The Case for Teaching History in Language Classes

The story of the Great Vowel Shift helps demystify English spelling for second-language learners.


One of my favourite anecdotes about the absurdity of English spelling, which I never fail to share with my ESL students, is frequently attributed to George Bernard Shaw, although it does not appear in any of his writings. The invented word ghoti is intended as a creative spelling of the word “fish”, with the gh pronounced as an “F” as in “enough” (ɪˈnʌf), the o pronounced as an “I” as in “women” (ˈwɪmɪn), and the ti pronounced as an “SH” as in “motion” (ˈmoʊʃən).

G.B. Shaw may indeed have been the originator of this clever illustration of the English language’s orthographic irregularities (He was, after all, a vocal proponent of spelling reform.) but even if he wasn’t, others have made creative use of the word “ghoti”, ranging from James Joyce’s inclusion of the word in Finnegans Wake (in the line “Gee each owe tea eye smells fish.”) to linguist Marc Okrand’s use of it as the constructed Klingon language’s word for, yes, fish ( ghotI’).

It’s a great linguistic meme, as well as a useful intro for one of my now-favourite topics for my ESL classes, which is the Great Vowel Shift of 1350–1600, a historical occurrence that I have found helps students from other countries and linguistic background make sense of English’s seemingly anarchic spelling rules.

The ubiquitousness of Latin and French loanwords in English (and more recent imported vocabulary from other languages) are such that it’s easy to forget that English is technically a Germanic language whose closest continental cousin are the Frisian languages, minority languages still spoken in the Dutch province of Friesland and parts of northwestern Germany. That said, English doesn’t really sound like a Germanic language, as a result of a massive influx of Romance language vocabulary as well as a curious divergence in pronunciation of much of its original Germanic content.

Vowel Movements

There once was a time when the English word “boot” was pronounced more like “boat” as it is in German, and the word “bite” was pronounced like “bit” — in a fashion more typical of Germanic orthography. The old English word “knight”, typically a head-scratcher for ESL students, once sounded much more like it looks. Monty Python fans will be amused to note that the taunting French knight played by John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is actually being somewhat historically accurate when he calls King Arthur and his companions “silly English ken-niggits”. Makes me wonder if that joke was an Easter Egg planted there to amuse scholars of Middle English and old Anglo-Saxon. (Given how educated the Pythons were, I wouldn’t put it past them.)

The vowel shift between Middle and Modern English (Source: Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf)

So what happened to this alleged Germanic language? From 1154 to 1485 the English throne was occupied by the House of Plantagenet, who hailed from the historical French province of Anjou and simultaneously ruled nearly all of modern France, Wales, Ireland, and some bits and pieces of the Holy Roman Empire.

Under the Plantagenet Dynasty, French became the prestige language of England, its influence gradually trickling into the Middle English spoken by the common folk of the day. Ever wonder why English, alone among languages I’m familiar with, has different words for types of meat and the animals they come from? The nobles who ate the lion’s share of the meat were French speakers (hence calling it boeuf, porc, mouton etc.) whereas purely Germanic words like cow, pig, and sheep were the purview of the peasants who raised said animals.

Then there was a lovely little thing that changed the entire demographic (and ultimately linguistic) picture of the British Isles called the Black Death. In a little over a year from 1348 to 1349 the bubonic plague epidemic that had swept Eurasia wiped out anywhere between 40 and 60 percent of the country’s population and reduced the population of its capital city by a full third. Many scholars have postulated that the Great Vowel Shift was triggered in large measure by the massive population readjustment that occurred in the plague’s aftermath, including a massive influx of new residents into the city of London, bringing with them a complex array of local dialects and pronunciations.

The Black Death also paradoxically had a positive effect on class and economic mobility, which in turn no doubt had an effect on the spoken language of the time — with newly empowered former peasantry eager to emulate the French-influenced argot of the ruling classes.

The next phase of linguistic disruption probably began in 1485 with the death of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet monarchs, and the rise of the tempestuous Tudors under Henry VII. The change of scene from a nominally French monarchy to a Welsh ruling family (the name Tudor comes from the old Welsh tud (territory) and rhi (king)) may have brought about a backlash against French influence on the English language, further contributing to the ongoing vowel shift. Ever wonder why the word “nice” and the French city of Nice have totally different vowel sounds? The change of ruling dynasties may have had something to do with it.

The rise of the Tudor Dynasty also more or less coincided with the proliferation of the newly invented printing press throughout Europe. (It should be noted here that while the printing press was new to Europe, woodblock printing had been in use for at least 600 years already in China, Korea and Japan.) While the movable print revolution largely solidified English spelling, the vowel shift persisted for some time thereafter, resulting in some curious inconsistencies in pronunciation. For example, the “ea” sound in the words “swear” and “bear” retain their original Middle English pronunciation while the vowel sound in “hear” and “near” is a product of a vowel shift that persisted into the 17th century. The writings of Shakespeare are relatively straightforward reading for modern-day English speakers, but would be much tougher to grasp if performed entirely in the spoken vernacular of 16th century London.

OK, so what?

Why should any of this matter to today’s ESL learners who, one might think, are far too preoccupied with learning practical career and life-oriented English to think about the impact of feuding monarchs and deadly plagues on the English of yesteryear?

Here’s why I think it matters. Every language has its own unique pitfalls and idiosyncrasies, and as a teacher nothing annoys me more than when I hear fellow instructors responding to student questions about why a certain rule applies to the language (and doesn’t elsewhere) with some version of “Because it just does.” The answer “because I said so” doesn’t cut it for four year olds asking why they can’t stay up all night, and it is no more acceptable for adult learners of English. It always has been, and forever will be, a cover for ignorance.

Of course, ESL teachers are not all trained historians and/or linguists, and can’t possibly be expected to understand the root causes of every quirk and oddity about the English language, and indeed many such answers evade the leading scholars of the language to this day. However, even a cursory knowledge of the history of written and spoken English can help demystify the language to newcomers to it, and while it may not immediately resolve the issue of why the word “bear” rhymes with “hair” and “hear” rhymes with “deer”, it can at least make the inconsistencies of English spelling easier to grapple with mentally.

As a student of the Japanese language for many years, I found that a solid grounding in Japanese cultural, political, and religious history to be not only valuable but actually essential to gaining any sort of grasp of the language. The differentiation between the Sino-Japanese on’yomi (音読み) and the indigenous Japanese kun’yomi ( 訓読み) readings of Chinese characters in the Japanese language requires at least a basic understanding of Japanese history, from its ancient pre-literary animist roots to its incorporation into China’s cultural orbit (and its adoption of Buddhism) to the subsequent historical pendulum swings between neo-Confucianism and nativist forces intent on expunging Chinese influence.

In addition to its obvious cultural debt to China, the Japanese language is also replete with loan words from European languages, but even these came about at different times and in different ways, and making sense of them requires some historical knowledge. The Portuguese Jesuits first arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century, bringing with them words like tabako, pan (bread), and tempura that are still commonplace in the Japanese language. The next wave of foreign linguistic imports came about in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Japan was in breakneck modernization mode, but at the same time imbued in nationalist zeal. Have you ever wondered why words for overseas inventions embraced by Japan during the pre-World War II era like kuruma (車) for car or yakyū (野球) for baseball are generally translated into Japanese whereas postwar imports like terebi (テレビ) or intanetto (インターネット) are simply lifted directly from English? From 1945 onward, English, and all things American, was hip. Before 1945, not so much.

And without this rather important historical knowledge, nothing about the Japanese language would make the slightest bit of sense.

As native speakers of the world’s most ubiquitous language, people like us have the luxury of not having to think about our own language very much. We take our language — and all its weirdness — for granted, scarcely pausing to wonder why “I” always comes before “E” except after “C” (with the notably exception of that Scots Gaelic loanword “weird” — a word popularized by a certain Scottish-themed Elizabethan tragedy) or why “goose” (derived from the Old English gōs, rendered as gås in the Scandinavian languages) gets the plural “geese” while the word moose (a 17th century import from the Eastern Abenaki language of modern-day New England and Atlantic Canada) doesn’t become “meese”. But when an ESL student asks why this is the case, it pays to have an answer beyond “Because it does, OK?!” None of my Japanese language instructors ever answered any of my many questions in this way, and I hope never to have to either.

Besides, it’s all just really, really interesting. And while my obsession with the shadowy history of the English language’s wandering vowels perplexes some of my fellow language teachers, I’ve generally found that my students find it nearly as interesting as I do. Or perhaps they’re just humoring me. It also allows me to make jokes about “vowel movements” — itself making it all worthwhile.