Over at the Log, Mark Liberman adduces a nice bit of language peevery from Love’s Labour Lost, where Holofernes complains about Armado’s pronunciations:

I had forgotten the passage where Holofernes complains about Armado’s pronunciations. The complaint is not about Armado’s Spanish accent, but about his unetymological pronunciations — omitting the ‘b’ in doubt and debt, and the ‘l’ in half and calf; leaving out the reflex of ‘gh’ in neighbor and neigh; inserting (or removing?) [h] in abominable:

He draweth out the thred of his verbositie, finer then the staple of his argument. I abhor such phanaticall phantasims, such insociable and poynt deuise companions, such rackers of ortagriphie, as to speake dout fine, when he should say doubt; det, when he shold pronounce debt; d e b t, not det: he clepeth a Calf, Caufe: halfe, haufe: neighbour vocatur nebour; neigh abreuiated ne: this is abhominable, which he would call abhominable: it insinuateth me of infamie: ne inteligis domine , to make franticke, lunaticke?

The text fails to make it clear whether the alleged flaw is adding or lacking an [h] in abominable, since both Holofernes’ own pronunciation and his presentation of Armado’s pronunciation are spelled “abhominable” in the text…

Read Mark’s post for explanation of the history of the unetymological “abhominable”; he ends by saying “In any case, this passage is the earliest example of linguistic peeving that I can think of. Can anyone give me an example before 1598?” I’ve quoted Catullus and Aristophanes in the comment thread.


  1. Kári Tulinius says

    This may be a case of me projecting my own prejudices onto Shakespeare but isn’t Shakespeare here making fun of linguistic peevery, while Aristophanes and Catullus were making fun of people for speaking funny.

  2. marie-lucie says

    KT, I think you are right. Holofernes is a pedant trying to display his learning (incidentally giving the historian of language some clues to ordinary pronunciation in Shakespeare’s time, as with the word neighbour, still pronounced differently by Holofernes even though it is not a learned borrowing).
    Incidentally, the production of the play sounds great. Follow the links from LLog for pictures and for the dates it will be in different cities. I wish I could see it.

  3. Actually, according to Mugglestone (Oxford History of English), Holofernes’ pronunciation was already “old news” by the time of Shakespeare, and he’s poking fun exactly at that; I assume there must have been several pedantic individuals at the time, who insisted on using these ‘outdated’ pronunciations (such as neiGHbour or abHominable).

  4. marie-lucie says

    ‘outdated’ pronunciations (such as neiGHbour or abHominable)
    These are not of the same type though: the loss of GH in neighbour or daughter is a purely English phenomenon, occurring in all classes of society if not in all regions*, but the H in abhominable is a “hypercorrection” from an erroneous interpretation of a Latin original (which did not have the h): this is a pronunciation that only a half-learned person would use.
    *This gh (pronounced like German ch) is still used in some parts of Scotland, where the loss has not reached yet, after several centuries (so daughter sounds almost the same as German Tochter, except for the initial d).

  5. Although i can just about manage daughter I find it very difficult to pronounce neighbour in that way without going totally German.
    I envy the Germans their consistent pronunciation of ei and ie. Did anyone propose that for English, only for it to be rejected? it’s a shame if that’s the case. We have to struggle with ‘i before e, except in every leap year’ etc.

  6. David Marjanović says

    …and the surnames Pierce and Peirce. (And Bierce.)

    I find it very difficult to pronounce neighbour in that way without going totally German.

    Still drastically different vowels to German Nachbar.
    I once read, probably here, about an English prescriptivist who still insisted on pronouncing gh in 1609, so Shakespeare isn’t being absurdly over-the-top here.

  7. Check the impromptu Latin exercization of the peeve’s pet William and her learning English to his tutor in The Merry Wives of Windsor, IV. i.

  8. Re: Abhominable vs Abbominable (in the 1598 Quarto excerpted by Mark Liberman)…This was interesting to me because in Sri Lanka, common usage drops the “h” in words like Bhaasa (language) while the “h” is retained still in India. Although the Bh is still retained in the Sri Lankan alphabet, very few people pronounce it as such, unlike the Indians.

  9. marie-lucie says

    dw, the point is not that some people dropped the h of “abhominable”, it is that the h was added to the original “abominable” through faulty etymologizing.
    In Sanskrit, Hindi and some other languages, “bh” works as a single sound, which is why the writing system has different characters for “bh” and “b” (instead of writing “bh” with two characters as in english). What is apparently happening in Sri Lanka is that people have merged “bh” with “b”. Are they also merging “dh” with “d” and “gh” with “g”? Usually such things go together.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Usually such things go together.

    Though not always immediately. Vietnamese got its current orthography from Portuguese missionaries in the 16th or 17th century; at that time, ph th kh were apparently pronounced [pʰ tʰ kʰ] – notably, the letter f is not used in Vietnamese. Nowadays, they’re [f tʰ x]; this [tʰ] is now the only aspirated consonant in the entire language, if I remember that right (it’s too late at night to open Wikipedia).

  11. marie-lucie says

    That still makes sense: usually the changes for a series of consonants with common features “go together”, but they don’t always “happen” at the same time. We can expect that in another century or two (or earlier or later), [tʰ] will follow the lead of [pʰ] and [kʰ] and become [θ], as happened in Greek. The usual p, t, k order used for listing phonemes follows the phonetic order “from lips to throat”, but it does not always coincide with the order of change in a series of phonemes.

Speak Your Mind