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Of the Vowel Names.
100. We now pass from the forms of the Roman alphabet to note some of the local peculiarities of its use among ourselves. And first, of our vowels, and the remarkable names by which we are wont to designate them. Our names for the vowels are singularly at variance with the continental names for the same characters. Of the five vowels A E I o U, there is but one, viz. o, of which the name is at all like that which it bears in France or Germany. But it is in the names of A and / and U that our insular tendencies have wrought their most pronounced effect. The first we call by an unwriteable name, and one which we cannot more nearly describe than by saying, that it is the sound which drops out of the half-open mouth, with the lowest degree of effort at utterance. It is an obscurely diphthongal sound, and if we must spell it, it is this—Ae. The character I we call Eye or Igh ; the U we call Pew.
101. The extreme oddity of our sound of U comes out under a used-up or languid utterance, as when a dilettante is heard to excuse himself from purchasing pictures which are offered to him at a great bargain, on the plea that “they do ac-cyew-myew-layte [accumulate] sol” In France this letter has the narrow sound which is unknown in English, but which it has in Welsh, and which seems ever ready to degenerate into Y:—in German it has the broad sound of oo.
102. That I was called Eye in Shakspeare's time, seems indicated by that line in A Midsummer Night's Dream, iii. 2. 188:—
Fair Helena; who more engilds the night,
Where it seems plain that the stars are called O's and I's.
If this passage left it doubtful whether the letter I were
sounded in Shakspeare's time as eye, there is a passage in
Romeo and Juliet, iii. 2, which removes the doubt:-
If he be slaine say I; or if not, no :
Here it is plain that the affirmative which we now write ay, and the noun eye, and the pronoun I, and the vowel I, are regarded as having all the self-same sound.
103. How are we to account for these strange insular names of our vowels 2 The five vowels are called Ae, Æe, Igh, Oh, Pew; but these names, which are distinctly our own, and among the peculiarities of our language, do not in the case of any single vowel express the prevalent sound of that vowel in practical use.
The chief sound of our A is that which it has in at, bat, cal, dagger, sat, gap, hat, land, man, map, pan, ral, sat, fan, val, wag. It has another very distinct sound, especially before the letter L, namely the sound of aw: as, all, ball, call, fall, gall, hall, malt, pall, fall, talk, wall, walk, want, water. But the sound which is expressed in the name Ae is a dull diphthongal sound, which A never bears in a final syllable except when to the a an e is appended, not immediately indeed, but after an intervening consonant: as, ale, bate, cate, date, sate, gape, hate, jape, late, make, nape, pane, rate, state, tale, vale, zwane. This final e must be considered as embodied with its a, just as in the German sound i, which is only a brief way of writing ae. It is difficult to suppose that the name of our first vowel has been dictated by the sound which it bears in the last-recited list of instances.
There is no apparent reason why that class of instances should have drawn to itself any such special attention, to the neglect of the instances which more truly exemplify the power of the vowel. But there is one particular instance of the use of A which is sufficiently frequent and conspicuous to have determined the naming of the letter. I can only suppose that the name which the letter bears has been adopted from the ordinary way in which the indefinite article a is pronounced. 104. The vowel E, when single, does not represent the sound Ee which its name indicates. When it is doubled, it always has this sound, as in bee, creed, deer, feet, greet, heed, jeer, keep, leer, meed, need, peep, queer, reed, seed, seem, werp. But the single e only does so when it is supported by another e after an intervening consonant. Examples:—bere, cere, here, intercede, intervene, mere, scene. We are therefore driven to look for some familiar and oft-recurring words which have the e exceptionally pronounced as Ee. And such we find in the personal pronouns. The words he, she, me, we, have all the e long, and if they were spelt according to their sound, they would appear as hee, shee, mee, wee. In proof of this may be cited the case of the pronoun thee, which is written with its vowel double, though it has no innate right in this respect over the pronoun me. In the solitary instance of thee, it was a matter of convenience to write the double vowel, that the word might be distinguished at sight from the definite article the. It is by reference then to the function of the letter e in the personal pronouns, that we explain the name of Ee by which that vowel is incorrectly designated. It is interesting to remember that in Devonshire (unless the schoolmaster has driven the fashion out) the letter E is called eh, like hay without the h, or like the French é ouvert somewhat continued. This may be derived from the period of French tuition; or it may be that Devonshire preserves the old Saxon dialect of Wessex in this particular as it does in so many others; or thirdly, the Saxon and the French had one sound and one name for E; and this seems the most probable account of the matter.
105. It may be left to the reader to observe by a collection of instances, like bit, dip, fit, hit, mip, sit, wit, that the name which we have given to the vowel / does by no means give a just report of the general sound of that letter in our orthography. In what syllables is that eye sound represented by if Chiefly in two kinds. The first is where it is supported by an e-subscript, as bile, drive, five, hive, ice, Kile, like, mine, nine, pipe, quire, ripe, strive, thine, vine, wine. But to this there are exceptions, as give, live. The second case is where it has an old guttural after it, as blight, dight, fight, high, knight, light, might, night, right, sigh, fight, wight, wright. Beyond these two groups the examples are desultory. Many of them are before l or n with another consonant: child, mild, wild—bind, find, hind, kind, mind, rind, wind, verb (except wind, subst, as generally pronounced): also these—condign, malign, sign. But, after all, the name of Igh does not represent truly the general use of this vowel. To account for its having acquired so inappropriate a name, we must again seek for a familiar and frequent word in which the vowel does bear this sound. We find it in the personal pronoun I, which we might have written as Igh with equal propriety, and on the same principles as have determined the orthography of right, might, sight. The Saxon form was Ic ; the German form is Šd), the Dutch Ik, the Danish Jeg (pron. Pigh) the Swedish Jag. So that in fact the name we have bestowed on I is not the due of that vowel in its simplicity, but only of that vowel after it has absorbed and assimilated an ancient guttural.