Reading through 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' I've noticed that Shakespeare repeatedly rhymed 'eyes' with some of the words ending with '-ies' (e.g. 'companies', 'qualities'). Obviously that means that the pronunciation of these words must've changed, but the question remains - which ones? 'Eyes'? '-ies'? Both?

  • The pronunciation of eyes (and words that rhyme with it, like skies changed much more). It's not clear to me whether sky and memory were exact rhymes (Sonnet XV) in Shakespeare's time, but they were clearly very close. This is a duplicate, and I'm voting to close it for this reason. – Peter Shor Nov 2 '20 at 16:00
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    By the time you get to the end of a long, spoken iambic pentameter line, a near rhyme passes as a good-enough rhyme. Not so obvious that pronunciation changed. – Yosef Baskin Nov 2 '20 at 16:02
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    There was no single "English" in Shakespeare's time. There were hundreds of dialects (yes, literally -- people didn't go far from their birthplace, and speech changes, and public education was nil) and thousands of ways to write them. Spelling wasn't standardized until long after printing. So there's no answer to the question of how any spelling was pronounced at that time, unless you specify some individual with a known dialect history at a known time and place. Which is of course impossible. We're used to a uniform language now, but that's a very recent innovation. – John Lawler Nov 2 '20 at 16:38
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    @Yosef: eyes and companies are not near-rhymes today. They're very bad rhymes. They were at least very good near-rhymes in Shakespeare's time, if they weren't perfect rhymes. – Peter Shor Nov 2 '20 at 17:09
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    @JohnLawler: You think we have a uniform language now? – Peter Shor Nov 2 '20 at 17:15

This seems like the perfect question for David Crystal (the esteemed pioneer of the Shakespeare "Original Pronunciation")

He wrote a magnificent volume by the name of "The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation" in 2016, in which he gives a detailed catalog of the distinct and numerous archaic spellings and pronunciations for each word during the Jacobean period (with the printing of the folios and quarto editions), and the words that they rhyme with according to each play.

I recall finding a similar incident with the word "again":

Now Ciuill wounds are stopp'd, Peace liues agen;/ That she may long liue heere, God say, Amen.

Richard III, Act 5, Scene 5. Folio spelling.

1.WHen shall we three meet againe?/ In Thunder, Lightning, or in Raine?

Macbeth, Act I, Scene I. Folio spelling.

As seen here, and as reinforced and verified by the work of Crystal in the aforementioned work, the word "again" was pronounced as "again" (like "grain") and "agen" (as in "ten"). If "again" was pronounced two ways, it would be no astonishment if "eye" was likewise.

Here is what the beforehand mentioned "Oxford Dictionary of..." (by DAVID CRYSTAL) puts for the pronunciation of the word "eye": for A Midsummer Night's Dream see "MND"



P.S. It seems the rhyming of "eye" and words with "ie", "y" endings (such as quality, company; after your given examples) was continued into the 18th and maybe even 19th century, (at least 1794) with Blake's immortal "Tyger, Tyger burning bright" (The Tyger) poem:

What immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Also, it is found an "innumerable" amount of times in the Folio and also any 16th to mid-17th century text, words which in Our modern spelling end with a "y" syllable, were spelled rather with an "ie" (and as well, sometimes with a "y"--see Lady Macbeth's "out, out damned spot" spelling in the folio where the word "fie" is spelled "fie" and then "fye" in the same line)--(see examples like: "tragedie", "comedie", "fithie", "companie") Words were spelled the way they sounded.

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    My girlfriend from Yorkshire said that to older people around Bradford the word 'eye' was pronounced to rhyme with bee, tree, me, etc. – Michael Harvey Nov 2 '20 at 18:43
  • @MichaelHarvey: It was indeed pronounced to rhyme with bee. The current pronunciation of 'eye' is due to the Great Vowel Shift, as far as I know. Similarly, 'bite' was pronounced to rhyme with 'beet'. – Decapitated Soul Nov 2 '20 at 19:08
  • I meant that Yorkshire people said it around 1985. Some probably still do. – Michael Harvey Nov 2 '20 at 19:41

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