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The third stanza of the hymn Amazing Grace is

Thro' many dangers, toils, and snares,
    I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
    And grace will lead me home.

In this hymn second and fourth lines always rhyme: like me/I see, relieved/believed, sun/begun. In the third stanza, the words come and home rhyme graphically, but are AFAIK phonologically quite different: /hoʊm/ and /kʌm/.

Therefore my question: did they rhyme in the past? And if so, was “come” pronounced like nowadays “home,” or “home” pronounced like nowadays “come”? Or both in some third way?

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    Apparently home derives from Middle English home, hom, hoom, ham, from Old English hām (“village, hamlet, manor, estate, home, dwelling, house, region, country”). The etymology of come is very different, so most likely at some point in the past they were pronounced completely differently (at least in some regions) before becoming "near-homophonous" (presumably reflected in spelling and poetic "half-rhyme") and then diverging again. But although I can "almost" read Chaucer, the spoken version is almost completely unintelligible to me. It's barely "English". Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 12:30
  • I'm pretty sure that it does rhyme in at least some dialects of English. I can picture Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Ring movies saying "come home" in a way that they both use the vowel noise of "come" - possibly because they're both using a schwa.
    – nick012000
    Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 14:04
  • Isn't the Question based on an assumption second and fourth lines always rhyme? Doesn't "half-rhyme" match your description and, as at woodheadpublishing.com/literary-devices/half-rhyme refer to “imperfect rhyme” or “slant rhyme” because the stressed syllables in a word’s ending consonants match even though the word does not create an actual rhyme? Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 23:42
  • Similar question here (song lyrics as clues to historical pronunciation - totally different words, though!) but with a slightly more satisfying answer.
    – Pam
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 11:25
  • Incidentally, the stanza with "sun"/"begun" was not written by John Newton; Wikipedia says it was originally part of a different song, and was combined with Amazing Grace in African-American oral tradition.
    – DLosc
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 17:17

5 Answers 5

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While it's possible that the words were meant to be pronounced with exactly the same vowel sound, it seems more probable to me that this is either an "eye rhyme" (where non-rhyming words are used as a rhyme because they are spelled the same way) or just a partial/near rhyme (where words ending in the same consonant but with different vowel sounds are used as rhymes).

Given the use of ABAB rhyme scheme in the majority of verses, I would also interpret snares and far as an intended partial or eye rhyme, which would show that this device was being used in the hymn.

Historical development of vowels in home and come

In Old English, home was pronounced [hɑːm] and spelled <ham>, and come was pronounced [kum] <cum>- + inflectional endings (e.g. the past participle was [(je)kumen] <(ge)cumen>; also [(je)kymen] <(ge)cymen>).

In Middle English, the vowel in home regularly became [ɔː], and the word accordingly developed spellings with o like <hom> and <hoom>. Then in Early Modern English, [ɔː] became [oː] or [oʊ], giving us the modern pronunciation.

The Oxford English Dictionary mentions other spellings of home that seem to correspond to alternative pronunciations in different accents, such as hum and whum—see Kitschgardener's answer for more definite evidence about pronunciations of home with a short vowel. However, I think that these are probably not relevant to the use in Amazing Grace.

The vowel in come remained short [u] in Middle English, and may have continued to have this value up into Early Modern English. By the 17th century, a sound change caused [u] to develop into an unrounded vowel, modern [ʌ], in some words (including come) (the general sound change is mentioned in The Cambridge History of the English Language, Roger Lass, 2000, page 89). It is possible that a variant form of come with a lengthened vowel developed, but lengthening of [u] would be expected to result in Middle English [oː], Early Modern English [uː] (as in doom), which would be close but not identical to the vowel found in home in the accents that the Modern English forms are descended from.

Early Modern English poets do seem to have used near-rhymes

Rather than this pair of words having a completely identical vowel for John Newton when he was writing Amazing Grace, I think it's more likely that the identical spelling, and the historical similarity of the vowels (before the change of short /u/ to /ʌ/, both words had vowels sharing the phonetic features of "back" and "rounded"), meant that there was already a convention in poetry of treating pairs like these as possible rhymes regardless of whether they were or were not perfect ear rhymes for the author.

For comparison, there is evidence that the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope treated as rhymes some pairs of words spelled with o, ow or u that did not have exactly the same vowel sounds; I go over some examples in my answer to the previous question Pronunciation of "lost".

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The lyrics were written by John Newton, c.1780, an educated man. At this time the pronunciation and spelling of home and come were fairly standard and in the form we would recognise: Home and come did not rhyme. They are what is known as a "half-rhyme" - combinations of consonants and vowel sounds that are not too dissimilar rather than rhyming.

As Meiklejohn wrote "The English language is very poor in rhymes, when compared with Italian or German. Accordingly, half-rhymes are admissible..: sun/gone, love/move, allow/bestow, etc."

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    There's also the concept of "eye-rhymes", which is explicitly about similar spellings.
    – user888379
    Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 12:44
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It is not excluded, but also not very likely. Amazing Grace is

written in 1772 by English Anglican clergyman and poet John Newton (Wikipedia),

that is, quite close to the beginning of Late Modern English. By then, the pronunciation of home had already become /ho:m/ if not already /houm/ or as you put it /hoʊm/.

It is true that home comes from Old English ham (probably pronounced /hʌm/), but at the end of the 18th century when the poem was written, this pronunciation was no longer in use.

Britannica records the changing of the pronunciation of home throughout different the periods of the English language: enter image description here

If Chaucer said /hɔ:m/, Shakespeare said /ho:m/.

I do not have access to David Crystal's Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation, but I suppose Shakespeare could have pronounced come as /co:m/. So it is not excluded that home might have rhymed with come in his time. As David Crystal explains in this video about Shakespeare, rhymes, and Original Pronunciation, what today does not rhyme, was a perfect rhyme in Shakespeare's time.

Did John Newton imitate Shakespearean pronunciation for the sake of rhyme? Hard to say, and to be honest I doubt it. Though looking at the other stanzas of the hymn, they ALL rhyme (2nd verse with 4th) so it is quite strange that only one stanza doesn't rhyme.

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  • Old English ham was pronounced [hɑːm]: it had a long vowel. It is unlikely it had the quality [ʌ]
    – herisson
    Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 16:52
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    @fev I looked into the Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation (if I knew your email address I would have sent it to you) and here is what I found: home / ~s n o:m, ho:m / -z sp home328 / homes2 rh 1 Rome JC 1.1.32; rh 2 drone Per 2.Chorus.17 and com·e / ~est / ~es / ~eth / ~ing / came / ~est v kɤm / -st / -z / ˈkɤm·əθ / -ɪn, -ɪŋ / kɛ:m / -st sp com3 , come2453, come-[on]10, Caius MW 2.3.6ff [no]-come3 / commest2 , comm’st3 , comst3 , etc. So according to Crystal the two words were pronounced differently: ho:m and kɤm.
    – yannis
    Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 20:17
  • There's your answer then. No rhyme :) sorry for my rambling.
    – fev
    Commented Nov 5, 2022 at 20:23
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The first pronouncing dictionary in English was John Walker's A critical pronouncing dictionary and expositor of the English language, first published in 1791. In this first edition, home is glossed as having the vowel of no, and come as having the vowel of tub.

This was less than 20 years after Amazing Grace was written, in 1772. So it seems very unlikely that they rhymed at that time.

They do seem to have rhymed earlier. In 1614, John Donne wrote:

but more, now I am come
From having found their walkes, to find their home.
To the Countess of Salisbury

I can't tell for sure whether whether for Donne, this was a true rhyme or a near rhyme; Donne also rhymed come with dumb and room, so he certainly used some near rhymes.

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    but it seems reasonably likely that come and home rhymed. -- I'm not sure that is a valid conclusion given your examples of Donne's half-rhymes. Were it so, it would mean that home rhymed with "dumb" and "room"
    – Greybeard
    Commented Nov 6, 2022 at 11:19
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Use of a short rounded or unrounded vowel (corresponding to that of come) in home was (is?) a feature of many English accents. Prestige English accents today do not have this characteristic, but recall that one and home had the same vowel in Old English but one usually has the same vowel as come today so there is a parallel for home having a shortened, unrounded vowel. Dobson (1968: 509) has an example of this correspondence from 1710 in William Turner's The Art of Reading and Spelling English. Dobson also (p 509 Note 1) cites Joseph Wright's 1905 dictionary as having this pronunciation even in the Home Counties.

Ellis 1869 shows the same vowel used in both home (his keyword 115) and come (keyword 603) not in the southeast of England but further west and north:

  • Chippenham, Wiltshire (pp 1487-8)
  • Vale of Gloucester and Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire (pp 1499-1500)
  • Hanbury, Worcestershire (pp 1545-6)
  • West Somerset (pp 1585, 1587)
  • Mid Shropshire (pp 1617-8)
  • Oakham, Rutland (pp 1689-90)
  • Rochdale and Peak Forest, Derbyshire (p 1755)
  • North Staffordshire (p 1854)
  • Bradwell, Derbyshire (pp 1874-5)
  • Holt, Denbighshire (pp 1890-1)
  • Cannock, Staffordshire (p 1913)
  • Shifnal, Shropshire (p 1915).
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  • @Kitschgardner Re "Ellis 1869". It would be helpful if this could be cited more fully. After some searching online, I think this refers to: Alexander John Ellis, On Early English Pronunciation, with Especial Reference to Shakspere and Chaucer, London: Trübner 1869 (Google scan).
    – njuffa
    Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 10:38

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