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I went to a semi-professional production of Richard III last month (quite good, though cut by an hour) and Shakespeare’s Richard sets the bar for ruthless sociopaths. Compared to Richard, Tony Soprano is a boy scout.

A couple of things occurred to me about this play. Shakespeare wrote it just over a century after the events recorded had happened, and almost two hundred years after Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. These two things are important because Richard’s death ended the internecine conflict of the Wars of the Roses and The Canterbury Tales was published in English, just as the language was establishing its credentials.

Meanwhile, and to complicate things, the language was in the midst of the Great Vowel Shift. This involved the change in pronunciation of vowels and lasted from 1350-1700.

It was somewhat worse than the song lyric:

You like potato and I like potahto,
You like tomato and I like tomahto,
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto!

While vaguely recalling this momentous event from when I learnt about in linguistics, I won’t try to recapture the detail but poach the Wikipedia’s short cut version.

During the Great Vowel Shift, the sound of words changed. I won’t pretend I can do IPA shorthand but in practice it meant that the vowel in the English word same was in Middle English pronounced similar to modern psalm. The vowel in feet was similar to modern fate; the vowel in wipe was similar to modern weep; the vowel in boot was similar to modern boat; and the vowel in mouse was similar to modern moose.

These changes – for several reasons – could give rise to some great comedy and lots of misunderstandings. A mouse could be a moose depending on the household or pest catcher; people could be walking around in their boats, and complaining of ill fate might mean they were sore and needed a rest.

How often during this long uneven transition did people become confused just as someone would be in dealing with an unfamiliar accent. When that happens it’s normal to ask again, or to correct the person. It’s not likely they said,” Don’t worry about John, he’s going through a vowel shift. What he actually wants is a sweetmeats pie – with a coxcomb.”

Smug jokes aside, it seems extraordinary that after the first wave of plague, a civil war which killed a large percentage of the population, the language was passing through waves of change, yet it still had it’s greatest historical moment in the person of several writers, of which, Shakespeare casts the longest shadow.

As Graham Greene puts it in Harry Lime’s mouth:

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.
In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Guy Cranswick
15 April 2013