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French fait, suggests the sounds says and ays. The same applies to seasure O. French faiture, eagle French aigle, eager French aigre. In The Stage-Players Complaint (1641), we find may spelt nea: ‘Nea you know this well enough, but onely you love to be inquisitive.' 183. Michael Drayton, Polyolbion, xixth song (1662) rhymed seas with raise; Cowper rhymed sea with survey; and Dr. Watts (1709) rhymed sea to away.
But timorous mortals start and shrink
And linger shivering on the brink,
Book of Praise, clxi. Goldsmith puts this into the mouth of an under-bred fine-spoken fellow:— An under-bred fine-spoken fellow was he, And he smil'd as he look'd on the venison and me.
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 fray thus, ‘trea’ —for so only can we understand it—‘Tea-pot & stand, spoon-trea.’ The orthography may be either his own or that of Miss Chetwynd, from whom the instructions came.
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.' The little river in Shropshire, which is written Rea, is called Ray. 184. If it has been made plain that ea sounded ay, it will be a step to the clearing of an old anomaly. It has been asked why we spell conceive with ei, and yet spell believe, reprieve with ie. The difficulty lies in the fact, that the pronunciation of these dissimilar diphthongs is now the same. And the answer lies in this—that the pronunciation was formerly 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. (3) But however these words are spelt in the early prints, they are constantly distinguished in some way or other, as deceiued, beleeued. Above, 145. Another illustration of the old power of ea may be gathered from a source which has not received due attention : I mean the pronunciation of English in Ireland. It is well known that there resayve is the sound for receive, pays for pease, say for sea, aisy for easy, baste for beast. These, and many other so-called Irishisms, are faithful monuments of the pronunciation of our fathers, at the time when English was planted in Ireland. All these words have now gone into the ee-sound which is represented by ie in believe, and there is no doubt that this sound is a very encroaching one. There have long been two pronunciations of great, namely greet and grayt; though the latter is still dominant, and is likely to remain so. It is in bookish words that the progress of the ee-sound will be most rapid, because the teacher will there be less obstructed by usage, and teachers love general rules. Therefore ea once ee shall be always ee. A child learning to read, and coming to the word inveigle shall be told to call it inveegle, though the best usage at present is to say invaygle. Sir Thomas Browne spelt it with ea:
These Opinions I never maintained with pertinacy, or endeavoured to enveagle any mans belief unto mine.—Religio Medici, fol. 1686; p. 4.
Among the words which still vacillate between the two sounds of EA, 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 persons of weight enough to suggest the doubt whether it may not perhaps establish itself in the end.
Thus we see that ea has in numerous instances changed its sound from that of ay to that of ee. How are we to render any account of so apparently capricious a movement, except by saying that a sentiment has taken possession of the public mind to the effect that ay is a rude braying sound, while ee is a refined and sweetly bleating one. Or, shall we suppose that this is only a reprisal and natural compensation for the area lost by this ee sound when it was ejected from its ancient lot, and the ‘i’ was invaded by the sound of Igh 2 Leaving such enquiries to the younger student, I will add two striking examples of the encroachment of this popular favourite, this ee sound. The first is the well-known instance of Beauchamp, which is pronounced Beecham. The second is more remarkable.
All along I have assumed that the written ay is constant in value, and capable of being referred to as a standard, as the unshaken representative of that sound which ea had and has lost. But there is at least one remarkable exception to this assumed security of ay. For the last forty years or so there has been a prevailing tendency to pronounce quay kee; and Torquay is most numerously called Torquee. How has this habit grown It seems to prove that our pronunciation is not set by the best examples; for nearly all those whom I should have thought most worthy of being imitated have from the earliest time in my memory said kay and Tor-kay. 185. In summing up the case of Spelling and Pronunciation, we may make good use of the example of TEA. When this word was first spelt, the letters came at the call of the sound: the spelling followed the pronunciation. 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 symbolize the pronunciation. 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; and (2) 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. The spirit of ORTHOGRAPHY is embodied in this dictum of Samuel Johnson: ‘It is more important that the law should be known than that it should be right.' The notion of Right in orthography has been more obscured in the English than in any other language. For there have swept over it two great and lengthened waves of foreign influence, which have divided the last eight hundred years between them; namely, First the revolution from Saxon to French orthography; and Secondly, that from the French to the Latin complexion. Still, the desire for a true, natural, phonetic, system of spelling is not extinguished, and it has from time to time pushed itself into notice.