aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Philology is phun

Every language has its own way of pronouncing certain things. You can't just assume by the way a word is spelled how it should be said. Take the double L. In Spanish or French, the double L is pronounced like a Y: Allende, Versailles. In Italian, though, the double L is just L: pollo in umido. Then come the Welsh. Their double L stands for a sound that exists in no other Indo-European language that I know of. It's sort of like a cat hissing. Llanberis sounds like something between hlanberis and clanberis.

Well, English also has a distinctive sound. In Old English, the letter Ash, now written as Æ, stands for a vowel sound nobody else uses. It's the flat A you hear in "The fat cat sat on the mat." Virtually every other language I know pronounces A as "ah," as in "Father" or "small." Old English had the letter A as well as Ash, and pronounced A as "ah." But when the ligature æ went out of use, the letter A was employed for both sounds.

Meanwhile, what we call "long A," which isn't an A sound at all, but a diphthong of long E + I ("face" is really pronounced feh-ees) is the result of the Great Vowel Shift taking place in Chaucer's time. This accounts for the dislocated way in which English pronounces various letters compared to other European languages, but it doesn't add any unique sounds. We just shuffled the sounds we started with, pronouncing them higher in the mouth and diphthongizing a bunch of them (a diphthong is two vowel sounds smashed together -- think Southern drawl, as in dayyum for "damn"). But the Ash is all our own. We started out with it, and kept it.

Yes, I know, you'll hear something close to it in German, when A comes before a double consonant, as in Mannheim. But nobody else says "ram-a-lam-a-ding-dang" with the flat A English speakers use. Just listen to a bunch of American students taking first year German. The way they pronounce the A in German words is painfully un-German. But it is very, very English.

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