Sunday, July 08, 2012


Important individuals who have set the standards for languages

I have a friend whose family name is Goldstein.  Like most Americans with similar names she pronounces the name as "gold-steen."  Having studied German myself and having some familiarity with the language, my pronunciation is "gold-stine," which is as close to the German pronunciation as I can achieve.  I know that the English cognate for the name is Goldstone.  That is, German gold = English gold, and German stein = English stone.  The American argument in favor of the "goldsteen" pronunciation is that the digraph "ei" is often pronounced as "ee" in English words.  Some examples are receive, conceive, deceive, and so on. There are many examples of "ei" in which the digraph denotes some other sound.  Examples are vein, veil, their, heir, eight, and height.  I remember a spelling rule regarding the digraph ei:  "I before E except after C or when sounded like A as in neighbor and weigh.  There is no C in Goldstein.  Based on the spelling rule I just wrote, the American pronunciation should be "gold-stane" or "gold-stain."

I can continue this rant until the cows come home and you will stop reading it.  However, the "ee" or "i" pronunciation leads me to remember a bit of history.  King George II was the Elector (or Kurfuerst) of Hanover as well as King of England.  He spoke English with a rather pronounced German accent and he mispronounced a lot of words.  One of the words he mispronounced was "either."  In German the digraph "ei" always denotes the diphthong sound heard in English words mine, high, aisle, fight, and so on.  Hence, he pronounced the word as "I-ther" or "eyether."  However, he was the King and nobody in the court wanted to correct him.  So, they all politely mispronounced either, neither, and other words as he mispronounced them.  This manner of speech was called "the King's English."  I suspect that another common word he mispronounced in this way is "eye."  Historically, in the changes in pronunciation that have occurred in our language since the time of King Alfred, this word should be pronounced as if written "ee."  In fact, it is so pronounced in the Scottish dialect of the poet Robert Burns.  However, "ey" has the same pronunciation in German as "ei," and thus it was so pronounced in the King's English.

By now you must be tired of Goldstein, either, and King George.  I must turn to other influential individuals.  The poet Dante wrote his great epics in the dialect of Florence, the city of his birth.  The effect was that the Florentine dialect became the standard Italian language.  Citizens of Florence need to learn only one language.  Citizens of Milan, Venice, Rome, Naples, and other cities and regions of Italy need to learn both the local dialect (Milanese, Venetian, Roman, Neapolitan, etc.) and standard Italian (i.e., Florentine).  Martin Luther had a similar effect on German.  He translated the Bible into his own dialect of German.  That dialect became the standard of the language.  In England, France, and Spain the language of the royal court became the standard for the country.  Italy and Germany were not united until the latter half of the nineteenth century.

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