Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Great Vowel Shift


My last name is spelled “Leishman,” not “Leischman.”

It’s never been pronounced to rhyme with “Fleischman,” as in the name of the margarine and the fish-out-of-water New Yorker doctor in Northern Exposure. My ancestors were Scottish, not German. Like the poet Archibald MacLeish. We’re definitely not Jewish, although I've always been typecast in nebbishy roles.

Our clan of Leishmans joined the LDS Church in Scotland when they encountered early Mormon missionaries to the British Isles. Heeding the call to Zion, my pioneer forebears walked to Utah in the 1850s, where they settled on marginally arable farms in remote Cache Valley. However, most Leishmans stayed in the United Kingdom. Apparently I have a British doppelganger named “Roger Leishman” who restores antique canals and waterways.

I pronounce my name “Leashman.” So does my canal-restoring doppeler. Whether in Scotland, Canada, or the United States, no Leishman has ever said our name is “Leischman.”1

1Vancouver Men’s Chorus is filled with emigrés from all over the Commonwealth. All the Scots singers confirm my pronunciation is correct.

My daughter’s favorite middle school teacher recently berated her because he’d been saying “Leischman” all year without her correcting him. I told her I’ve been singing in VMC for two years now, and our conductor still writes “Leischman” on his seating charts even though my name is spelled correctly in the roster. Plus Willi is Ukrainian-Canadian – with his own unpronounceable and unspellable surname, you’d think he would know better.2

2Zwozdesky. Gesundheit.

Eleanor and I agreed these perennial miscommunications are no big deal, although I warned her to expect some awkwardness when the truth finally comes out. To the extent we care about people getting it right, we agreed our identities are much more closely tied to our given names, anyway. (Although we’ve both given up on Starbucks baristas ever spelling our names correctly on cups – FYI, "Roger" doesn't need a d, and "Eleanor" is not an endless whorl of looping l's and e's.)

We certainly don’t blame anyone for saying “Leischman.” Once a human brain decides how it’s going to store something in our memories, it takes a great deal of conscious effort and subconscious reprogramming before we can hear or remember it differently.


My kids and I pronounce our name “Leashman.” So do most of the people who know us (if they can avoid or escape the “Leischman” vortex).

However, my parents pronounce our name “Lishman.” Rhymes with "wish." So do most of our relatives in Utah. So did I, until I was in my 20s. But by the time I left Utah for good, I made a conscious decision to switch to the standard pronunciation.

Nevertheless, I often regress when I’m together with relatives. Even when I’m just talking about long ago events, I find myself switching back to “Lishman” without realizing it.

This week I published a tribute to my parents. Thinking about them and having their picture in front of me had a priming effect on my brain: as I type today, I can no longer pronounce my own last name correctly. Like so many other things, it’s all my parents’ fault.


Despite the occasional relapse, I’m sticking with “Leashman,” not “Lishman.” 

At some point after leaving the Auld Country, the Leishmans lost their Scottish brogue. They began to speak the local Utah dialect instead. “Roof” comes out more like “ruff.” “Horse” is pronounced “harse,” and "Lord" is "Lard." Creeks all became “cricks.” And "Leashman" became “Lishman.”

When asked to justify my betrayal of our Utah Mormon heritage, I point out I also decline to pronounce “creek” as “crick.” Indeed, even though my father grew up on a dairy farm in Cache Valley, no one in my family would ever say “crick.” Or "Lard." So why keep fighting for “Lishman”? We already have enough work keeping the “Leischmans” at bay.

Besides, do I really want people to think I’m a typical Utah Mormon? (I’m fine with passing for Jewish.) Pronouncing my name “Lishman” would give me away. It’s a shibboleth.

In contemporary English, a “shibboleth” is a word or custom that is distinctive to a particular group of people, especially a long-standing tradition regarded as outmoded or no longer important. Deficit reduction is a Republican shibboleth.

The modern term actually comes from the Bible. In Old Testament times, the word (which starts with the Hebrew letter ש) meant a stalk of grain. The people of Gilead pronounced it “shibboleth.” The invading Ephraimites pronounced it “sibboleth.” This is a typical consonant shift found in numerous languages and dialects around the world. For example, in Korean it's impossible to say "see" without it coming out as "she."

The Bible tells the story of an invading army of Ephraimite soldiers trapped in Gilead territory. The Ephraimites attempted to cross the River Jordan and return to their own country. The Gilead soldiers guarding the fords would display a sheaf of grain and ask each man to say what it was. According to the Book of Judges, forty-two thousand Ephraimites said “sibboleth,” and were slain. They should have hired Korean mercenaries.

My favorite test for Utah identity is to ask suspicious-looking folks to repeat the elegant sentence “Gosh, Georgia, what a gorgeous orange formal.” [Ed. note: that's what a sad bridesmaid wears at a Mormon wedding reception.]

If it comes out as “Garsh, Jargia, what a gargious ahrange farmal!” you should probably chop off their heads. For everyone's sake.



[WARNING: WE'VE BEEN ASKED TO LET YOU KNOW THE FOLLOWING PRETENTIOUS POSTSCRIPT IS BEYOND THE ATTENTION SPAN OF FLAKEY MILLENNIALS] 

Pretentious Postscript:



Did I mention I studied linguistics in grad school? The evolution of my family’s surname is not really a Great Vowel Shift. More of a Little Vowel Shift with delusions of grandeur.

As with “creek” à “crick,” it’s common in many languages for a lazy “long” vowel to flatten out over time into the short version of the same vowel. You can see from the top left corner of the vowel chart above that it’s not much of a journey from [i] to [ɪ]. Those are the standard International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols representing the English sounds in “creek” and “crick.”  

Linguists will tell you the actual “Great Vowel Shift” occurred between Middle English and Modern English, when all our long vowels mysteriously migrated to other corners of our mouths, while also becoming more diphthongy. (The red arrows in the vowel chart represent these shifts.) I’d link to the corresponding Wikipedia page, but it’s incomprehensible. Here's the more useful website where I found the vowel chart.

Ask me to explain the Great Vowel Shift some time when you have insomnia, and/or I’ve had some ale or mead. Spoiler alert: Chaucer would have pronounced my name “Layshman.”



1 comment:

  1. You were always Leashman to me. In grad school I stumbled into repeatedly mispronouncing a friend's name with a long I instead of a short. In response she called me Wodebury, which I kind of like. It sounds very old English.

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