Mispronounced, mangled, changed

“Venice City could be mispronounced, mangled, changed over the centuries through pronunciation errors,” Perkins said. “It could have become Vaycehn.”

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, “Becoming One With The Ghosts”

The crew of the Ivoire is just realizing that they’re in the right place, but the wrong time. What can we deduce about the pronunciation “errors” that renamed Venice City?

Let’s start by assuming that in the Ivoire‘s time, “Venice City” was pronounced pretty much the way it is now. That’s a big assumption. The Diving Into the Wreck universe is far enough in the future that Earth is considered a myth; English pronunciation is changing this instant, and even with mass media and widespread literacy slowing language change, we’d expect Perkins’s English to be very different from ours. (The language is called “Standard”, but the characters have Anglo names like “Coop” and “Perkins”, and other English place names like “Death Valley” are tossed around. If the name of the city wasn’t originally the English “Venice”, I missed the clues or forgot them.)

Still, we have to start somewhere, and “Venice” is fairly similar across various flavors of English worldwide. So even if Perkins doesn’t say it the way we would, her “Venice” derives from ours. It’s close enough that Rusch writes it as “Venice”. And it’s presumably somewhere between our “Venice” and “Vaycehn.”

“Vaycehn” has the same consonants as “Venice” – if we assume that the “c” is pronounced “s” before “e”, the way most readers will say it – but those consonants are re-ordered. VNS has become VSN.

This reordering is called metathesis, and it’s seen in many languages, including English. The Old English word “brid” became our modern “bird”, and OE þrītiġ became modern “thirty”. It’s not just a random slinging around of consonants – like other types of sound change, it only occurs in a particular context of surrounding sounds. So in the English words and others like them, a consonant + r + vowel sequence was re-ordered to consonant + vowel + r.

With only one example we can’t guess at what triggered metathesis in “Venice” -> “Vaycehn”, but we can confidently say there was metathesis.

Moving on to the vowels, “ay” is probably pronounced as in “way”, and “eh” as in the interjection “eh” or “meh”. While we could postulate even more metathesis here (maybe that “eh” vowel moved from the first syllable to the last, and then the other vowel moved and changed?), that’s not nearly as clear-cut as the consonant re-ordering – especially since we could also say that each vowel has simply undergone one change in the way it’s produced.

What has to happen to change the “eh” in the first syllable of “Venice” to “ay”? A linguist would say that “eh” and “ay” are both mid vowels (which describes the height of the tongue, as we discussed previously,) both front vowels (which describes where the airflow is constricted), and both unrounded vowels (meaning the lips aren’t rounded the way they are in English “you” or “know”). The difference is that “ay” is a tense vowel, and “eh” is a lax vowel.

English has several pairs of vowels that differ only in tenseness/laxness:

Tense Lax
wait wet
Luke look
feet fit

So, historically, on this planet some rule changed at least some vowels from lax to tense. (Once again, we might be able to deduce in what contexts this happened if we had more examples.)

We know that not all lax vowels became tense, because our second vowel in “Vaycehn” is still lax. The short “i” of “Venice” (probably originally a barred i, but let’s not worry about that) has become “eh”. Both vowels are lax, and they’re both pronounced with the tongue raised at the front of the mouth.

The difference is how high the tongue is raised. Short “i” is a high vowel, and “eh” is a mid vowel – the tongue isn’t raised as far.

So three plausible changes – metathesis, a change in tenseness, and a change in height – turn “Venice” into “Vaycehn”. But a linguist wouldn’t agree with Perkins that the language has been mangled – that an accumulation of errors have twisted it out of its true shape.

Let’s try an experiment. Read this sentence aloud: “I can’t read the address.”

Did you say “ADD-dress” or “uh-DRESS”? Is that how you always say it? Are you sure?

English has a group of word pairs – REB-el and re-BELL, REC-ord and re-CORD, CON-vict and con-VICT – where the word with the stress on the first syllable is the noun, and the word with the stress on the second syllable is the verb. Since the early sixteenth century, a number of words have changed their stress to match this pattern. As Jean Aitchison says in Language Change: Progress or Decay?, “There were 24 [of these pairs] by 1660, 35 by 1700, 70 by 1800, and 150 by 1934.” The noun “address” is currently in flux – some speakers say it one way, some speakers say it another. And they don’t typically consider either way to be wrong.

Languages always have some variability of this kind. Languages change when one variant edges out another – and it’s not always perceptible to speakers until it’s pointed out. When Aitchison asks “Progress or decay?”, it’s a trick question. Languages aren’t divided into good and decayed, bad groups. Language change isn’t a bad thing – or a good thing; it’s a neutral process.

After all, you aren’t speaking a mangled version of Old English, are you?

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2 Responses to Mispronounced, mangled, changed

  1. tracy says:

    “She specialized in communication. She spoke fifteen languages fluently, another forty haphazardly, and had a gift for picking up new languages all the time [...] Perkins was one of the most formidable linguists in the Fleet”, says the narration. Maybe historical linguistics had been lost long before her time.

  2. Pingback: More metathesis | Alien Tongues