Nothing's been the same since the Great Vowel Shift

Dear Matt:

Why is the English language so jacked up? Why do sometimes we pronounce "i" as "i" and other times as "e"? I'm thinking of starting a language where no "i" can be pronounced "e." It's just disrespect.

The Kid, the net

It's taken centuries for English to get this messy. Lots of hard work on the part of many, many people. But here's a shorthand answer. Very early English (Anglo-Saxon) had more spoken sounds than it did letters to represent those sounds. Behind the eight ball already. We started combining letters to represent a single sound. The Normans took over Britain and start spelling many English words the French way. Confusion reigns. The printing press was the kiss of death. Spelling was now fixed on a page, even if the pronunciation changed.

It all gets really out of hand in the 1500s and 1600s, when linguists believe English vowel pronunciation changed radically. The Great Vowel Shift, it's called. (And they don't even laugh when they call it that.) A linguistic phenomenon, not a digestive disease. People were less tied to the traditional Latin-linked pronunciations of vowels. "E"s were "ah"s, "i"s were "ee"s, "u"s became "oo"s, we stopped pronouncing the "k" in "kn" words but never changed the spelling. Language in an uproar, I'll say. The modern contribution is text messaging, which will do away with vowels completely. Soon English will be just consonants, abbreviations, and emoticons.

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