Silent Letters Say So Much …
Someone asked me at breakfast the other day, “Does anyone pronounce the ‘l’ in yolk? I answered: I am unaware of any dialect that sounds out the ‘l’ nowadays, but at one stage in the history of English the ‘l’ was certainly pronounced. (Yolk comes, naturally, from the same root as yellow.) This is true of just about any silent letter in modern English: it shows up in the spelling because at one time it was pronounced. This goes especially for every silent ‘e’ at the end of so many words.
(There are a handful of silent letters that were never pronounced, like the ‘b’ in debt. This word started life in Old English as dette, but somewhere in Middle English some smarty-pants who knew a smattering of Latin realized that the Latin root debitum had a ‘b’ and decided to import it into the English spelling. Other words with Latin letters shoehorned into them are plumber, indict, and receipt.)
If you could dial back the hands of time about 500 years, the English language would sound rather different from the way you know it today. The untrained ear can generally make sense of the Early Modern English in its original pronunciation. But going back to the time of Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales will confound all listeners except those with training in Middle English. There are almost no silent letters in Chaucerian English, and the long vowels are closer in quality to their counterparts in other European languages. (As you can hear here.)
What happened to all those once-sounded ‘e’s at the ends of the words? Over the years they got worn away in pronunciation, leaving behind only a hint of their existence in that the preceding vowel is long and not short. Linen, linear, and line come from the same root linum ‘flax’; but in line the ‘e’ went silent at the end of the word while the ‘i’ stayed long.
This process took a long time—centuries, in fact. This is true of most sound changes: they happen so slowly as to be imperceptible to the very people adopting innovative pronunciations. Nevertheless, we know that Chaucer pronounced most of those now-silent ‘e’s: his poetry doesn’t scan right (i.e. have the proper rhythm) if you elide them. Just looking at The Canterbury Tales in the original gives a thoughtful person the sense that, since the day when these lines were first penned, many moons have waxed and waned. It just has to be so: language doesn’t change that much from one generation to the next—or even in two or three generations.
A similar comparison could be made between the Old English of Beowulf and the Middle English of Chaucer. An educated reader can still pick out words and phrases in Middle English that make sense, but Old English might just as well be Mongolian. Even a speaker of Middle English would struggle to comprehend Old English. Again, centuries would have had to pass in order to alter the English tongue so much.
Thank heavens for the silent ‘e’. He died phonetically so that you would not have to swallow uncritically the idea of alternative chronologies that are gaining popularity in Truther forums. Certain academicians have proposed timelines that collapse Western history by hundreds of years. Essentially, they perform a tummy tuck on the Middle Ages, cutting out the adipose tissue of “myth” and suturing up the ancient world to be make it closer to modern times by seven centuries or more.
To anyone with knowledge of ancient and medieval literature, though, these claims are hard to swallow. The silent ‘e’s of English didn’t all die at once in a plague; they got washed away in the rivers of time, like the floor of the Grand Canyon. The revisionist historians simply don’t allow for enough years to pass for the evolution of Old English into Middle English. Forget the debates over the accuracy of carbon dating. The epigraphic evidence—ancient codices and medieval manuscripts—matches the mainstream timeline of Western history pretty well. Those who cut out centuries, claiming those periods are fictionalized repetitions of earlier ages, cannot explain how the ancient mother languages could morph into their modern daughters so quickly.
[Because it isn’t just in English. Consider ancient Greek. At the time when the Greek alphabet was first developed (around 800 BC in the traditional chronology), it was used to distinguish many different vowels and diphthongs: α, ε, η, ι, ο, ω, ᾳ, ῃ, ῳ, αι, αυ, ει, ευ, οι, ου, υι. Each of these were pronounced distinctly from the others, we know. After all, if you are inventing an alphabet, unconstrained by past conventions, you would naturally make a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and signs. (Remember the ‘l’ in yolk? It’s there because it was once pronounced.)
Over time, however, these distinct vowels and diphthongs merged together somewhat. In Modern Greek the following vowels are all pronounced the same as the letter iota (roughly the long-e sound of English): η, ι, υ, ῃ, ει, οι, υι. This did not happen to all these vowels at the same time: evidence from inscriptions and ancient texts shows a slow evolution over the centuries, as one by one these different vowels became pronounced like iota (and hence the process is called iotacism).]
What do I know about the reliability of carbon dating, ancient eclipse records, Roman construction techniques, or marine architecture in late antiquity? Nothing much. What kind of firsthand knowledge of these things do YOU have, independently of what some “expert” tells you? How well equipped are you to evaluate arguments for revised chronologies based on these subjects?
But one thing you do know from firsthand experience is the language you are reading right now. Therefore, I will try to make a case from the History of English Language and Literature (HELL, of course) that the revised chronologies do not work; and whatever faults the accepted chronology of Western history might have (and it is bound to have some), the main tracings of timelines are reliable.
Let us be wary about chiming in with the “everything is fake” mantra. Some tout this line out of sincere belief. But from others, I am convinced, it is part of a psyop, intended to instill complete disorientation (and hence intellectual impotence) about human history. Those who desire to control the present and the future use the idea that “absolutely everything ever is fake” in order to erase the past as we know it, and thus to control it.
But, just as Orwell noted in his appendix to 1984, “The Principles of Newspeak,” fragments of older literature simply could not be subsumed into the paradigm of the controllers. Its existence put the lie to Newspeak and doublethink and the deception of the memory holes. This is precisely the kind of case I wish to build against revised chronologies.
After all, how many shifts in English phonology have you experienced in your lifetime? Can you think of even one? If you are old enough, you may remember a time when poor was not usually pronounced by most people the same as pour. There are other words like that, too. But the gradualness of this change alone gives you a sense of how slowly language evolves. There had to have been a Late Antiquity, a Middle Ages, and so on. Otherwise, you and I should be able to read The Canterbury Tales without taking a course in Middle English.
So don’t jump too quickly on the revised chronology bandwagon, my Truther friends. You might end up with yolk on your face—both with an ‘l’ sound and without!
In the next installment: Nothing says lovin’ like chevon from the oven …