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Of the Umlaut. 126. The Umlaut, on the contrary, is not so much a vowel change, as a vowel modification. In order to see what it is that induces this modification, we may revert to the parallel between the organs of speech and a wind instrument. In an elaborate instrument, with keys and other adjustments, if all the parts are not in smart working order, there will be a danger lest each note should modify its successor. The keys have been touched for a given note, and unless they promptly recover their normal position, something will be heard of the first note at the time when the second is delivered. So it is in language: a letter or a syllable is apt to carry on its influence to the letter or syllable that succeeds. In the neighbourhood of Bath, the childish form of the name of that city is Bab. Here we see the second consonant has been overpowered by the first. In the Finnish and Samoyedian languages, this principle has developed into a grammatical vowel-harmony, according to which the vowel of the stem of a word determines the vowel of the affix. Thus hoba (skin) makes its ablative hobahad; warnge (crow) makes it warngehed; ano (boat) makes the same case anohod; habi (servant) makes habihid; and paeidju (lump) makes the ablative paeidjuhud". In all these instances we see the vowel of the affix harmonised to the nearest in the stem: and we recognise the development of a natural tendency into a law.
In our schools we sometimes hear this Harmonic Permutation of vowels, as, Dublun, Mosos, prommus, righteousnuss, Thommus; but it is not admirable in Aryan children how
1 M. Alexander Castrén, Grammatik der Samojedischen Sprachen, St. Petersburg, 1854; p. 25.
ever interesting it may be as a part of Turanian grammarsystems.
127. The Umlaut of the Indo-European languages is a phenomenon of a different order. Here the vowel of the after-member of the word influences that which has gone before, so that a present vowel is influenced by one yet unspoken.
It seems as if we ought to take into our philological consideration the fact that the human organ of speech, while it is an instrument, is not a mere instrument; inasmuch as it contains bound up in the same constitution with itself the performer also. It would seem as if the consciousness which the moral agent has of the task before it, influenced a present utterance by the presentiment of that which is to follow. The Umlaut is a modification that has risen in our stock of languages within the historical period. There is no trace of it in the Mosogothic, but it appears in the Old High German and Anglo-Saxon. Yet the Mosogothic supplies the conditions out of which it has grown.
If we look at Mark i. 16 we see the word nati, where our English Testament has net. Here the i of the termination has drawn the a towards it, and has harmonised it into e. The intermediate form neti is preserved in the Oldsaxon of the Heliand. In the same manner the Mosogothic fani reappears in the English fen. The action of the Umlaut continued visibly to alter the shapes of words during the whole Saxon period. Thus the same word would appear with an 'a,' or an æ in the stem, according as it had a full or a thin vowel in the termination. For example, the word day was deg in the nominative (pointing to an earlier dag:), dæges and dæge in the genitive and dative singular; but in the plural it made nom. dagas, gen. daga, dat. dagum. So likewise stæf a letter, plur. stafas; hwæl a whale, plur. hwalas;
pôd a path, plur. pačas. Our modern pronunciation of the word day retains the trace of this Umlaut, which the orthography obscures; for it exactly corresponds to dæi, the orthography which succeeded to dæg. And, to take an example from adjectives, the word small bears no trace, either in its spoken or in its written form, of having formerly been subject to Umlaut; but it was so. It appears as smæl, smælre, smælra, smælne; a thin vowel being, or having been, though here unwritten, in every one of these Cases next after the l. In another set of Cases it appears as smalu, smalum, smala, smalan, and it was by the preponderance of these that our modern form was determined.
128. The Conquest gave the death-blow to the Umlaut among us, and even the traces of it were largely obliterated. But some of the Umlaut-forms had allied themselves with certain grammatical functions, and in this new character they have secured office and position. Such are those few plurals which, like feet, geese, men, mice, are formed by inward vowel-change. The Germans have retained this plural function much more largely than we have, and also another of far greater scope and utility; for they have found in Umlaut a means of differentiating the indicative from the subjunctive mood, thus—hatte habebat, hätte haberet.
The Consonants. 129. The consonants will be most conveniently arranged in the order according to which they recede more and more from the nature of the vowels. We begin with the half vowels, W and Y.
Before the Conquest the character W was little used. Where the Anglo-Saxon printed books have it, the manuscripts have the old Rune p. But after the Conquest, when a great many Romance words beginning with V: were coming into the English, and a distinction had to be made between this sound and that of the old p, the letter was represented by a double v. But it must carefully be observed that the novelty as regards the W was only in the character and not in the sound. The sound of w was an ancient sound in the language, and upon it an interesting question rises ;—Whether this sound, which is now a chief characteristic of our language amidst its family, was contracted in this island by the mingling of the Saxons with the British Kelts, or whether it really is the relic of a once pangothic sound, which has faded everywhere else, alike in the Teuton and Scandinavian worlds.
The sound of the w may be described as a consonantism resulting from the collision of 'u' with another vocalic sound. Say oo first, and then say ee: if you keep an interval between, the vocalic nature of each is preserved, but if you pass quickly from the utterance of oo to that of ee, you engender the consonantal sound w, and produce the word we. Any vowel coming into collision with 'u' will engender the w. It is said in Grammars that w (like y) is a consonant when it is initial, either of a word or syllable ; and a vowel elsewhere. According to this rule (which fairly states the case) we find that w is a vowel now, where once it was a consonant. Take the word few, in which w has only a vocalic sound; this word was once a disyllable, feawa, and then the second syllable wa gave the wa consonantal value.
130. Y is a Greek letter adopted by the Romans, and used in Saxon writing for the thin u (like French u or German ü) apt to be confused with i. The French call it the Greek I, “I grec.'
Y is only a vowel all through the Saxon literature ;—the consonantal function was added after the Conquest. Then
y stepped into the place of an ancient G-initial, which was in a state of decay. This is the history of y in such words as ye, yes, yet, year, yard, yare, yearn, yelp, yield, from the older forms ge, gese, git, gear, geard, gearo, georn, gilpan, gield. In the process of this transition, there appeared for two centuries or more (the twelfth to the fourteenth) a separate form of letter, neither g nor y, which was written thus 3, and was ultimately dropped. It was a pity we lost this letter, as the result has been a heterogeneous combination of functions under the letter Y which it is difficult for a learner to disentangle. Had we retained the consonant 3 we should have had fewer accumulations of vowel and consonant functions in single letters.
In old Scottish writing this 3 slid into the form of 2, as in the following, where year is written zeir :
In witness quhairof we haif subscrivit thise presents with our hands at Westminster the roth day of December, the zier of God 1568 Zeirs.
JAMES, Regent. &c.
So yet was written zit, as in Buchanan's Detection :
Quhilk wryting being without dait, and thocht sum wordis thairin seme to the contrarie, zit is upon credibil! groundis supposit to have bene maid and written be hir befoir the deith of hir husband.
Now y (like w) is half vowel and half consonant: it is a consonant in the beginning of a word or syllable, and a vowel elsewhere. This gives the y a peculiar position in English which it does not hold in other languages. Our consonantal sound of y is represented in German and Danish and Swedish by J. In the English young the y sounds exactly as the J sounds in German jung, or in the Danish pronoun of the first person Jeg, Swedish Jag.
131. The bringing out of this consonantal y is a feature of the modern language. If it existed in Saxon times, it was not expressed in writing, except in so far as we