John Walker in his Critical Pronunciation Dictionary (1791) transcribes the pronunciation of the word “gold” as

go¹ld, or go²o²ld

which in modern transcription equates to /goʊld/ or /guːld/.

He says

It is much to be regretted that the second sound of this word is grown much more frequent than the first. It is not easy to guess at the cause of this unmeaning deviation from the general rule, but the effect is to empoverish the sound of the language, and to add to its irregularities. It has not, however, like some other words, irrecoverably lost its true pronunciation. Rhyme still claims its right to the long open o, as in bold, cold, fold, &c.

This made me think of an old post by Janus Bahs Jacquet that describes a late Old English sound change of vowel lengthening before homorganic clusters of voiced consonants, including ld (this is why “wild” and “mild” are currently pronounced with “long i”), and I wondered if this could be the origin of /guːld/: Old English /gold/ being lengthened to /goːld/, which after the Great Vowel Shift would be /guːld/.

However, I found little supporting evidence for this idea. Walker evidently thinks the /uː/ pronunciation was recent in his time (although he could be wrong about this).

But on the other hand, I found a book English as we speak it in Ireland by Patrick Weston Joyce (1910) that says

Such words as old, cold, hold are pronounced by the Irish people ould, cowld, hould (or howlt); gold is sounded goold and ford foord. I once heard an old Wicklow woman say of some very rich people 'why these people could ait goold.' These are all survivals of the old English way of pronouncing such words.

Maybe "survivals of the old English way" here just refers to survivals from Walker's time, not from significantly before. It is interesting however that "ford" also shows this vowel since it also had /o/ before a homorganic voiced consonant cluster in Old English.

The OED says of gold:

Forms:  Also ME guold, ME–15 golde, (ME gowlde), 17–18 Sc. and north. dial. gowd.

Etymology: Common Germanic: Old English gold

It doesn’t seem to record any attested Middle English spelling with “oo,” although it’s true that vowel doubling was only inconsistently applied in Middle English to mark vowel length.

I also cannot find any clear examples of other words where Old English short “o” corresponds to modern English /uː/ due to lengthening before homorganic consonants, although I looked through the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary for Old English words containing “ong,” “omb,” “ond,” "ord" or “old”.

The unclear examples that I found were the following:

  • with -old: mo(u)ld seems similar to gold: it also had “o” in Old English, and the OED says it was spelled with “oo” at some times in the past. But like “gold,” the current standard pronunciation has /oʊ/ rather than /uː/. Bold = “a dwelling” from OE bold is now archaic, but was spelled “boold” at one point in the past. “Fold” = “the earth” (from OE folde) shows no signs of having ever been pronounced with /uː/, but it is not a very common word.

  • with -ord: ford, mentioned in the Joyce quote above. Board, which has some historical spellings like boord and bourd that hint at /uː/. Hoard, which like board has some spellings like hoord. (The modern pronunciation of these words is an unclear indicator of their original vowel because before /r/, original /uː/ is often conflated with /o/ due to lowering changes, as in whore and floor). Word, which shows a completely different development that may be related to the initial /w/.

  • with -ong: among comes from Old English on gemange or the phonetic variant on gemonge. The development of the vowel to /ʌ/ seems very unclear to me. It apparently was pronounced with a“short o” sound as the spelling suggests in at least some accents of Early Modern English (John Hart's pronunciation of English (1569-1570), by Otto Jespersen 1907); it seems to me this could either be retained from the “o” variant of Old English, or be derived from the “a” variant via lengthening followed by shortening: /ɑ/ > /ɑː/ > /ɔː/ > /ɒ/. I at one point had the idea that the /ʌ/ pronunciation might come from /o/ > /oː/ > /uː/ > /u/, but there seems to be no evidence for that.

The fact that the letter after the vowel is “l” in particular could be relevant, since vocalization of /l/ to /w/ is a common sound change both historically and currently in English, but I have never heard of a sound change/ol/ > /owl/ > /uːl/ occuring in any other words.

So I find myself stumped, and now I’d like to learn if anyone else knows more about the historical pronunciation of “gold” as “goold” that Walker and Joyce record (and the pronunciation of "ford" as "foord" mentioned by Joyce). Is it as inexplicable and random as Walker makes it out to be, or are there any similar sound changes or historical details that can explain it? Is it related to the fact that "gold" and "old" had different vowels in Old English, as I initially thought, or is this just a coincidence? Do any accents still have it today?

  • @Josh: Edited the title to emphasize the question. I also give several questions in the last paragraph; I would appreciate an answer to any of them. Maybe it's a bit broad but I think this question has difficult parts so I just want to get any kind of useful information. – sumelic Mar 20 '17 at 19:30
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    L-vocalization has occurred, since Early Modern English, in certain -al- and -ol- sequences before coronal or velar consonants, or at the end of a word or morpheme. In those sequences, /al/ became /awl/ and diphthonged to /ɑul/, while /ɔl/ became /ɔwl/ and diphthonged to /ɔul/. Before coronal consonants, it produced "......... fold, gold, halt, hold, malt, molten, mould/mold. – user66974 Mar 20 '17 at 20:10
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    Possibly related: In Poe's "The Gold Bug" (1843), the two white characters refer to the title scarab as "the gold bug," but Poe has the third character (Jupiter, a black man) refer to it as "de goole bug." I don't know whether that dialectal pronunciation accurately reflects contemporaneous African American pronunciation of gold across the U.S. South (Poe uses dialect inconsistently)—and, if so, why it arose. – Sven Yargs Mar 20 '17 at 21:22
  • {non IPA:} 'gold' surely started out as 'goold', meaning yellowed ('gool' or 'goolu'). – AmI Mar 20 '17 at 22:05
  • @AmI: "gold" definitely comes from the "yellow" root of Proto-Indo-European, but comparison with other Germanic languages, as well as the spelling in extant Old English documents, seems to indicate that it was pronounced with the vowel "o" [o] in Old English. – sumelic Mar 21 '17 at 8:10

If I may ...

The origin of the word gold itself can be traced, via German, to the Gothic gulth.

That said, the original Dutch for "guilder" (a golden coin, as well as the official currency of Netherlands until 2002 A.D. is gulden. It was also common in many German territories.

Which would suggest that John Walker may have been wrong when he said

It is much to be regretted that the second sound of this word is grown much more frequent than the first

in assuming that "the second sound" was a new development rather than the old version that, through a quirk of fate, had regained some of its erstwhile popularity. That is if we wish to trust him at all in this case. He may have thought that the sound had "grown much more frequent" whereas in reality it may have been frequent all along. 18th Century experts are hardly infallible.

  • 2
    Hi Ricky! It's good to see you again. It's true that the word for "gold" is related to many words in other Germanic languages with "u." But I'm inclined to think this is mostly separate from the development of this sound in the English word /u/ because there is some evidence that Old English did have an "o" sound in this word--the spelling, and also a pattern that has been identified and called "a-mutation" that causes Old English to more-or-less regularly have /o/ in some words where Gothic has /u/. – sumelic Mar 22 '17 at 18:39
  • But perhaps the /u/ was retained in some Old English dialects as a variant pronunciation that we just don't happen to see written down with the letter "u" in the Old English texts that have been studied. Wikipedia does say the rule of a-mutation has many apparent exceptions and inconsistencies in Old English. – sumelic Mar 22 '17 at 18:41
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    As sumelic’s comment indicates, Proto-Germanic definitely had /u/ here, but Old English did not. I do wonder if perhaps the ‘goold’ variant could be a remnant from a Danelaw dialect where the word had been influenced by the Scandiwegian form, which uniformly has /u/. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 22 '17 at 18:44
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    It might also depend on the region as well as (allow me to be playful here) the frequency of Dutch and German folks visiting it (the region) at the time. Foreigners are always viewed as carriers of "higher culture." Thus many folks say "uhnvelope" instead of "envelope" these days, sincerely believing that it sounds more "cultured." Flagellation in the town square at noon may be the only cure for that. – Ricky Mar 22 '17 at 18:50
up vote 1 down vote accepted

"Goold" does seem to be the regular result of lengthening of Old English /o/ before /ld/.

I got around to reading Otto Jespersen's Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, Part I: Sounds and Spellings (1909), and I have found it very helpful so far. I found that Jespersen discusses the development of this word and seems to agree with my speculation that /uːld/ was a natural, rather than an unpredictable development from Old English /old/ (contrary to Walker's characterization of the word as having lost its "true pronunciation" because of an "unmeaning deviation from the general rule").

Jespersen argues that the current pronunciation /goʊld/ developed from short forms used in compound words and other derivatives. (This explanation is similar to a common explanation for the unexpectedly short vowel /ɪ/ in the noun "wind".) Just as goose with /uː/ (from earlier [oː]) gives us the compound goshawk with /ɒ/ (from earlier [o]), "gold" [goːld] is supposed to have developed a shortened form [gold].

In gold OE o lengthened should give ME /o˙/ and Mod [u˙]: this is, indeed, a form frequently given by the authorities of the preceding centuries; but in compounds, like goldsmith, etc., /o/ would remain short, and /ol/ regularly becomes /oul/, thus accounting for the present pronunciation (10.33); Shakespeare rimes the word (Merch. II. 7.66) with told, sold, behold, all of them old /ɔ˙/-words; [Elphinston] 1787 had /u˙/; [Johnston] 1764 and [Walker] 1775 and 1791 have both pronunciations[...]

(§4.222, p. 119)

Jespersen also compares it to two other words that I didn't mention in my question, should and would (§3.521, p. 91). While these are pronounced with /ʊ/ today, it seems plausible that this developed from earlier /uː/. However, the phonological development of these words from Old and Middle English to early Modern English looks a little complicated, and Jespersen doesn't give any explanation, so I'm not entirely sure of the correctness of the comparison (one difference from gold is that the final dental in should and would is the past-tense suffix).

Additionally, Jespersen does talk about "ong" /ʌng/, although I'm not sure whether his analysis is considered correct today (it seems rather tentative). Jespersen doesn't actually think "ng" caused a preceding vowel to lengthen: although he acknowledges that the "usual theory" explains OE ang [*ɑng] > Mod ong [ɔŋ~ɒŋ] via [ɑ] > [ɑː] > [ɔː] > [ɔ] (> [ɒ]), he thinks the lengthening step is unnecessary and prefers to simply postulate [ɑŋg] > [oŋg]. (§3.511, p. 90)

He attributes the vowel in "among" to the influence of the preceding labial consonant, comparing it to words like murder < OE morðor (n.), myrðran (v.) and the many words spelled with "wo" like word, worse, worm etc.

We have also /u/, now [ʌ], between /m/ and /n/: among, -st OE ongemang ([Hart] 1569 and [Gill] 1621 with o), mongrel, formerly also spelt mungril, probably from the same stem, and monger OE mangere ([Gill] 1621 kosterd-munger), while OE ang after other consonants has become /oŋ/, now [ɔŋ]: long, song, throng. Cf. PE [A] in month, etc.

(§3.43, p. 84)

  • Note: I've posted and accepted this answer because I feel satisfied with the information that I found in Jespersen, but if anyone can point me to any additional or more recent discussion of the development of the pronunciation of "gold", I would greatly appreciate further answers. – sumelic Aug 27 '17 at 21:15

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