Dating Phonological Change on the Basis of Eighteenth-Century British English Dictionaries and Orthoepic Treatises
- Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America
- Dictionary Society of North America
- Volume 38, Issue 2, 2017
- pp. 1-29
- Additional Information
Lexicographic evidence from eighteenth-century English orthoepists needs to be carefully interpreted to avoid misrepresentations of the actual pronunciation of English at that time. This is particularly true for unstressed syllables, which were subject to severe sociolinguistic pressures that stigmatized vowel weakening and promoted a pronunciation as close as possible to the spelling earlier stabilized by Johnson (1755). In order to overcome the difficulties specific to these prescriptive sources, this study relies on a fully computerized edition of Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791), checked against the data of other pronouncing dictionaries of the Georgian period. The data shows that, in comparison to present-day English, the phenomenon of vowel reduction in unstressed syllables such as the endings -al, -age, -or, -er, and -ile was incomplete. The distribution of reduced and preserved vowels in a corpus including dictionaries and orthoepic treatises suggests that rhythmic stress, competing loanword integration processes, and word frequency associated with semantic change conditioned the spread of vowel weakening in British English at the time.