The Great Vowel Shift

There is a very good website that explains the Great Vowel Shift (with audio). Not as entertaining as my after dinner party trick, but it does a great job.

My shorter, highly simplified (and rather boring, presented this way) explanation if you aren’t interested in the bells and whistles:

Sometime around 1400 the long vowels of English began to shift upward, which means basically that the degree of opening of the mouth narrowed. Means nothing to you, right? Never mind. If you speak American English, say the word father. That first vowel is an open vowel. Probably the most open vowel in your personal phonemic inventory. Now say the word ink. That is a close (or closed) vowel. If you say the vowel in father and the vowel in ink, you’ve got the extreme of open and closed for most varieties of American English (for the back vowels; there are also front vowels).

Backing up: about 1400 the long vowels began to shift unless they were followed by two distinct consonants. So the the vowel in the world house changed, but the vowel in the word husband did not; once both were pronounced with a sound you might write as ooo. Lots of pairs like this: goose/gosling, wife/midwivery. (Note we are not talking about spelling, but the sounds of the words as they are spoken.

Note: language change is always happening. It’s a natural process, and nothing to get upset over. The Great Vowel Shift was a series of language shifts that took place over a very long period of time — and in fact, never quite finished or caught on in some places. A good many varieties of English spoken in northern Great Britain never participated in the GVS, so in Scotland you are likely to hear hoose for house. The GVS is one of the reasons that written English is so strange; the spellings we use today were set down before the GVS, and for the most part, we never updated our orthography. You see this in many other parts of the language beyond the GVS. For example, the word night. Before 1400 (and still today in some parts of Scotland), this word would be pronounced neeeecht, where the ch is a very throaty fricative. We still write the fricative (night) though it passed out of the spoken language for most of the English speaking world a long timea go.

That’s it, in a nutshell. I really do suggest the other website, the audio examples make it all much clearer.

point of view slippage

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything on craft, but over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about POV.

In every discipline there are some concepts which are particularly hard for students to absorb. In linguistics there’s the concept of the phoneme, or, on the syntactic level, the passive. I run into really intelligent people who are confused and frightened by the passive. On a few occasions I have used a napkin in a restaurant to do my little passive spiel, and almost always it’s like coaxing somebody out on a high wire with no net. Once that’s been managed, I sometimes trot out my second party trick, which requires another napkin: the great vowel shift, or the house/husband goose/gosling puzzle.

Back to POV. In introductory creative writing classes it’s often simply explained with who’s the camera? — which character’s head are we in (assuming third person limited POV), through whose consciousness is this scene being filtered?

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of sloppy POV work. A scene opens with the POV character coming into a house where he’s never been before, meeting a person he wants to like. The details of what we as readers see can’t go beyond what that character sees and perceives. Which depends, in turn, on the character’s powers of observation, what’s on his mind, his background, and whether he got enough sleep last night.

There’s a famous writing exercise by John Gardner that goes something like this: character walking down a hill in a small city towards a bay. The weather is bright and warm. Describe the town and street from this character’s POV…

1. a woman who has just got a promotion she worked hard for
2. a teenager whose brother was just arrested for drug dealing
3. a man who has been spiraling deeper and deeper into depression
4. a five year old child on his or her way to the library with a parent

Each of these people will experience the street and the town differently. Of these four, only one is likely to notice, for example, that the crocus are coming up on the lawn outside the post office.

In the last couple days I’ve read passages in published novels where tough guys have observed things so counter to the characterization that I was pulled out of the story. Of course, a big bad detective could take note of the fact that the dead woman is wearing lilac pedalpushers, but then at some point you have to show me that he grew up doing his homework at the back of his mother’s dress shop, and has a quiet interest in watercolor. Otherwise it’s clear that the female author is observing and pushing her big bad male character to do the same. That’s classic author intrusion.

At different times, different POV approaches are fashionable among writers. First person narratives really had a strange hold on novels for a while there, but I think (I hope) that’s relaxing a little. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which won a lot of literary prizes and was widely read, is written in omniscient. I can’t remember the last contemporary novel I’ve read in omniscient POV. I was quite shocked, and then I settled down into the story and I admired the chance she took (which paid off).

Really, all you have to do is this: decide what approach you’re going to take, and stick to it. And hope for an editor who reads closely enough to catch this kind of slip.

hello big brother

Joshua of Strip Mining for Whimsy points to an article in The Nation which scares the hell out of me. The opening paragraph:

The nation’s largest telephone and cable companies are crafting an alarming set of strategies that would transform the free, open and nondiscriminatory Internet of today to a privately run and branded service that would charge a fee for virtually everything we do online.

To be honest, I figured this would happen sooner or later. The earnings potential is just too big to ignore, and of course the telecommunications industry is unhappy about the fact that we’re all communicating with each other without tithing them in the process. The fact that we pay for telephone and cable access isn’t enough, as far as they are concerned.

The internet is transforming the way things work at a very basic level, and it makes the big corporations very nervous for more reasons than just lost revenues. We talk about them and the government and the relationship between two, and they can’t control it or manipulate it to their own ends.

The question is, what can be done to keep the internet independent of commercial control. I hope somebody smarter than me has some good ideas.