We all know that language changes over time, and one of the major components of language change is sound change. Many of the words we use today are pronounced differently than they were in Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s time. You may have seen articles like this one that list 10 or 15 words whose pronunciations have changed over time. But I can do one better. Here are 100,000 words that illustrate how words change.
- a: Before the Great Vowel Shift, the name of the first letter of the alphabet was pronounced /aː/, much like when the doctor asks you to open your mouth and say “ah” to look down your throat. In Old English, it was /ɑː/, which is pronounced slightly further back in the mouth. The name of the letter was borrowed from Latin, which introduced its alphabet to much of Europe. The Romans got their alphabet from the Greeks, probably by way of the Etruscans. But unlike the Greeks, the Romans simply called the letters by the sounds they made. The corresponding Greek letter, alpha, got its name from the Phoenician aleph, meaning ‘ox’, because the letter aleph represented the first sound in the word aleph. In Phoenician this was a glottal stop (which is not written in the Latin alphabet). The Greeks didn’t use this sound, so they borrowed it for the /a/ sound instead.
- a: This casual pronunciation of the preposition of goes back at least to the 1200s. It doesn’t appear in writing much, except in dialogue, where it’s usually attached to another word, as in kinda. But of itself comes from an unstressed form of the Old English preposition æf. Æf didn’t survive past Old English, but in time a new stressed form of of arose, giving us the preposition off. Of and off were more or less interchangeable until the 1600s, at which point they finally started to diverge into two distinct words. Æf is cognate with the German ab, and these ultimately come from the Proto-Indo-European *h₂epó ‘off, away, from’, which is also the source of the Greek apo (as in apostasy) and the Latin ab (as in abuse). So the initial laryngeal sound in *h₂epó disappeared after changing the following vowel to /a/, the final /o/ disappeared, the /p/ fricatized to /f/, the vowel moved back and reduced, the /f/ became voiced to /v/, and then the /v/ fell away, leaving only a schwa, the barest little wisp of a word.
- a: The indefinite article a comes from an unstressed version of the numeral one, which in Old English was ān, though it also inflected for gender, number, and case, meaning that it could look like āne, ānum, ānes, ānre, or ānra. By Middle English those inflections were gone, leaving only an. The /n/ started to disappear before consonants starting in the 1100s, giving us the a/an distinction we have today. But the Old English ān came from an earlier Proto-Germanic *ainaz. The az ending had disappeared by Old English, and the diphthong /ai/ smoothed and became /ɑ:/. In its use as an article, its vowel shortened and eventually reduced to a schwa. But in its use as a numeral, it retained a long vowel, which eventually rose to /o:/ and then broke into the diphthong /wʊ/ and then lowered to /wʌ/, giving us the modern word one. The Proto-Germanic *ainaz goes further back to the Proto-Indo-European *óynos, so between PIE and Proto-Germanic the vowels lowered and the final /s/ became voiced.
- aback: This adverb comes from the prefix a- and the noun back. The prefix a- comes from an unstressed form of the preposition on which lost its final /n/ and reduced to a schwa. This prefix also appears in words like among, atop, awake, and asleep. On comes from the Proto-Germanic *ana, which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European **h₂en-, which is also the source of the Greek ana-, as in analog and analyze. As with *h₂epó, the initial laryngeal sound changed the vowel to /a/ and then disappeared. Back, on the other hand, has changed remarkably little in the last thousand years. It was spelled bæc in Old English and was pronounced just like the modern word. It comes from a Proto-Germanic word *baka, though its ultimate origin is unknown.
Hopefully by now you see where I’m going with this. It’s interesting to talk about how words have changed over the years, but listicles like “10 Words Whose Pronunciations Have Changed” can be misleading, because they imply that changes in pronunciation are both random and rare. Well, sound changes are random in a way, in that it’s hard to predict what will change in the future, but they’re not random in the sense that they affect random words. Sound changes are just that—changes to a sound in the language, like /r/ disappearing after vowels or /t/ turning into a flap in certain cases in the middle of words. Words can randomly change too, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.
And sound changes aren’t something that just happen from time to time, like the Great Vowel Shift. They’re happening continuously, and they have been happening since the beginning of language. If you like really deep dives (or if you need something to combat your insomnia), this Wikipedia article details the sound changes that have happened between late Proto-Germanic, spoken roughly 2,000 years ago, and the present day, when changes like th-fronting in England (saying fink for think) and the Northern Cities Shift in the US are still occurring.
So while it’s okay to talk about individual words whose pronunciations have changed, I think we shouldn’t miss the bigger picture: it’s language change all the way down.