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often hear it in our own day, viz. as chayt? He has the following rhyme :
If e'er ambition did my fancy cheat
With any wish so mean as to be great.' And how did Milton sound the rhymes of this couplet in the L'Allegro ?
. With stories told of many a feat,
How fairy Mab the junkets eat.' Must we not suppose that eat being in the preterite, and equivalent to ate, had a sound unlike our present pronunciation of
feat. And if so, the derivation of the word from the French fait, suggests the sounds fayt and ayt. Dr. Watts (1709) rhymes sea to away.
Sir Roundell Palmer's Book of Praise, clxi :
• But timorous mortals start and shrink
To cross this narrow sea,
And fear to launch away.' Goldsmith, in The Haunch of Venison, puts this pronunciation into the mouth of an under-bred fine-spoken fellow :
• An under-bred fine-spoken fellow was he,
Your own, I suppose-or is it in waiting ?": However we may be puzzled to account for the letters EA being used to represent the sound of Ay, there can be no dispute about the fact; and it removes the wonder of the orthography of the word tea pronounced tay. It also throws light upon a passage in Shakspeare, i Henry IV, ii. 3, where Falstaff. says “if Reasons were as plentie as Black-berries, I would giue no man a Reason vpon compulsion, I. It seems that half a pun underlies this; the association of reasons with blackberries springing out of the fact that
reasons sounded like raisins. In the analogous word season, we have Ea substituted for the older ay; for, in the fifteenth century, Lydgate wrote this word saysoun and saysonne. When we look at the word treason, and consider its relation to the French trahison, who can suppose that the pronunciation treeson is anything but a modernism?
In The Stage-Players Complaint (1641), we find nay spelt nea : ‘Nea you know this well enough, but onely you love to be inquisitive.
When, in 1765, Josiah Wedgwood, having received his first order from Queen Charlotte, wrote to get some help from a relative in London, he described the list of tea things which were ordered, and he spelt the word tray thus, 'trea' --for so only can we understand it—' Teapot & stand, spoon-trea. The orthography may be either his own or that of Miss Chetwynd, from whom the instructions came!
It is not unlikely that this use of EA runs back into Saxon times. It was one of the most frequent and characteristic of Saxon diphthongs. But when we come to Chaucer we hardly find it at all. There may be a doubtful reading of death for deth in the Knight's Tale ; and there are the cases in which the E and a stand contiguous; but in different syllables, as in creature, purveaunce, Scythea. But speaking broadly, EA has disappeared in Chaucer's English. This is more forcible than lists of words to indicate the deep effect which the French language had taken on ours. The Saxon tear is in Chaucer “teer' or 'tere’; zear is 'yeer' or 'yere,' and so on. It matters not that later there was a return to the spelling tear and year, when we had for ever lost what that spelling represented; for though we now write tear, year, we say teer, yeer.
1 Life of Josiah Wedgwood by Eliza Meteyard (1865), vol. i. p. 371.
But while commixture with French had abolished this old diphthongal sound in the centre of English society, we may be sure it lived on provincially. And a few traces may be collected which seem to indicate that it grew towards the sound AI or AY. Thus the Saxon ceaster has produced Caistor and Caystor. The Saxon word ea = water, has produced Eaton, it must be admitted, and Eton in the more central neighbourhoods, but in remoter regions also Aytoun; and the Saxon numeral eahta is pronounced ayt and written eight.
From Elizabeth's time onward there was a gradual readmission of this diphthong in a few words with the sound of Ay, as the above examples shew.
In further illustration we may quote from Michael Drayton's Polyolbion, xixth song (1662)
• Foure such Immeasur'd Pooles, Phylosophers agree,
Family names offer some examples to the same effect. A friend informs me that he had once a relative, who in writing was Mr. Lea, but he pronounced his name . Lay': and I am courteously permitted to use for illustration the name of Mr. Rea, of Newcastle, the well-known organist, whose family tradition renders the name as 'Ray.'
If it has been made plain that ea sounded ay in many cases, it will be a step to the clearing of another anomaly. It has been asked why we spell conceive with ei, and yet spell believe, reprieve, &c., with ie? The difficulty lies in this factthat the pronunciation of these dissimilar diphthongs is the
And the answer lies in this—that the pronunciation was different. Those words which we now write with ei, to wit, deceive, perceive, conceive, receive, were all pronounced
with a -cayve sound, as they still are in many localities. The readiest proof of this is in the facts, (1) that you will not find them rhymed with words of the ie type, and (2) that you will continually find them spelt with ea, as deceave, perceave, conceave, receave.
In a fac-simile letter of Edward Hyde, the first Earl of Clarendon (b. 1618, d. 1674), he writes receaued and perceaue, where we should spell received and perceive. Facsimiles of private letters are of excellent use in these investigations, because they supply us with the evidence of independent ears. At an early date, certainly as early as 1611, the printers had taken spelling into their hands, and a professional orthography was forming. This weakens the evidence of printed books and enhances the value of private letters.
In the Bible of 1611 these verbs are all spelt -ceive. So in the First Folio of Shakspeare, 1623. But we find abundant proof, both before and after these dates, that -ceave seemed the most natural way to represent the sound. But in fact the two spellings confirm each other as evidence to this, that the sound was -cayve. For what the printers meant by their ei was doubtless the sound ay. On the other hand when ie was introduced, as in the spelling of believe, it meant the sound now understood. This may be gathered from the quotation of the Bible of 1611 in the early part of this chapter.
There is at least one word which still vacillates between the two sounds of EA, and that is the word break :
• Still feel the breeze down Ettrick break
*Ah, his eyelids slowly break
That the latter is the pronunciation at the present time, there can be no doubt: and yet the former is heard from
so many persons who are able to read and write, that it may perhaps establish itself in the end.
In summing up the case of Spelling and Pronunciation, we may again make use of the famous example of TEA. When this word was first spelt, the letters came at the call of the sound: the spelling followed the pronunciation. But since that time, the letters having changed their value, the sound of the word has shared the vicissitude of its letters: the pronunciation has followed the spelling. It is manifest that these movements have one and the same aim, namely, to make the spelling phonetically symbolise the pronunciation. But there are two great obstacles to such a consummation: (1) The letters of the alphabet are too few to represent all the variety of simple sounds in the English language; (2) But even what they might do is not done, because of the restraining hand of traditional association. The consequence is, that when we use the word 'orthography,' we do not mean a mode of spelling which is true to the pronunciation, but one which is conventionally correct.