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How sound switch nearly caused a farewell to alms

Would you pander to a panda? A Giant Panda eats shoots and leaves - Credit: Wikimedia

Some modern misunderstandings are a consequence of changes that have occurred in the English language over the last 300 years

A regrettable and embarrassing incident has occurred in the West Midlands of England. An 11-year-old schoolboy was referred to the government’s so-called counter-radicalisation programme after the teacher asked his class what they would do if they came into lots of money. Rather admirably, the boy replied that he would “give alms to the oppressed”. 

The teacher, who was presumably not familiar with the fact that the word alms means ‘charitable relief given to the poor or needy’, thought that the boy had said he would “give arms to the oppressed” – a policy which our current government is rather unlikely to be in favour of.

This referral has had a devastating effect on the boy and his family, even though the police closed the case down very rapidly, saying there had never been any substance to it. The whole thing had been a total misunderstanding, and a foolish mistake.

Three hundred years ago, this farcical but damaging episode would never have happened. There are a number of reasons for this. The government of Robert Walpole, who effectively became prime minister in 1721, might well have been concerned about dangerous 18th century radical adults, but it still never occurred to them to think that it would be a good idea to set up a school-based counter-radicalisation programme to hunt down dangerous 11-year-old Jacobites intent on overthrowing King George I.

At that time, too, everybody including primary school teachers would have known what the word alms meant. But the main reason is that in 1721 no one in the English-speaking world would have pronounced alms and arms the same.

Today, I pronounce them identically, like millions of other English and Welsh. This is because something rather dramatic started happening to the pronunciation of English in the decades after 1721 in the speech of lower-class Londoners, which then spread outwards to other areas of Britain and is continuing to spread to this day.

We write words like lower and Londoner with a letter r at the end because, until three hundred years ago, everyone pronounced those words with a final r sound: “lowerr”, Londonerr”. The difference in spelling between coder and coda, tuner and tuna, pander and panda, and fawner and fauna reflects a difference in pronunciation which was observed by all early 18th century English speakers, and is still observed today by many millions of speakers, especially in North America, Ireland, Scotland, and parts of western England.

But then a sound-change set in whereby the sound began to disappear from London speech unless it occurred before a vowel. The r in portvermouth, Bordeaux, and cider glass disappeared, but the r in sherryclaretraki, and cider apple was still soundedLinguists speak of the loss of “non-prevocalic r”, where non-prevocalic means “not before a vowel”. Today we can be rather certain that anyone who actually sounds out the r in port did not grow up in the southeast of England.

But why did the sound disappear? Well, it was lost for the same reason that the sound disappeared from knife, the g sound from gnat, the h sound from night, and the l sound from talk. This is not be much of an answer, perhaps, but the truth is that changes of this type happen in languages all the time.

Linguists are not at all surprised by the disappearance of consonants, although we are not good at explaining why a particular change happened when and where it did rather than somewhere else at some other time.

If that r-loss change had not occurred, everyone would have continued to pronounce arms and alms differently, and the recent unfortunate incident wouldn’t have happened. It could never have happened in Scotland where, unlike me, speakers don’t pronounce arms as “ahms” but  still sound the r: “arrms”.

Alms

The modern English word alms comes from Old English aelmesse, which was derived from a Latin form alimosina, ‘charitable gift, benefaction, pity, compassion’. In Old English, aelmesse originally had an l sound in its pronunciation, and even in modern English many Americans still articulate the l when they say alms.