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How language has affected your childhood favourite nursery rhymes

Caring for grandchildren. Picture: PA - Credit: PA

PETER TRUDGILL explains why some old childhood favourites no longer seem to rhyme.

Many of us remember from our childhood the well-known nursery rhyme which goes: “Jack and Jill/Went up the hill/To fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down/And broke his crown/ And Jill came tumbling after.” Jill rhymes with hill, and down rhymes with crown. And because this is, after all, a nursery ‘rhyme’, we would expect water and after to rhyme too – but they don’t exactly do that.

Rhymes from earlier periods in history can tell us quite a lot about how languages used to be pronounced, and how they have changed over the centuries. At the time when Jack and Jill was composed – and in the place where it first came into being – the words water and after in the third and sixth lines of the piece did rhyme very well.

Water was originally – and for very many centuries – pronounced “wahter”, as it still is in some northern dialects of English. The vowel in the first syllable then gradually changed from “ah” to “aw” under the influence of the preceding w. The w sound has had this effect on words spelt with a throughout the English language. Was no longer rhymes with as, which it originally did; watch no longer has the same vowel as catch; and warm does not rhyme with arm, although it once did, as the spelling suggests.

This same sound change also affected the rhyming scheme of the first two lines of another nursery rhyme: “Goosey goosey gander/ Whither shall I wander?” Wander was clearly intended to rhyme with gander – and originally it did. But then the influence of the consonant w, where the lips are involved in the articulation, changed the vowel sound from the short a vowel to short o, which is also pronounced with rounded lips. The rhymes of wander and gander, as well as of water and after, go back to a time before this sound change took place.

But, surely, even allowing for that, after would still not have rhymed with water, because of the f? Well, in the local dialects of the whole of the south of England, after is even today very often pronounced without the f. According to the English Dialect Dictionary, afternoon is pronounced “ahternoon” in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Middlesex, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire.

So originally, then, Jack and Jill did rhyme perfectly; and we can deduce that it must have been composed somewhere in the south of England, at a time after the f in after had disappeared but before the vowel in water had changed from ah to aw.

A similar clue to older pronunciations can be found in the words of the well-known nursery rhyme: “Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross/ To see a fine lady on a white horse.”

For modern English speakers in most parts of the world, horse and cross do not rhyme, though they were clearly intended to do so by whoever it was who first came up with Ride a cock-horse. But there is an older and rather well-known dialectal pronunciation, on both sides of the Atlantic, of the word horse as “hoss”, which would produce a rhyme with cross. Alternatively, there is also an older pronunciation of cross as “crawss”, which would then rhyme with horse for most English people except those in the West Country and northern Lancashire who still actually pronounce the r in words like this. This “crawss” pronunciation is still preserved today by two very different groups of speakers in England: first, traditional dialect speakers in much of the south of England, who also say lost “lawsst” and frost “frawsst”; and, secondly, elderly aristocrats. Jacob Rees-Mogg, pictured, really rather spoils his image as “the honourable member for the 19th century” by having abandoned this “crawss” pronunciation in favour of the accents of a more modern age.