You say tomato, and I say …

Well, actually, I say “to-may-to,” also. A very funny skit I once saw (I believe it was in the film, The Secret Policeman’s Ball, but it’s been a number of years since I’ve seen that) involved an audition in which someone was asked to sight-read that song.

In any case, a couple of days ago, I was thinking about the pronunciation of the word “garage.” I’m used to hearing and using gah-RAHJ, but my mother (who came from England) used GA-ridge, so it doesn’t throw me to hear it pronounced that way. This came as a tangent line of thought from reading stories set in England, some written by English authors, and some written by American authors trying to make the character dialogue sound authentic.

It also led into a bit of serendipitous synchronicity when I next visited The Anchoress, a website I read fairly often, but not really regularly. She has a post about the usage of the alternate pronunciations of the word “the” (“thee” and “thuh”) that pretty much matches with the way I was taught.

That was good enough, but then Neo-Neocon weighed in with a post that went on to discuss the Great Vowel Shift … and I love the t-shirt! It reminded me of a science-fiction short story I read (Lo! these many moons ago) about linguistic researchers who used a time machine to investigate the GVS and discovered that it had been externally-imposed, so that their vowels had been further shifted when they returned to their home time.

Little Miss Attila follows up with a post talking about language changes as a process abetted by the internet, and includes a description of a discussion with a friend of hers who is a linguist, and who frustrates her by saying we can tell how things used to be pronounced by the way they’re spelled. She thinks it would be better to have people use a time machine to get recordings of the language as it was spoken at the time (see last sentence of previous paragraph).

Actually, it is true to a fairly large extent that spelling informs us of historical pronunciation – in English, at least. My senior year at the Naval Academy, I took a one-semester course in Linguistics, and I still remember bits and pieces of it. I also still have the textbooks and some of the handouts. The reason we can “track back” pronunciation of English is the same reason that English has so many difficult spellings – the language was in a state of flux when the printing press became available (see the section “Caxton and the English language”). French and most other European languages had “settled down” (in terms of phonemic orthography) by the time the printing press “fixed” them in a lasting form, but English had not, so a lot of our spellings reflect earlier and/or variant pronunciations (“silly English k’nigg’t”).

If Caxton had chosen differently, we’d likely even use different words for things, since he had to choose among many dialects of English. One example I recall from my course was an anecdote from the time in which a traveler had difficulty ordering eggs for breakfast, because the innkeeper didn’t understand the word “eyren” – presumably a plural formed in the same manner as “oxen.”

Many people have decried English spelling over the years, including Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain (who felt the alphabet itself needed to be replaced). I had hoped to finish off with a link to one of the essays I’ve seen published over the years that gradually incorporates spelling reforms until the last paragraph is almost unrecognizable, but I couldn’t find any. Instead, I’ll leave you with a link to The Chaos, a poem that illustrates just how irregular the match is between English spelling and pronunciation.

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