If there was a time machine that could take us back in time to an English-speaking country long ago, chances are we wouldn’t be able to make ourselves understood. Not just because of the cultural differences between us and the people from these old times, but because our language would be incomprehensible to them since we use different words and different pronunciation.
As the English pronunciation is constantly evolving, it is no surprise that it wasn’t the same many centuries ago as it is now. But why do these changes happen? Language is constantly evolving and keeps changing every day - including pronunciation. We know there are differences among English dialects, but these dialects didn’t all sound the same back in the day either.
There have been formal attempts to explain the sound changes that took place in English, such as Grimm’s Law (named after the famous German fairy tale collector) and the Great Vowel Shift. If you know these rules, you can guess what English words sounded like centuries ago because these changes are regular. However, this doesn’t explain all the innovations in pronunciation, especially the quirkiest ones that didn’t happen “naturally”.
Some of them started from the top. Many decades ago, when tobacco advertising in the US wasn’t as restricted as it is today, people were pronouncing the cigarette brand Pall Mall as rhyming with “smell”. Everyone knew how to pronounce it since the name was repeated in TV and radio adverts. However, when tobacco adverts were banned, the newer generations didn’t learn the correct pronunciation of the brand and therefore started pronouncing it as rhyming with “all”. Because no one corrected them, this is the way the brand is pronounced now.
Another change came from the bottom. As programming was largely developed in English-speaking countries, the terminology was available in English, such as “if”, “while”, “else if” and other conditions that are used for coding. If a programmer wanted a computer to recognise a string of characters or letters, he or she had to assign it to the character variable, “char” for short. This “char” sounded exactly like “car” because it was an abbreviation of “character”. However, programming became popular in non-English speaking countries as well, even those behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. But because Eastern Europeans were mostly isolated in their countries and didn’t have any live contact with native English speakers, they assumed that “char” would be pronounced as “chart”, but without the letter “t”. When the Iron Curtain fell and Eastern European programmers started meeting other programmers from all over the world, many native speakers of English were wondering what they meant by “char”. However, they somehow started pronouncing it as “chart” without the letter “t” too.
English speakers needn’t be exposed to foreigners to change their pronunciations though. As Jonathan Harrington’s research at the University of Munich showed, even the Queen of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, has shifted her sounds. This research was based on the Queen’s Christmas messages that are broadcast every year over the festive season. Her vowels nowadays sound different to those that she was using when she was a young monarch. Harrington explained that the Queen might have altered the sounds of her vowels because she started meeting prime ministers from working-class backgrounds whose English was different to that of the upper classes.
Obviously, English will be different centuries from now and we will probably witness some changes in our lifetimes. It might sound frustrating because it means we will have to learn new pronunciations, but view it from a positive perspective: You are going to see some exciting changes and you will be able to keep your memories of older pronunciations for youngsters to joke about. That is unless you assimilate, just like the Queen.