Monday, March 20, 2017

The Great Vowel Shift: One Reason Why English Spelling is Weird

Whether you're an English native speaker or just learning the language, you must've noticed that English spelling is absolutely mad at times. Why doesn't meat rhyme with great, for example?

One reason for this is something known as the Great Vowel Shift, which took place between the mid-14th century until the end of the 15th century.


If you spoke English in the 1300s, bite sounded like beat does today. The word meet sounded like martboot like boat, and boat sounded a bit like bought. In fact, during the Great Vowel Shift, every long vowel in Middle English changed its pronunciation.


Pronunciation tends to change over time in  most languages without causing too many problems. However, around the time of the Great Vowel Shift, the printing press had made its way to England and was in the process of standardising English spelling.

Some English spelling follows how words were pronounced in Old and Middle English and wasn't really changed to keep up with Modern English. Though some, such as room, no longer uses its Middle English spelling, roum.

At a time when people finally decided how words should be spelled, the language underwent a significant pronunciation change.

Think of it as getting your passport photo taken and then immediately shaving off all your hair (or growing it, if you're bald)!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Mezzofanti: A Master of Languages

Wednesday marks the date when Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti died. He was famous for being one of the world's most prolific polyglots, supposedly mastering dozens of languages during his lifetime.

Mezzofanti was born in Bologna on 19 September 1774. As a child he learnt Greek and Latin words he overheard from a priest's lessons. When the priest found out, he put Mezzofanti into a religious school and later exposure to Spanish-speaking priests helped him learn Spanish. During that time he managed to master his Greek and Latin as well as pick up Arabic, Hebrew, German, French, and a few other languages.

Upon completing his studies, he became the professor of Arabic at Bologna University and was ordained as a priest. When he lost his job for not swearing his allegiance to the Cisalpine Republic, he started tutoring rich families.

When the Austrians arrived in Bologna to drive out Napoleon, Mezzofanti learnt Hungarian, Polish, Czech, and Russian from the soldiers at the hospital where he worked.

Supposedly he taught himself a language overnight when he found out that two criminals needed confession. He continued to learn different languages and eventually spoke nearly 40 languages fluently. He was also familiar with many other languages.

While the rumour mill and hearsay may have exaggerated stories of Mezzofanti, any language learner should appreciate that he managed to learn a lot about foreign languages without ever leaving his country!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Languages Online: The Best of February 2017

Usually at the start of the month we do "languages in the news". However, since there is so much fantastic language content online, we're now calling it "Languages Online". Let's get started with the best stuff from February.

Cambridge University Press had a fascinating article on "uptalk", what it is, what it's for, and why we use it. If you'd like to read more about "uptalk", you can read the Cambridge article here.

The Guardian's website had an infuriating article on the office jargon we love to hate. If you have enough bandwidth, you can read the article here. There was also an interesting article on Eight words that reveal the sexism at the heart of the English language.

The Independent brought us interesting insights into "alternative facts" and the malleability of meaning in languages. If you'd like to read more on the subject, click here.

As usual, Fluent In 3 Months (FI3M) had plenty of great articles. Some of our favourites from Benny included articles on excuses languages learners makecommon Skype language exchange mistakes, and German words we need in English.

There were also articles on FI3M from other writers on subjects including: how to improve your writingtop tips and reasons to learn Italian, and how to create a language hacker's cheat sheet.

Finally, Eurolinguiste brought us plenty of great blog posts. We particularly enjoyed Shannon's article on getting the most out of your language lessons and the hard truth, there are no shortcuts to learning a language!

Did you read any interesting content on languages last month? If so, share them with us in the comments below!