Saturday, September 20, 2008

Hints about how English was spoken in 1611

In The Murder of Helen Jewett, the author tells us how there was confusion over whether the victim's name was "Helen" or "Ellen."

The author speculates that the confusion was perhaps because both names were pronounced identically in New York in 1836 (the year of Jewett's murder in New York). (Or almost identically. Perhaps a very slight voicing of the "h" in "Helen," but not much).

And we have no way of knowing, as I alluded to yesterday, as there is no way of knowing exactly how folks spoke in 1836. In New York, or anywhere. We can know written language from that time. But we cannot know oral language. And the 2 are often dissimilar.

But we have hints. Such as in Psalm 3.3, where we find this phrase: "my glory, and the lifter up of mine head." Why my glory, but the lifter up of mine head?

In spoken language, we smooth off the hard sounds, and create a more musical sound. That's the hint we have in Psalm 3 (in the Authorized Version), as it was spoken in the early 17th century: "my glory" sounds fine. "Mine head" (as we pronounce, with a voiced "h") sounds a little harsh.

So when the AV came off the press, the initial "h" (as in "head" or "Helen" or whatever) was unvoiced, or perhaps given the slightest hint of sound, so Psalm 3.3 would have sounded like this: "my glory and the lifter up of mine 'ed."

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