By Anatoly Liberman
The spelling of those two words does not bother us only because both are so common and learned early in life. Yet why not shure and shugar? There is a parallel case, and it too leaves us indifferent, though for a different reason. Consider su in pressure, measure, pleasure, leisure, and the like. We do not question the occurrence of su in the middle of a Romance word, with its phonetic value of sh (as in cushion) or ge (as in genre and rouge) and pay no attention to azure, in which the same sound is designated by a more natural group zu. The French origin of pressure, azure, measure, and their ilk, let alone genre and rouge, is so obvious that perhaps even those who have never studied French are dimly aware of it. By contrast, sure and sugar are fully domesticated (only etymologists know all the details of their descent), and, even more important, su in them occurs word initially. It is their position at the beginning rather than in the middle of the word that causes surprise. However, both sure and sugar also came to English from French and in this respect have common cause with pressure and measure.
From a historical point of view, the story is simple. Consider the names of the letters U and Q, that is (in phonetic terms), yu and kyu. Before y, t becomes ch, s turns into sh, and z yields the voiced partner of sh. Listen to how you say what you…; it is probably indistinguishable from watch you. Many (most?) people pronounce unless you as unlesh you, and I have seldom heard anyone pronounce the title of Shakespeare’s play As You Like It with z before you: it is usually the same sound as in Measure for Measure. In the middle of the word, rather than at word boundaries, an analogous assimilation happened several centuries ago, and that is why nature and vision sound as though they were spelled nachure and vizion. This brings us to sugar and sure.
The vowel occurring in French sure was alien to most Middle English dialects, including the dialect of London, and, as the name of the modern English letter U shows, yu replaced French u in borrowed words. We can observe this substitution even in such a recent loanword as menu (and compare nubile and other nu- words). Once sure appeared in English, it turned into syure, and a similar change happened in sugar (syugar). Later, syu- developed into sh- (compare bless you, session, and Asia, regardless of whether you have a voiced or a voiceless middle in the last of them, for the voicing is secondary). As noted above, sure and sugar are such conspicuous monsters because word initially su- designates sh only in those two words. (Actually, the plant name sumach also has a variant with shu-, but it is known too little. Sumach makes a good riddle: “There are three English words in which initial su- has the value of shu-. The first t
By Anatoly Liberman
Because of the frequency of the words the, this, that, these, those, them, their, there, then, and with, the letter h probably occurs in our texts more often than any other (for Shakespeare’s epoch thee and thou should have been added). But then of course we have think, three, though, through, thousand, and words with ch, sh, ph, and gh. Despite the prominence of h in written English its status is entirely undeserved, because it performs its most important historical task, namely to designate the sound in words like have, hire, home, and so forth only in word and morpheme initial position (the latter as in rehire, dehydrated, and the like).
The history of h is dramatic. Germanic experienced a change known as the First Consonant Shift (a big shock, as the capitalization above shows). When we compare Latin quod “what” (pronounced kwod) and its Old English cognate hwæt (the same meaning; pronounced with the vowel of Modern Engl. at), we see that Engl. h corresponds to Latin k. A series of such regular correspondences separates Germanic from its non-Germanic Indo-European “relatives,” and this is what the shift is all about. The k ~ h pair is only one of nearly a dozen. When the shifted k arose more than two thousand year ago, it had the sound value of ch in Scots loch, but then the weakening of Germanic consonants set in (linguists call this process lenition), and the guttural sound was one of its casualties: it stopped being guttural and became “mere breath,” as we now have in home and hell. Degraded to breath, or aspiration, h began to disappear. In no other Germanic language has the habit of dropping one’s h’s advanced as far as in English, but it can be observed in all its modern and medieval neighbors, especially in popular speech. For example, in the delightful Middle Dutch narrative poem about the arch-scoundrel Reineke Fox (the French call the beast Reynard) h is dropped on a scale unthinkable in Modern Dutch. Standard English frowns upon h-less words, but in a few cases they managed to assert themselves. For instance, the form preceding modern them was hem, and that is why we say tell’em: it is not th that has been shed, but h. However, what the sound h has lost in pronunciation, the letter h has more than regained on paper.
Each case—the introduction of ch, sh, and gh—deserves a special essay, but I will devote this post only to th. Today th designates a voiceless consonant (as in cloth) and a voiced one (as in clothe). Both sounds existed in Old English, though their occurrence and distribution were partly different from what we find in the modern language, and there were special letters for them—þ (voiceless) and ð (voiced). They go back to the form of two ancient runes. But from early on the Romance tradition became dominant in Germanic scriptoriums: in German, Dutch, and English we find the digraphs (that is, two-letter groups) dh and th. Dh did not stay anywhere, but th did and is ambiguous, for, at least theoretically, it could be used f