Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Help, I've Lost my Vowels

Trying to teach students to read Middle English makes me acutely aware that I have a strong and "non-standard" accent as an English speaker ("Non-standard" compared to people who write pronunciation guides for Chaucer, anyway). I've "lost" a lot of vowel sounds, and since I don't say them, I'm never sure when I should be saying them in Middle English and such, if that makes sense. (Except when I say "lost" there I mean "I never had them in the first place.") And how to say them?

If I'm looking at an "a" and the book says to pronounce it like "father," but I don't say the same vowel in "father" that the writer of the book did, how do I say the vowel?

Here's an example. The Riverside gives two different ways of saying the a sound, one as in father (but fronted, what?), and one as in the German Mann. They both sound like the same vowel to me. Father, Mann (not Man in English; that's a different one for me). So how do I do the Middle English? I can't find the modern vowel, how do I find the 600 year old one?

Here's another one. There's an O that's supposed to sound like "broad" and a different O that's supposed to sound like "hot." But I don't pronounce those differently. (This is my cot/caught deficiency.)

I supposed I should be grateful that I do have pin/pen differences, or I'd have to specify a sewing pin or an ink pen at the store.


  1. Pronunciation guides that use other words as reference are just so much no-fun was it was to learn the international phonetic alphabet, it does make other things easier. If people would use them, that is. And if people would use only the symbols I know, come to think of it. Last time I taught History of the English Language I spent an afternoon trying to figure out what a "closed e" was.

    All of which to say, I'm nodding along with this post (but also experiencing the same problem you're writing about, as I'm not sure I'm imagining the pronunciations for father and mann that you have!)

  2. This is one of the few times when being from Scott County, Arkansas is actually helpful -- our vowels match Chaucer's in many places, to my students' delight.

    Also, much of Chaucer's lexicon is also ours: bait (for fill up, get fed up)and yonder, ask as axe; a number of others.

    "Read it out loud," I tell my students. "It'll make perfect sense then."

    Which it does, even with the pin/pen issue.

  3. Riverside gives IPA symbols, too, doesn't it? If so, there's an interactive IPA chart with sound files here:

  4. Oh, and the difference between "father" and "Mann" is largely one of length -- as in actual quantity of time. The quality of the sound is pretty similar.

  5. Thanks all, for the helpful words.

    Dr. Virago, that interactive thing is SO cool! I put a link to it on the computer thing for my Chaucer students AND sent it to my linguist friend. I spent way too much time clicking and hearing the vowels. Thanks!