Monday, December 5, 2011

Words Spelled the Same but Pronounced Differently; Other Notes on English

Read (to read; pronounced like "reed") – A present tense verb involving the recognition of the meaning of written words or the act of translating written words into spoken ones (reading out loud). Sometimes used as a noun, as in, “The mystery novel was a good read.”

Read – The past tense of “to read.” To add to the confusion, it is pronounced identically to the color “red.”

Wind (the vowel is pronounced similarly to that in the word "win") – Noun meaning the movement of air, especially meteorologically, but its meaning also extends to the breath or even flatus.

Wind (to wind; the vowel is pronounced similarly to that in the word "wine")  – Present tense verb meaning to twist or turn something, as a watch stem or string or thread around a spool. By extension, something can be said to turn or twist over the terrain, such as “The Long and Winding Road,” the title of one of Paul McCartney’s songs.

Wound (pronounced similarly to the interjection "wow") – The past tense of the above verb “to wind.” Verbs that form other tenses by going through changes in their vowels are technically called “strong verbs” because they are ancient and resist the more modern simplification of using the same form as the present tense but adding “-ed” to the end to make the past tense.

Wound (pronounced like the old word for courtship "woo") – An injury such as a cut, puncture or other damage to the flesh. It can be extended to include psychological hurt.

Close (pronounced with a real "s" sound) – An adjective that describes one object that is near another.

Close (the "s" is pronounced more like a "z") – The present tense of a verb meaning to shut, stop or suspend something. “Please close the book.” “Close the swimming pool for the rest of the year.” It can also be a noun: the end of something such as an event. “At the close of the festive evening, everyone went home.”

Present (pronounced PREzent) – Adjective describing the condition of being here, now. Noun: The time experienced right now. The same pronunciation is used for the noun describing an object given to someone. “Thank you for the Christmas present.”

Present (preZent) – Verb: to show or introduce something or someone to another person. “Your Highness, may I present the Count of Monte Cristo.” To introduce or make something known. “He presented his symphony to the public for the first time on May 7, 1824.”

Record (REcord) – A written document or vinyl disk for playing music. Adjective describing a noteworthy event. “The temperature will reach a record low.”

Record (reCORD) – The act of making a written document or registering sound or events by a device such as a tape recorder or seismograph. Notice that in the cases of “present” and “record” we mark each as a noun or adjective on the one hand and as a verb on the other by emphasizing the first syllable for noun/adjective and the second syllable for the verb. So “reCORD” is what we do in order to make a “REcord.”

These words are pronounced differently for different reasons although it mostly boils down to sound change over the history of the language. In Old English, the accent was always put on the root syllable. French does not follow such a rule, so the introduction of French words into English changed that expectation. Indeed, “present” and “record” were derived from French. So, although we spell many words the same way, we now change the accent to change their meaning thanks to the influence on English of continental languages such as French and Latin.

Have you ever noticed the words in English that change their sounds when the word changes its function (technically called “inflection”). For example, take the verb “to go.” Today I go. Yesterday I went. “Went”? Its not the same word; “went” doesn’t even have a single letter or sound in common with “go.” This is an example of a strong verb. But wait, what happens when I have gone? “Gone”? Why is it pronounced “gawn”? After all, the way we spell, it should rhyme with “bone,” but it doesn’t. How come?

Partly it has to do with the influence on the vowel of the sound of the “n” after it. The “n” sound keeps the “o” from being a long sound. Originally, the “o” in “go” was pronounced the same as the higher and shorter “o” in “gone,” but as the sound of “o” changed in most of the words in English (part of what is called the Great Vowel Shift), it changed more in “go” than in “gone.”

The Great Vowel Shift occurred throughout the period of Middle English (spoken roughly from the eleventh or twelfth century until the late fifteenth). Middle English had five dialects, each of which pronounced words quite differently (or even possessed completely different words for the same concept). While in part of southern Middle England the word “go” was pronounced more or less the way “gone” is now, the northern Middle English speakers still pronounced it the way they had in Old English, which was more like “gah” than “gaw.” They also pronounced “bone” as if it were “bahn.” (Like someone from Boston pronouncing “barn.”)

These regionalisms – both of words and their pronunciation – led to confusion as England became united as a single country and more or less unified as a culture. Either one dialect had to be raised as the standard or features of several dialects needed to be blended together. English spelling and vocabulary might have been more regular if the first course had been followed, but it was pursuit of the second one that gave us the hodgepodge that is English today. For example, in the southwestern dialect of Middle English, people said “vox” instead of “fox,” and their word for a female fox also began with a “v” sound: “vixen.” Standard English now has “fox” but we also use “vixen.”

Many common English words, such as “their” and “horse,” come from the northern Middle English dialect. The thing that really becomes confusing is that each dialect was written so that it had its own spelling system. When the dialects were blended to create one English language, more or less near the end of the fifteenth century, we kept the various dialectal spellings of the words without striving for uniformity. In some cases, words had to be repurposed or a new distinction had to be made. For example, “shirt” is southern English and “skirt” is northern. Originally, they meant the same thing, but since both came into the standardized English language together, each was given a different specific meaning, even though they both still mean an article of clothing.

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