither weak nor strong. Occasionally one of the same verb has competing forms, with or without differences in meaning: hung and hanged, woke and waked. Therefore, foreign students grammar divide English verbs into regular and irregular. Sleep is weak but irregular (unlike slip, which is weak and regular), whereas do has an irregular weak past tense (did) and what looks like an irregular strong past participle (done). Made is a weak preterit, but it is less predictable than baked.Yet for historical purposes distinguishing between weak and strong verbs is necessary.

It would be tempting to say that shine is one of many strong verbs that have gone over to the weak class in the history of English, but a look at the entry shine in the Oxford English Dictionary will teach us caution. The strong past participle of shine, we are told, did not turn up a single time in Old English, while in Middle English it was recorded only once. Instead, shined predominated between 1300 and 1800, though in the second half of the 16th century the strong form began to make itself felt. However, the preterit was shone, not shined. Are we witnessing the revival of the once popular weak participle that has (again) superseded the preterit, or is our initial conjecture correct and shine has become weak in recent memory? Language change in remote epochs does not surprise us, but can such things happen now? Apparently, they can. Strangely, also in Frisian and German, the cognates of shine (in German, it is scheinen) for a while had weak forms in the preterit. Perhaps at one time shined and its analogues became part of North European slang. This supposition cannot be proved. It is hard enough to reconstruct order. Reconstructing chaos is much harder.

Another complication in the history of shine is the pronunciation of shone. In British English, shone rhymes with on, in American English with lone. The ancient vowel in shone was long (pronounced similar to a in Modern Engl. father). Later, according to the rule whose cause need not delay us here, this a changed to long o (approximately as in today’s fall), so that shone rhyming with lone is “regular.” But long vowels often became short. British Engl. shone goes back to the form with a short vowel. In written English, final -e designates the length of the preceding vowel: consider home, five, came, and the like; in shone, -e is a reminder of the pronunciation nearly forgotten in England but preserved in America. Once we learn how to spell a word, we stop reacting to incongruities in its visual image. The same shortening as in shone took place in gone, only that gone rhymes with on everywhere. How irritating: lone, gone, and one look so much alike and are so different when we say them.

Does anyone still pronounce bade, the past of bid, as bad? This was a widespread pronunciation in the 20th century, and the spelling bad (= bade) also existed. Bad for bade is one more casualty of shortening where we could not expect it. A more “famous” example is ate, the past of eat. Either shortening or the analogy of weak verbs resulted in the pronunciation et, predominant in British English but frowned upon in America, for it is sometimes associated with “low class.” Nothing in grammar and phonetics is attractive in and of itself (a short vowel is no more charming or repellent than a long one); everything is in the mind of the observer.

Folk etymology suggests that sheen is related to shine, but it is not. In present day English, sheen is archaic or poetic, whereas the verb sheen and the adjective sheen are no longer in use. However, it is the adjective that lends itself to the comparison with German schoen “beautiful” (from *skauniz; an asterisk means that the form has been reconstructed rather than recorded). The English verb show and its German congener (cognate) schauen “look” are related to sheen. *Skauniz must have meant “visible” and “affording pleasure to the sight, showy,” while the ancient root of shine designated brilliance. In many languages, nouns, adjectives, and verbs akin to *skauniz refer to light and light’s eternal companion, shadow. Similar sounding words from different sources tend to influence one another’s meaning. When sheen came into contact with the noun shine, it acquired the connotation of brilliance and became all but redundant. The rapprochement resulted in its virtual disappearance. In German, schoen was unaffected by scheinen, the verb, that in addition to “shine” came to mean “seem, appear.” The distance it kept from scheinen allowed schoen to remain the most common word for “beautiful.” But the life of (a) beauty seldom runs smooth. The adverb schon “beautifully, in a beautiful way” (from a historical point of view, the same word as schoen but without umlaut) lost all its glamour and began to mean “already.” The change arouses no surprise: if something is done “beautifully,” it is “already” done. In retrospect, most changes look natural or can at any rate be justified (this is what historical linguistics is all about: it tries to explain why something that happened did so for a good reason). Words for “attractive, good looking” frequently develop weakened meanings. Such is, for example, English pretty, about which I have written an essay with the showy title “Can One Be Pretty Ugly?” All is not gold that…shines, but every word is a glittering nugget.

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. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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