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We whofe names are underwritten, the loyal fubjects of our dread fovereigne Lord, King James, by ye grace of God, of Great Britaine, France and Ireland, King, defender of ye faith, etc., haveing undertaken for ye glory of God and advancement of ye Christian faith, and honour of our King and countrie, a voyage to plant ye firƒt Colonie in yeNortherne parts of Virginia, doe by theƒe preƒents ƒolemnly, and mutually . . . covenant and combine ourƒelves together into a civil body politiсл for our better ordering and refervation and furtherance of ye end aforefaid . . .

So begins the Mayflower Compact, written in 1620 shortly before the Mayflower Pilgrims stepped ashore. The passage, I need hardly point out, contains some differences from modern English. We no longer use ƒ for s, or ye for the. A few spellings—Britaine, together, Northerne— clearly vary from modern practice, but generally only slightly and not enough to confuse us, whereas only a generation before we would have found far greater irregularities (e.g., gelousie, conseil, audacite, wiche, loware) for jealousy, council, audacity, which, and lower). We would not nowadays refer to a “dread sovereign,” and if we did we would not mean by it one to be held in awe. But allowing for these few anachronisms, the passage is clear, recognizable, wholly accessible English. Were we, however, somehow to be transported to the Plymouth Colony of 1620 and allowed to eavesdrop on the conversations of those who drew up and signed the Mayflower Compact, we would almost certainly be astonished at how different—how frequently incomprehensible—much of their spoken language would be to us. Though it would be clearly identifiable as English, it would be a variety of English unlike any we had heard before. Among the differences that would most immediately strike us:

• Kn-, which was always sounded in Middle English, was at the time of the Pilgrims going through a transitional phase in which it was commonly pronounced tn. Where the Pilgrims’ parents or grandparents would have pronounced knee as “kuh-nee,” they themselves would have been more likely to say “t’nee.” • The interior gh in words like night and light had been silent for about a generation, but on or near the end of words—in laugh, nought, enough, plough—it was still sometimes pronounced, sometimes left silent, and sometimes given an f sound.

 • There was no sound equivalent to the ah in the modern father and calm. Father would have rhymed with the present-day lather and calm with ram. • Was was pronounced not “wuz” but “wass,” and remained so, in some circles at least, long enough for Byron to rhyme it with pass in “To Lucasta.” Conversely, kiss was often rhymed with is. • War rhymed with car or care. It didn’t gain its modern pronunciation until about the turn of the nineteenth century.

• Home was commonly spelled whome and pronounced, by at least some speakers, as it was spelled, with a distinct wh- sound.

• The various o and u sounds were, to put it mildly, confused and unsettled. Many people rhymed cut with put, plough with screw, book with moon, blood with load. As late as the second half of the seventeenth century, the poet John Dryden made no distinction between flood, mood and good, though quite how he intended them to be pronounced is anybody’s guess. The vicissitudes of the wandering oo are still evident both in its multiplicity of modern pronunciations (e.g., flood, mood, good) and the number of such words in which the pronunciation is not fixed even now, notably roof, soot, and hoof.

 • Oi was sounded with a long i, so that coin’d sounded like kind and voice like vice. The modern oi sound was sometimes heard, but was considered a mark of vulgarity until about the time of the American Revolution.

• Words that now have a short e were often pronounced and sometimes spelled with a short i. Shakespeare commonly wrote bin for been, and as late as the tail end of the eighteenth century Benjamin Franklin was defending a short i pronunciation for get, yet, steady, chest, kettle, and the second syllable of instead—though by this time he was fighting a losing battle.

• Speech was in general much broader, with more emphatic stresses and a greater rounding of r’s. A word like never would have been pronounced more like “nevarrr.” Interior vowels and consonants were more frequently suppressed, so that nimbly became “nimly,” fault and salt became “faut” and “saut,” somewhat was “summat.” Other letter combinations were pronounced in ways strikingly at variance with their modern forms. In his Special Help to Orthographie or the True-writing of English (1643), a popular book of the day, Richard Hodges listed the following pairs of words as being “so neer alike in sound . . . that they are sometimes taken one for another”: ream and realm, shoot and suit, room and Rome, were and wear, poles and Paul’s, flea and flay, eat and ate, copies and coppice, person and parson, Easter and Hester, Pierce and parse, least and lest. The spellings—and misspellings—of names in the earliest records of towns like Plymouth and Dedham give us some idea of how much more fluid early colonial pronunciation was. These show a man named Parson sometimes referred to as Passon and sometimes as Passen; a Barsham as Barsum or Bassum; a Garfield as Garfill; a Parkhurst as Parkis; a Holmes as Holums; a Pickering as Pickram; a St. John as Senchion; a Seymour as Seamer; and many others.

 • Differences in idiom abounded, notably with the use of definite and indefinite articles. As Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable note in their classic History of the English Language, Shakespeare commonly discarded articles where we would think them necessary—“creeping like snail,” “with as big heart as thou” and so on—but at the same time he employed them where we would not, so that where we say “at length” and “at last,” he wrote “at the length” and “at the last.” The preposition of was also much more freely employed. Shakespeare used it in many places where we would require another: “it was well done of [by] you,” “I brought him up of [from] a puppy,” “I have no mind of [for] feasting,” “That did but show thee of [as] a fool.” One relic of this practice survives in American English in the way we tell time. Where we commonly say that it is “ten of three” or “twenty of four,” the British only ever say “ten to” or “twenty to.”

• Er and ear combinations were frequently, if not invariably, pronounced “ar,” so that convert became “convart,” heard was “hard” (though also “heerd”), and serve was “sarve.” Merchant was pronounced and often spelled “marchant.” The British preserve the practice in several words, saying “clark” and “darby” for clerk and derby. In America the custom was long ago abandoned but for a few well-established exceptions like heart, hearth, and sergeant, or else the spelling was amended, so that sherds became shards and Hertford, Connecticut, was transformed to Hartford. • Generally, words containing «ea» combinations—tea, meat, deal and so on—were pronounced with a long «a» sound (and of course many still are), so that, for example, meal and mail were homonyms. The modern ee pronunciation in such words was just emerging, so that Shakespeare could, as his whim took him, rhyme please with either grace or knees. Among more conservative users the old style persisted well into the eighteenth century, as in the well-known lines by the poet William Cowper.

 I am monarch of all I survey . . . From the centre all round to the sea. Different as this English was from modern English, it was nearly as different again from the English spoken only a generation or two before in the mid-1500s. In countless ways, the language of the Pilgrims was strikingly more advanced, less visibly rooted in the conventions and inflections of Middle English, than that of their grandparents or even parents. The old practice of making plurals by adding –n was rapidly giving way to the newer convention of adding -s, so that by 1620 most people were saying knees instead of kneen, houses instead of housen, fleas instead of flean. The transition was by no means complete at the time of the Pilgrims—we can find eyen for eyes and shoon for shoes in Shakespeare—and indeed survives yet in a few words, notably children, brethren, and oxen.

A similar transformation was happening with the terminal -th on verbs like maketh, leadeth, and runneth, which also were increasingly being given an -s ending. Shakespeare used -s terminations almost exclusively except for hath and doth. Only the most conservative works, such as the King James Bible of 1611, which contains no -s forms, stayed faithful to the old pattern. Interestingly, it appears that by the early seventeenth century even when the word was spelled with a -th termination it was pronounced as if spelled with an -s. In other words, people wrote hath but said “has,” saw doth (pronounced “duth,” incidentally, and not to rhyme with moth) but thought “does,” read goeth as “goes.” The practice is well illustrated in Hodges’s Special Help to Orthographie, which lists as homophones such seemingly odd bedfellows as weights and waiteth, cox and cocketh, rights and righteth, rose and roweth.
 At the same time, endings in -ed were beginning to blur. Before the Elizabethan age, an -ed termination was accorded its full phonetic value, as it still frequently is in beloved and blessed and a very few other words. But by the time of the Pilgrims the modern habit of eliding the ending (except after t and d) was taking over. For nearly two hundred years, this truncated pronunciation would be indicated in writing with an apostrophe: drown’d, frown’d, weav’d, and so on. Not until the end of the eighteenth century would the elided pronunciation become so general as to render this spelling distinction unnecessary.

The median t sound in Christmas, soften, hasten, and other such words was beginning to disappear. Just coming into vogue, too, was the sh sound of ocean, creation, passion, and sugar. Previously such words had been pronounced with an s sound, as many Britons still say “tiss-you” and “iss-you” for tissue and issue.
 The early colonists were among the first to use the new word goodbye, contracted from God be with you and still at that time often spelled Godbwye, and were among the first to employ the more democratic forms ye and you in preference to the traditional thee, thy, and thou, though many drifted uncertainly between the forms, as Shakespeare himself did, even sometimes in adjoining sentences as in Henry IV, Part I: “I love thee infinitely. But hark you, Kate.”

They were also among the first to make use of the newly minted letter j. Previously i had served this purpose, so that Chaucer, for instance, wrote ientyl and ioye for gentle and joy. At first, j was employed simply as a variant of i, as f was a variant for s. Gradually j took on its modern juh sound, a role previously filled by g (and hence the occasional freedom in English to choose between the two letters, as with jibe and gibe).
Perhaps no period in history has been more accommodating to verbal innovation, more alive with neologisms, more kissed with genius, than that into which the Pilgrims were privileged to be born. Just in the century or so that preceded the Pilgrims’ arrival in the New World, English gained ten thousand additional words, about half of them sufficiently useful as to be with us still. Shakespeare alone has been credited with some two thousand — reclusive, gloomy, barefaced, radiance, dwindle, countless, gust, leapfrog, frugal, summit—but he was by no means alone in this unparalleled outpouring.

A bare sampling of words that entered English around the time of the Pilgrims gives some hint (another Shakespeare coinage, incidentally) of the lexical vitality of the age: alternative (1590); incapable (1591); noose (1600); nomination (1601); fairy, surrogate, and sophisticated (1603); option (1604); creak in the sense of a noise and susceptible (1605); coarse in the sense of being rough (as opposed to natural) and castigate (1607); obscenity (1608); tact (1609); commitment, slope, recrimination, and gothic (1611); coalition (1612); freeze in a metaphoric sense (1613); nonsense (1614); cult, boulder, and crazy in the sense of insanity (1617); customer (1621); inexperienced (1626).

If the Pilgrims were aware of this linguistic ferment into which they had been born, they gave little sign of it. Nowhere in any surviving colonial writings of the seventeenth century is there a single reference to Shakespeare or even to the Puritans’ own revered Milton. And in some significant ways their language is curiously unlike that of Shakespeare. They did not, for instance, show any particular inclination to engage in the new fashion of turning nouns into verbs, a practice that gave the age such perennially useful innovations as to gossip (1590), to fuel (1592), to attest (1596), to inch (1599), to preside (1611), to surround (1616), to hurt (1662), and several score others, many of which (to happy, to property, to malice) didn’t last. It’s an excerpt from Bill Bryson’s book “Made in America, an informal history of the English language in the United States”.