This all changed in the 14th century, when the nobility of England formally adopted English. Suddenly, English poetry and prose were everywhere, seasoned with a good deal of French borrowings, no doubt to lend the peasant language an air of aristocracy, and this is the Middle English we know from such famous works of literature as the Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
But with English becoming the de facto national language again came another major change, called today the Great Vowel Shift, where all English vowels, as well as several consonants, seem to have changed. We don’t quite know what prompted the great shift, though some surmise it had to do with the bubonic plague (the Black Death) forcing many populations to relocate, bringing their distinctive pronunciation with them. Whatever the cause, it is the reason why many old poems don’t seem to make any sense to us, as they no longer seem to rhyme.
Every one of these events left its mark on English, and these can be found in the weird and sometimes counterintuitive spelling of English. Here are some of the best examples of this:
The first-person personal pronoun is one of the best examples of the many changes English went through. In Old English, the word was spelled iċ and was pronounced like “itch”. In Middle English, there were at least three different variants of this word: “ich”, pronounced the same as in the Old English, “ik” and “I”. But the last one which supplanted the other two, “I” was not pronounced as “ai”, but rather as “ee”.
Oh, the oft-derided “gh” digraph. It can either sound like an F, like a G when in the beginning of a word, or be completely silent. In all cases where “gh” appears in the middle or end of a word, it used to be pronounced like the “ch” in Scottish “loch”. The word “enough” is a particularly curious case, because it used to exhibit a very Germanic feature which is now completely gone from English, an initial ye- sound that typically preceded words in the past tense (a feature that can still be seen in German and Dutch, where past conjugation is formed by adding a ge- prefix to the verb). So the word which we now pronounce “eenuff” used to be “yenoch”.
For this next word, let me present you with an old friend of mine, William Shakespeare:
“From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory”
Something is obviously wrong here. We all know that die and memory don’t rhyme, but they used to. Specifically, words that end in Y like “melody” and “memory” used to end with a diphthong closer to “ai” than “ee”.
The only sounds that have remained of the original pronunciation of this gallant word are N and T. In the days when knights were around (and we don’t mean musicians and stage actors that the queen happened to like), every single letter in this word was enunciated, especially that initial K: not “nait”, but “kneecht”.
Other than the initial K, which we now know wasn’t silent, in knife we see one of the biggest changes courtesy of the Great Vowel Shift. Nowadays, in words with a middle I and a final E, such as ride, nice, etc. the E is silent and serves to mark that that the I should be pronounced “ai”. This wasn’t always the case, and in the days of Chaucer, the word “knife” was pronounced “kniffuh”, “ride” was “ridduh”, etc.
In Old English, G had a peculiar tendency to turn into a Y before front vowels, and so “give” was actually pronounced “yivuh”.
Going back to knife, it wasn’t just the final E that was sounded out, but also the E in the past tense –ed suffix. So while bathed would be pronounced “beythd” in Modern English, in the Canterbury Tales’ prologue it is pronounced “bahthēd”.
Have you ever heard someone from the Deep South asking some WH- questions? Some southerners tend to voice the H so that “what” sounds like “hwat”. Well, rather than a quirky mistake upon their part worthy of ridicule, this used to be the way all English speakers said words like “whale”, “whine” and “whip”. In fact, in Old English, all of those words were written with the H before the W, as can be seen in the first word of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf: “hwæt!”
While modern English “oo” stands for a long U vowel today, it used to stand for a long O vowel like in the word “bold”, so boot was actually pronounced “bōt”.
Conversely, the “ou” in words like “hour”, “south” and “house” was pronounced with a long U, rather than an “aw”. Coupled with the fact the H was voiced, “hour” probably sounded like “hūr” and not “awer”.
11. You and ye
This isn’t so much a change in sounds as much as it is a grammatical one. Just like you can’t say “me want cookies” unless you’re a big fuzzy monster that lives in Sesame Street, saying “I love you” used to be a grammatical gaffe, as “you” used to be a subjective pronoun. Rather, if you wanted to tell a group of people how you felt about them, you would be better served saying “I love ye”.
On that same topic, if you wanted to tell a special someone that you love them, using “you” would also be wrong, as that form of address is plural. Thou, thee, thy and thine were the appropriate second-person singular pronouns.
13. Pronoun-dependent verb inflections
If you’ve seen or read a Shakespeare play or leafed through the King James Bible, you’ve probably spied a “sayest” or “cometh”. Well, those aren’t stylistic choices, that’s how second-person and third-person singular verbs were inflected in the past: “he walketh down the street”, “thou seest a bird in the sky”.