This was originally published in my work Slack on 2016-10-03, but I’ve since been convinced that more people than just those few who can even read it there might be interested. I’ve edited it for clarity and correctness. I’m going to migrate all my Linguistics Minutes over to my blog and probably post future ones here.
It turns out that spelling was basically always fucked in English. When the Germanic invaders of Britain first started writing, there were basically two main tribes: The Angles and the Saxons (the Jutes and Frisians had way smaller populations). They ended up having a few different kingdoms and initially the most powerful one was the West Saxon kingdom the name of which was eventually elided to Wessex.
Since the West Saxons were the most powerful, they sort of led the charge in adopting writing: most of the documents that were produced were West Saxon governmental documents like decrees and treaties and such. Other kingdoms learned to spell from them.
The Anglian kingdoms, however, were the more populous so most people learned to spell based on how the West Saxon dialect was spoken, but spoke an Anglian dialect themselves. And later, the Anglian kingdoms came to power and modern English was mostly influenced by the dialects spoken in and around London, which was technically in Essex (the East Saxon kingdom), but spoke an Anglian dialect because of the influence of nearby Anglian kingdoms.
For instance, think of the words yea and year. Today, we pronounce yea to rhyme with bay. Back when it was the primary word for “yes”, the West Saxons pronounced it with a diphthong (saying both vowels, but still in one syllable) very similar to how we pronounce yeah and the Anglians pronounced it with a single vowel sound (sort of like “yeh”). Similarly, year had a diphthong in West Saxon, but a monophthong in Anglian.
So from a linguistic hereditary standpoint, the year that we say, was never pronounced the way we spell it. The vowel change that altered it from something like “yehr” to something like “yeer” came later (Hi, Normans. Thanks for invading in 1066!), but the spelling never really lined up.
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