+ Why Merry (not Mirry) Old England? David Crystal on Dialect

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This is more information than most people want, but for those who are interested (you know who you are) here is some arcana:

David Crystal writes in “The Stories of English” that the earliest record of the word merry is in a translation of the 6th-century “Consolation of Philosophy” (“Consolatione philosophiae“) by the Roman statesman Boethius. 

Boethius wrote the work for King Alfred in the last decade of his reign. 

According to Wikipedia, Alfred lived from 849 to 899, was king of the southern Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and was known for his defense of the kingdom against the Danish Vikings.  The only king to be awarded the epithet “the Great,” he was also a learned man who encouraged education and improved his kingdom’s military structure as well as its legal system.

In the translation of Boethius’s work, our word “merry” is spelled myrige, the y spelling representing a short vowel sound high up in the front of the mouth and pronounced with rounded lips.  The sound is like the vowel sound in the French “tu” or the Scotts “you”  (say our short /i/ while your lips say /oo/).  Other words had this same vowel, such as syn (our word “sin”), fyllan (our word “fill”), and mynster (our word “minster”).

As the modern spellings show, the pronunciation of that vowel sound changed over time to our modern short /i/.

What seems to have happened is that people stopped pronouncing the vowel with their lips rounded.  This change was under way by the early Middle Ages.

So why did the word myrige evolve differently?  If the word had followed the trend, it would have appeared in Modern English as “mirry.”  The answer lies in the several dialects of the British people.

The vowel in “merry” had two other spellings in Old English.  There was a spelling with u, which seems to relate to the south-west, and a spelling with e, which is found in the south-east.

Judging by the sounds we associate with an e spelling, it would appear that Kentish people pronounced these words without the lip-rounding and in a much more open way.  We can hear a similar lowering of the /i/ vowel in some accents of Modern English, such as when people from Glasgow pronounce “Jimmy” in a way that makes it sound like “Jemmy.”  (“Sin” must have sounded like “sen” in Anglo-Saxon Kent, since we sometimes find it spelled that way.)

So out of the tangle of spellings in Middle English, in which many variants coexisted — Chaucer spells “merry” with all three at various times: a u and a y and an e — it is the Kentish e form which has survived.

A few other words went the same way: “hemlock,” “knell,” and “left.”  These words are a permanent memorial, says Crystal, to an Old English dialect.

“Stories of English”

David Crystal’s “Stories of English,” was published in 2004 by Overlook Press, an imprint of Peter Mayer Publishers (ISBN 1-58567-719-1).  

The title “Stories” is deliberate, since the standard “Story of English” follows the trajectory of only one single variety of English , and there are many non-standard varieties, as well as formal and informal varieties of them all.

He writes in the introduction: “New standards, non-standards, informalities, and identities.  This is a book about the real stories of English, which have never, in their entirety, been told.” 

The book is dense, and sprinkled with inserted “panels” (such as the microscope look at “merry”).   There are “Interludes” between each of the 20 chapters, focusing on a particular issue raised in the chapter. 

  • After Chapter 1: “The origins of Old English,” the Interlude deals with “The Celtic language puzzle.” 
  • After Chapter 7: “Lexical invasions,” the Interlude is called “The first dialect story.” 
  • Chapter 16: “Standard rules,” has an Interlude titled “Glottal stops.”  
  • Chapter 19: “And dialect life goes on,” is followed by an Interlude on “Dialect in Middle Earth.”

There are maps, illustrations, and an appendix locating the towns and counties of England referred to in the book.  There are notes, references, a person index and a subject index.  This is a 570 page treasure trove (very small print in the paperback copy I’m reading).

There is something about such phrases as “new varieties” and “ethnic minorities” which does not well capture the scale of this dimension of the enquiry.  They suggest a few thousand people, or perhaps tens of thousands.  But when we consider the international locations where English is now established, we need to talk in terms of much larger figures — millions, and tens of millions. 

If only 5 per cent or so of the population of India, for example, speak English, then we are talking about as many people speaking English in that country as speak English in the whole of Britain. (The real figure is certainly much greater.) 

This can come as something of a shock to people who have not thought beyond the “Standard British English” perspective.  With over 1.5 billion speakers of English around the globe, the English of England is today a tiny minority dialect of “World English,” and getting tinier by the decade. 

(See other posts about another of Crystal’s books, “The Fight for English“.)
 tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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