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Old English is a foreign tongue to us, as we see in the opening of Beowulf:
Hwæt we gardena in gear-dagum þeod-cyninga þrym what we spear-Danes’ in yore-days tribe-kings’ glory ge-frunon hu
a æþelingas ellen fremedon.
heard how the leaders courage accomplished
Yet there was no time when this language suddenly changed to ours—the process was gradual. This has been happening to all languages around the world since language began.
The change from Old English to Modern English—or from the first language to Nama or Jingulu or Greenlandic Eskimo—happened as the result of certain kinds of changes universal in how language changes. Sounds and spelling in a language change over time. Here are the four major processes whereby Old English changed to what is become Modern English:
1) Many of these changes seem to us to be “sloppy” speaking. For example, in early Latin, the word for impossible is inpossibilis, but in later Latin, the word was impossibilis. The n changed to an m because the m sound is closer to a p than n. This process is called assimilation.
2) Similarly, over time, consonants tend to weaken and even disappear. In Latin, the word for ripe was maturus. In Old Spanish, the word was pronounced the way it is written today: maduro; the t weakened into a d, and the s at the end vanished. But in Castillian Spanish today, the word is actually pronounced “mathuro,” with the soft kind of th in mother.
3) Vowels are fragile as well. The reason name is spelled with an e at the end is because the spelling corresponds to an earlier stage in our language. Once, the word was “NAH-meh.” Over time, the e weakened to an “uh” sound: “NAH-muh.” Finally, the e withered away completely.
4) The Great Vowel Shift. The first vowel changed as well: we do not say “nahm” but “naym.” This is because starting in the late 1300s, many English vowels began to shift to new ones. Much of our spelling reflects the stage before this shift. To understand it, we need to see how sounds fit into the human mouth. These are the basic vowels the way we learn them in, for example, Spanish:
i u high in the mouth
a low in the mouth
The process is changing even today. Many Americans today pronounce what is written as aw as ah, as in “rah fish” instead of “raw fish.”
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