Thursday, September 08, 2011

Sometimes a Small Question

It's medievalists and linguistics question time! I've started wondering about this, and I'm hoping someone out there might know, or know how to figure it out.

Some words (especially place names) here aren't pronounced quite the way they look, much to my chagrin. For example, Worcester is pronounced like Bertie's last name, Wooster, and not as it looks at all. And Leicester is pronounced "Lester."

But, I tend to think of Middle English as pronouncing all the letters, except when they're not. (So Canterbury sometimes has four, sometimes three syllables in Chaucer.)

SO, if you were to meet up with a Middle English speaker, would s/he say "WoRkester" or WoRcaster" or something like that, or "Wooster." (I'm guessing the first "e" would sound more like when you hear someone say "clark" rather of "clerk" for the "Clerk's Tale" because that's how their accent sounds.)

What do you think, folks?

ps. Do you know that "lollygag" sounds funny to UK folks? Yep, evidently not what they call it when lazing around.


  1. Don't know about ME, but it's two syllables by Shakespeare's time: "Gloucester" in the Henry VI plays scans as a trochee (and the bad quarto spells it "Gloster").

  2. I've wondered about this, too, and I'm not sure I have an answer off the top of my head, but I can make some guesses.

    But first of all, on the clark/clerk issue, "clark" is more Modern Brit English than ME. In ME it likely sounded more like the Scots say -er- today. Anyway, it's -r- does things to vowels, so it's not really analogous to the -e- in -cester. Short -e- in ME is like short -e- today in many British and US dialects. (I'm guessing it's like *your* short -e- in "bet." But not if you're originally from the deep south and maybe not if you're from the Great Lakes region.) But this is all beside the point...

    First of all, as you noted, the loss of internal syllables was already happening in ME. It happens to a lot of words for a variety of reasons in different contexts. (For example, the initially two-syllable French borrowing "couronne" is "crown" in English -- you find both across ME, but clearly the change is happening there. Meanwhile, OE "hlaford" becomes the one syllable "lord" by ME.) So that's part of what's happening with Worcester and Gloucester.

    With Worcester, there's also the r-loss of modern southern British English, which is largely non-rhotic. It likely was still realized (i.e., pronounced) in ME.

    But what I don't know is how what would have original been a /k/ sound in the Latin "caster" became the /s/ sound here (the "ch" sounds in Chester, Manchester, etc. make more sense to me). I wonder if some analogy is being made to French words here and so the words Worcester and Gloucester are being "reanalyzed" as "Worce"-"ster" and "Glouce"-"ster" instead of "Wor"-"cester" and "Glou"-"cester."

    But I'm not an expert. I may be completely wrong.

  3. From teaching (and reading Chaucer outloud to my students)as well as HEL (History of English) every spring for eight years now, I've come to have some very opininated opinions on this. I've done some research, too, though not enough to qualify me as an expert. So any real Chaucer experts out there, feel free to correct and mock me!

    The meter and rhymes in Chaucer's lines show us a lot about how he's pronouncing his words; as does his spelling. (Very little in the way of conventional spelling back then: mostly people just took their very best shot. As I tell my students, and as the text itself shows them, Chaucer will spell the same word 3 different ways in the space of 10 lines.)

    Well, this is telling us that very likely Chaucer is (mostly) spelling the words the way they sound to him, and not (as we do) the way he's been taught to spell them, no matter how far that spelling is from the sound. So if he writes "knyght" I have to figure that's how the word sounded to him. (And try to figure out how to say that, too, yeah.)

    [The exception is that final -e, on words like "take" and "tale" since we can tell by the meter that sometimes he's pronouncing them and sometimes he isn't. And in fact right there in the 14th century is when the final -e stops being pronounced in some dialects. Chaucer probably (I think) did not pronounce it himself, but is taking advantage of it himself for poetic license.]

    His vowels [I think] though my text says they're French vowels, I think work better if you make them half-French and half-sort-of Irish. As I tell my students, if you talk like you're from Scott County, Arkansas, this dialect makes perfect sense, and it totally does.

    A lot of his consonants -- the inital C and intervocal C's for instance -- read better if they're palatized (made into vocalized "ch" sounds). I might be wrong about this one, though.

    I have wandered very far from your initial question. But I love reading Chaucer outloud!

    Oh! And reading William Blake outloud, AS THOUGH he is Chaucer? Also makes him make a lot more sense. I wonder if he also had ME dialect?

  4. Re "-caster" and "-chester": It's mostly Anglo-Saxon dialect. Mercian OE used a fricative whereas Wessex used a plosive. That's why we have both "cold" (Wessex) and "chilled" (Mercia).

    I'll also point to the Bayeux Tapestry, the place about halfway in where they arrive at Pevensey and build a fort that looks like it's straight out of *F-Troop*. The caption uses both "castellum" and "ceastrum." Surely someone has written on this -- it's the best line of the whole tapestry. IMHO.

  5. Meg -- I get the /k/ vs "ch" alternation in -caster and -chester, but where would the /s/ in Worcester and Gloucester come from? By analogy to French pronunciation, perhaps? That's the part I'm really definitely guessing at.

    And Delagar -- you have it right! Though I'd say Chaucer's *scribe* wrote things up to three different ways on the same page. Chaucer probably did, too, but we can't really know that.

  6. Oh wait, I think I've figured it out. It probably went something like this:

    1. "Worcester" was probably once pronounced "wor-ches-ter." (In West Saxon OE, c before a front vowel [e or i sounds] would have been "ch" rather than "k". Some raising of -a- in "caster" to -e- in "cester" probably took place earlier.)

    2. then it was "re-analyzed" by speakers to be something like "worch-es-ter" (that is, in their minds, they heard it as those three parts instead of "wor-ches-ter")

    3. then the -e- in the second syllable was syncopated, but since "worch-ster" produced a consonant clash of "ch"+"st," the "ch" was assimilated to the "s" in "-ster," giving "wor-ster"

    4. and then finally, r-loss and a slight vowel change produced the modern pronunciation of "wuh-ster."

    (Man, where's my drop-down symbol chart when I need it. This would be a lot more precise in IPA.)


    Keep in mind that I'm not a real linguist -- I just play one in front of my students when I teach OE and ME languages classes.

  7. Dr. Virago,

    So why didn't the same process occur with Porchester and Chichester?

  8. Jim - Because it's not a process that has to occur or that always occurs, since it depends on people and what they think they hear? That's my *tentative* answer. Maybe people in Porchester and Chichester heard a clear hiatus between Por- and Chi- and their -chester endings? Not sure, but you raise a good question.

    Keep in mind that I'm not a trained linguist, so while I know how linguists work, it's harder for me to do the reconstructive stuff from scratch and I could be COMPLETELY WRONG. I'm just making a semi-educated guess.

    I keep hoping Meg or someone else will come along and straighten us all out.

  9. Interesting discussion. Then there's Cirencester, pronounced "siren-sester"....