Just ♥ Words—You Say Potato. I say Po...

vowel shiftHoly cow! It's coming! No, wait—it's here. By my reckoning, we're present at the start of the next GREAT VOWEL SHIFT.

Okay, so maybe not "great," but it feels like a vowel shift, nonetheless.

So what's the Great Vowel Shift? From approximately 1400 to 1700, vowel sounds in England underwent a gradual but profound change. But MORE on that LATER.

Right now, I'm referring to our own pronunciation of the letters A and E—not the long forms as in mate or meet, but the short forms, mat or met.

Have you noticed the pronunciation for the following words—ANY… MANY… CAN… MEN… BEEN… WHEN… GET? There are more, but these are enough for argument's sake.

In fact, say the words to yourself OUT LOUD. Do you hear a short-i creeping in? Not the long vowel as in iPhone but the short—as in Fitbit.

They sound like this: "Do you have INNY donuts?" "How MINNY would you like?" "Stop WHIN you GIT to 100." Or this "Now is the time for all great MIN to come to the aid of their country."

Ah, it's just a Southern regionalism, you say. NOPE. You can hear it on national TV, radio, podcasts, and film—and from people in all parts of the country.

So what's happening?

What's happening is PHONETICS. It's easier to say "min" rather than "men" … or "inny" rather than "any"—because the mouth doesn't have to open as wide and the tongue can rest comfortably in the middle. Phonetically, it's NOT AS MUCH WORK.

But now… back to the Great Vowel Shift. No one knows precisely when or where in England it started, or why (theories abound), but the end result was a NOTICEABLE CHANGE in vowel pronunciation.

Mostly it affected the long vowels. BITE once sounded like beet, MATE like maht, BOOT like boat—only three examples, but you get the idea.

Today, some 300 years later—during our own not-so-GREAT VOWEL SHIFT—I wonder if we'll end up losing the short A and E vowels, particularly if they're followed by the consonant N. I, too, am guilty of these HOMICIDAL tendencies.

Try saying the following words—ones in which I find myself replacing the en sound with in. Here they are: INCOUNTER … INDEAR … INGRAVE … INJOY  … INLIVEN … INSURE … INTANGLE … INVELOP  (the verb form) … INVIRONMENT. (Don't worry, the spelling won't actually change, just pronunciation.)

Languages are like living organisms, evolving over time. Usually we think it means the addition of new words to the dictionary, but it also refers to pronunciation. Language is living history, and it SOUNDS like we're in the midst of it.

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