Immagini della pagina

scribed in the last chapter, that the English a was found unequal to represent the French a, and accordingly we see au put for it in many words, as chaunt, the old spelling for chant; aunt for ante; haunt from ' hanter'; laund, a frequent word in our early poetry, also written lawnd, from the French 'lande,' and still preserved in the lawns of our gardens. Blaunche, haunch, paunch, French 'panse'; launch, French 'lancer.' Also for Saxon a, as hlahhan laugh.

And this representation of the ' a' by the English au, from Chaucer to Spenser, is an acknowledgment of the early incapacity of the English a to express that full 'a' sound.

176. OU. There was no such diphthong as this in Saxon, though it is common in what are now called ' Saxon' words. It was one of the French transformations. The Saxon « was changed to French ou, as in iungyoung, pruh trough, ful became foul, butan keeps its u in but, and changes it in about. Thus the Saxon nehgebur became neighbour in conformity to such terminations as honour, favour, which represented a French -eur.

This ou is sometimes present in sound when absent from the spelling. If we compare the words move, prove, with such words as love, dove, shove, we become aware that the former, though they have laid aside their French spelling from mouvoir, prouver, yet have retained their French sound notwithstanding.

177. 01. This is no Saxon diphthong, but Saxon words readily admitted it. It came from the French out or em, or even ou. The Saxon sol borrowed from the French souil a new vocalisation, and hence the English soil. The French

feuil a leaf, has given us foil in several technical uses; and from fouler, to tread down, we have the verb to foil. The Saxon tilian lives on in the-verb to till the ground; while its French vocalisation has resulted in toil.

OE. If this combination occurred only in such instances as foe, hoe, roe, toe, woe, it would not call for notice here, because there is no diphthong; the e in these cases being but the ^-subscript, though no consonant intervenes. But there was an Oe of a thoroughly diphthongal character, which represented the French eu or sometimes ou. The French peuple became poeple in Chaucer, with variants puple and peple. So we find moeuyng moving, proeued proved, and woemen women. The sound of this Oe is preserved in canoe, shoe.

EO. This has no connection with the Saxon to. Ben Jonson said, 'it is found but in three words in our tongue, yeoman, people, jeopardy; which were truer written ye'man, peple, jepardy! In two out of these three cases it is the transposition of Oe representing French eu, as treated above.

178. EE. This is not properly a diphthong, but a long vowel; it is the long 'i'. But it is convenient to speak of it here, with a view to introduce the present tendency of diphthongs to merge into this sound1. English spelling has been produced by such a variety of heterogeneous causes that its inconsistencies are not to be wondered at. Grimm has remarked on the want of regularity in our vowel usage: for we use a double e in thee, and a single one in me, whereas the vowel-sound is alike in the pronunciation. The probable cause was the need of distinction between the pronoun thee and the definite article the—words which down to the end of the fifteenth century are spelt alike, and often check the reader. The eye has its claims as well as the ear, when so much is written and read; and this accounts for many cases of dissimilar spelling of similar sounds, as be the verb and bee the insect.

1 Below, 191, in a short program of phonetic amendments, this ee gains (even places and loses none.

179. EA. This combination is particularly interesting, and we select it for expansion. It has no connection with the Saxon diphthong of the same form. It is not found in Chaucer. Where we write ea he wrote e: beste beast, bred bread, clene clean, ded dead, del deal, deth death, dere dear, grete great, herte heart, mel meal, pes peace, pies please, redy ready, sprede spread, tere tear, whete wheat. The change from e to ea may be thus accounted for. Chaucer's e was the French e-ouvert, which sounded as eh, not far from the vocalism of day, hay, nay. But in the English mouth this e became less open and more shrill continually, till at last it merged in 'i' which is its present lot. The a was then added to it in such syllables as adhered to the former sound; and thus I suppose ea was at first a reinforcement of e-ouvert, just as gh was a reinforcement of the old gutturality of h. (132.) At first ea sounded as ay; but after a while it found the old tendency too strong for it, and it drifted away in that very direction from which the addition of a had vainly sought to stay it. And now most of the ea syllables are pronounced as ee. Our illustration of this shall be connected with the history of the word tea.

180. We have all heard some village dame talk of her dish o' toy; but the men of our generation are surprised when they first learn that this pronunciation is classical English, and is enshrined in the verses of Alexander Pope. The following rhymes are from the Rape of the Lock.

Soft yielding minds to Water glide away,

And sip, with Nymphs, their elemental Tea. Canto i.

Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,

Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes Tea. Canto iii.

That this was the general pronunciation of good company down to the close of the last century there is no doubt. The following quotation will carry us to 1775, the date of a poem entitled Bath and It's Environs, in three cantos, p. 25:

Muse o'er some book, or trifle o'er the tea,
Or with soft musick charm dull care away.

This old pronunciation was borrowed with the word from the French, who still call the Chinese beverage toy, and write it tM. And when tea was introduced into England by the name of toy, it seemed natural to represent that sound by the letters Tea.

181. Although there are a great many words in English which hold the diphthong ea, as beat, dear, death, eat, fear, gear, head, learn, mean, neat, pear, read, seat, teat, wean,—yet the cases of ea ending an English word are very few, Ben Jonson, in his day, having produced four of them, viz. flea, plea, sea,yea, added, 'and you have at one view all our words of this termination.' He forgot the word lea, or perhaps regarded it as a bad spelling for ley or lay. This makes five. A sixth, pea, has come into existence since. To these there has been added a seventh, viz. tea.

At the time when the orthography of Tea was determined, it is certain that most instances of Ea final sounded as Ay, and probable that all did. In a number of words with Ea internal, the pronunciation differed. But even in these cases there is room to suspect that the Ay sound was once general, if not universal. We still give it the Ay sound in break, great, measure, pleasure, treasure.

In Surrey we find heat rhyme to great, and no doubt it was a true rhyme. Surrey pronounced heat as the majority of our countrymen, at least in the west country, still do, viz. as hayt. The same poet rhymes ease to assays:—

The peasant, and the post, that serves at all assays;

The ship-boy, and the galley-slave, have time to take their ease ;—

where it is plain that ease still kept to the French sound of aise. Then, further, the same poet has in a sonnet the following run of rhyming words :—


which renders it tolerably plain, that please was pronounced as the French plane, as it still is pronounced by the majority of English people.

182. This 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 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 Ireeson is anything but a modernism?

These investigations suggest further questions. For instance, did Abraham Cowley pronounce cheat as we often hear it in our own day, viz. as chaytl 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

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 offeat. This, with the derivation of the latter from the

« IndietroContinua »