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In Chaucer and John Donne "was" is pronounced like "wahss" but nowadays we say "woz". When did the change occur? and why?

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    If you know how it was pronounced in Donne and Chaucer (who wrote in different languages, btw), then you will know the IPA for the pronunciations you're discussing. "Sorta spelling" words inside scare quotes does not provide enough precision to deal with variant pronunciation in online written form. Otherwise it's all the deaf talking to the deaf. – John Lawler Jun 1 '14 at 16:50
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    /wɑs/ and /wəz/. There, I did it for you (I think). – Anonym Jun 1 '14 at 18:04
  • Also may be of interest: says, said, does, has. War, being pronounced differently from bar, car, star, etc., may also be interesting, but that is probably another topic altogether. – Anonym Jun 1 '14 at 18:06
  • @JohnLawler "scare quotes"? – Mr Lister Jun 1 '14 at 20:40
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    Is everybody sure that Chaucer and Donne pronounced was the same? – John Lawler Jun 1 '14 at 22:13
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Perhaps my Google-fu is lacking, but I am finding it exceedingly hard to find any actual, relevant sources for this; but I’ll answer nonetheless.

Some time during the 17th century, a sound change occurred in English that rounded the short vowel /a/ when it directly follows a labialised sound (/w/ or /kʷ/ [written ‹qu›]).

In general, the change meant that /a/ (probably pronounced [ɑ] at the time) became [ɒ] (or [ɔ], as is most common in American English today—I don’t think anyone knows what the exact quality of the vowel was back then) after labialised sounds, except if followed by a velar (/k/, /ɡ/, /ŋ/) or bilabial (/p/, /b/, /m/), in which case it was fronted to [æ] instead.

In other words (with some later changes, like the automatic lengthening of /a/ before voiced plosives and the widespread, though not ubiquitous, deaspiration of /ʍ/ to /w/):

ɑ > æ   / w kʷ ⸏ k ɡ ŋ p b m

whack [ʍɑk] > [ʍæk] (> [wæk])
quag [kʷɑɡ] > [kʷæɡ] (> [kʷæːɡ])
quank [kʷɑŋk] > [kʷæŋk]

ɑ > ɒ   / w kʷ ⸏ [elsewhere]

was [wɑs] > [wɒs] (> [wɒz ~ wəz])
want [wɑnt] > [wɒnt]
what [ʍɑt] > [ʍɒt] (> [wɒt])
wad [wɑd] > [wɒd] (> [wɒːd])
wap [wɑp] > [wɒp] *
wabble [ˈwɑb(ː)l̩] > [ˈwɒbl̩] (now written ‹wobble›)
war [wɑɹ] > [wɒɹ] (> [wɒːɹ, wɒː])

 

* Not to be confused with WAP (Wireless Application Protocol), which is obviously a much newer one—and one that proves that this sound change is no longer productive, since it is pronounced [wæp], not [wɒp].

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