Great Vowel Shift
Perhaps the biggest single change in English pronunciation happened during the transition from Middle English to Modern English. Linguists call this the Great Vowel Shift. The shift began c. 1300 and continued through c. 1700, with the majority of the change occurring in the 15th and 16th centuries. So the language of Chaucer is largely pre-shift and the language of Shakespeare is largely post-shift, although the changes were underway before Chaucer was born and continued on after Shakespeare had died.
During the Great Vowel Shift, English speakers changed the way they pronounced long vowels. Before the shift, English vowels were pronounced in much the same way that they are spoken in modern continental European languages. After the shift, they had achieved their modern phonological values.
Prescriptivist’s Corner: Pleading Your Case
To plead was originally in the class of verbs, along with read, speed, lead, and feed, that took an irregular past tense and past participle, pled. The irregular form has a history dating back to the 16th century. Competing with this past tense was the regular form pleaded, as in “he pleaded not guilty.” The regular form won out in England, and pled retreated to Scotland where it became the standard past tense in Scottish law. It then made its way to America, probably through Scottish immigration, where it coexists with pleaded.
Beginning in the late-19th century, American grammarians started attacking the irregular form, pled, presumably because it was not in use in England. They were largely successful in legal and journalistic circles and pleaded is the dominant form in America, but pled continues to survive in general US usage and lately is making inroads into the courts and newspapers.
While it’s not strictly improper, pled is rarely used by lawyers and journalists. Using pled in one’s own speech is an indicator that one is not well versed in the law. As such, it should be avoided. (Others would argue the opposite—that being noticed as not being a lawyer would be a good thing.)
A bigger problem is the preposition that follows the plea. One pleads to a charge. “He pleaded not guilty to murder” is correct. “He pleaded not guilty of murder” is not. Of should not be used with the verb plead, although “he is not guilty of murder” is grammatically correct.
And to confuse things further, technically one cannot plead innocence. In law, one pleads either guilty or not guilty. This, however, is a distinction that is best left to the lawyers. Plead innocent is sometimes used for fear the not in not guilty might be dropped accidentally. So the rule of thumb is when the judge asks for your plea, you say either “guilty” or “not guilty.” At other times you can say plead innocent to avoid any misunderstanding.
And by the definition of plea, which means to make one’s case, one cannot actually plead guilty. “Guilty” isn’t a plea; it’s a confession. Blackstone, in his 1769 Commentaries on the Laws of England never uses the phrase plead guilty. But this last is a lost cause. No one seriously makes this distinction anymore.
Words On The Web: www.oed.com
What better site to start a feature on language sites on the web than with www.oed.com. The Oxford English Dictionary is, without question, the greatest English language resource either online or off.
The OED provides definitions for over half a million words. It includes 2.5 million quotations demonstrating word usage and historical examples of changes in spelling and form. The OED is the fundamental resource for anyone serious about words and language.
Book Review: Safire’s Let A Simile Be Your Umbrella
William Safire is perhaps the most widely read commentator on the English language writing today. His weekly On Language column appears in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. Safire’s column runs the gamut of language issues, covering etymology, usage, and grammar. It focuses on words and phrases that are in vogue or recently used by key political and media figures.
Let a Simile Be Your Umbrella is the 12th in the series of compilations of Safire’s column. Safire has been writing the On Language column since 1979 and turning out these compilation volumes on the average of once every two years since then.
Big news stories, especially scandals, often generate a variety of nonce words. Some survive, like the –gate suffix of the Watergate scandal, others disappear into the mists of history. The Enron Scandal is no different. It’s generated a plethora of nonce terms and phrases, or Enronyms, if you will.
The most famous of these, perhaps, is the verb to Enron, coined by Senator Tom Daschle in a CNN interview on 23 January of this year. Comparing the Enron employees’ loss of their pensions to Republican raiding of the Social Security trust fund, Daschle said, “I don’t want to Enron the people of the United States. I don’t want to see them holding the bag at the end of the day just like Enron employees have held the bag.”
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton