LINGUISTICS FROM THE DENTIST’S CHAIR
by Steven Steinbock
They say the eye is the window to the soul. If so, then what is the eye tooth a window into? Right now I have an open window where my eye tooth was a day and a half ago.
This Wednesday I was sitting in a periodontist’s chair. While the periodontist was extracting a broken cuspid from my mouth, he and I got into a conversation about linguistics. The doctor, you see, had an unusual surname with an excess of consonants. Once, when the pincers weren’t poking at my gum-line, I asked him how his name is pronounced. He told me, and then explained the original Polish pronunciation and how it changed.
I told him that I was fascinated in that kind of stuff, and that I was an amateur linguist myself. I commented that because of his training and experience probing around the human palate day in and day out, that he was just the kind of person to appreciate the nuances of how human anatomy shapes the words we use and how we pronounce them.
We talked briefly about the sound of the letter “R” (and it’s corresponding grapheme in other alphabets) and how differently it is pronounced by the various world languages. In Spanish it involves a trill of the tongue. In French it is pronounced as a deep glottal sound. In Asian languages it is so similarly to the way we pronounce “L” that it’s the source of no end of annoying jokes. In many languages, it is treated very nearly as a vowel rather than a consonant.
Then the doctor brought up the Great Vowel Shift.
How many Periodontists have you encountered who have even heard of the Great Vowel Shift, let alone are able to discuss it?
In a past column I discussed the shift of consonants from their proto-Indo-European sounds into the forms that distinguish Germanic words from Latin-based words. This shift, usually referred to as Grimm’s Law, is pretty easy to grasp even though it occurred several thousand years ago.
Consonants are easy. There are only so many variations of fricatives, plosives, and percussives you can form with the human mouth. But vowels are infinite. There are as many different nuances, say, of the sound “O” as there are microscopic spaces along the slide of a trombone.
But here’s my modest attempt to define the Great Vowel Shift. Between 1450 and 1750 every vowel sound in the English language shifted upward. This happened mainly in southern England, and historians and linguists aren’t certain why. It was likely a combination of populations shifts (the result of migration and plague), economic shifts (that led the rising middle class to adjust their accents in order to sound different from their working class origins).
Prior to the time of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible, most English words were pronounced according to Roman style vowels. The letter “a” was nearly always pronounced like the “a” in father, the “e” was pronounced like the “e” in bed, and “i” was pronounced like the “ee” in teeth. But during Shakespeare’s time, all these sounds changed. “Ah” became “Ey.” “Ey” became “Ee.” “Ee” became “Ai” and so on. In Chaucer’s day, the verb “Make” was probably pronounced more like “Mach” and “Feet” sounded like “Fate.”
All of this is pretty arcane and mostly useless. But it does explain the wackiness of English spelling. Most of our spelling was established before the Great Vowel Shift, which explains, in some sick way, why “ea” sounds so different in “head” and “great” and why “boo” and “book” have different vowel sounds even though they are spelled with the same vowel pattern. Words like “house” and “country” and “could” all have the vowel combination “OU” in common, but all sound very different. Prior to the Great Shift, they probably all had the same pronunciation as the “OU” in French loanwords mousse and soufflé.
I find this stuff supremely interesting, but I can’t say for certain how much of my fascination can be attributed to codeine. Speaking of which, look at how that is spelled. I wonder . . .
And did you know that the cuspid is the only tooth with three names? It is referred to as an “eye tooth” because it is geographically located just south of the eyes. It is called a “canine” probably because a dog has such prominent ones. It is called “cuspid” because of it has a cusp (Latin for “point.” But none of this relieves the ache in my jaw.