How to reconstruct pronunciation from before recording equipment.

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Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have restored an 1878 recording of a political reporter reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Old Mother Hubbard”. It is the oldest recording of an American voice. The find has an Explain reader wondering: How do we know how people pronounced words before the age of recording?

Spelling and personal accounts. People reveal their pronunciation in their misspellings. A classic example is the way historians and filmmakers have attempted to reconstruct Abraham Lincoln’s accent through his personal letters. Lincoln spelled inaugural like “inaugerel”, for example, suggesting it had something of a backwoods sled. (One would imagine that, without his first-rate education, George W. Bush would probably spell the word nuclear as “nucular.”) In the case of major historical figures like Lincoln, contemporaries also left descriptions of his voice and pronunciation.

Looking deeper into the story, it is the correct spelling of the English language, rather than personal misspellings, that reveals pronunciation habits. English spelling codification began on 15e century, and our written words are a permanent record of how English speakers spoke at that time. Every letter of the word Knight was pronounced. Geoffrey Chaucer made the words rhyme some blood and Well, because they were once pronounced “blode” and “dildo”.

Migration patterns can also shed light on pronunciation habits. Residents of Boston and a few other northeastern cities put the “r” at the end of words like bar and auto, because they continued to communicate with southern England after the home country dropped the sound. Americans who migrated west and south in the 17e and 18e centuries have lost close contact with the English and have continued to pronounce the terminal “r”.

Conversely, pronunciation oddities can sometimes shed light on spelling changes. The Latin alphabet lacks a letter for the English sound “th”, so early writers borrowed a runic letter called a thorn, which in some depictions looks like a downward-facing triangle on a stick. Thorn eventually fell out of use because it looked too much like the letter “Y”. However, he stuck with phrases like “Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe”. The first word is not meant to be pronounced “ye”, but rather “the”.

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