Rhymes of the Ancient Mariners

Rob Kyff on

How do we know that English speakers once pronounced "none" as "known"?

You'll find the answer on the tips of your toes: "This little piggy went to market / This little piggy stayed home / This little piggy had roast beef / This little piggy had none."

As this rhyming of "home" and "none" suggests, English speakers once pronounced "none" as "nohn," as in "bone." Speaking of which, Old Mother Hubbard sought a bone for her dog but found there was none (nohn).

Nursery rhymes like these, passed down orally from one generation of children to another, often include such "fossil" pronunciations.

Equally revealing are the rhymes in formal literature. William Shakespeare's plays, for instance, demonstrate that "clean" and "again" once rhymed with "lane," "fear" with "tear" (to rip), "here" with "bear," and "compassionate" with "late."

As recently as the 1730s, British poets were rhyming "ear" with "repair," "join" with "divine" and "give" with "believe." So, using these 18th-century pronunciations would make you sound like Long John Silver: "Lend an air, mateys, and jine me as I geeve a toast."

In this same era, poets such as Alexander Pope and William Cowper, were rhyming "tea" with "obey" and "sea" with "say." So, it's likely the British denounced the defiant Boston patriots who had thrown "tay" into the "say."

Some of these archaic pronunciations survived well into the 1800s. In the final couplet of "Ode to the West Wind," for instance, Percy Bysshe Shelley rhymes "wind" with "behind:" "...O Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"


Like rhymes, puns also reveal archaic pronunciations. A pun on "grace" and "grass" by the Clown in Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well" suggests that these two words once rhymed: "She was ... the herb of grace ... I have not much skill in grass."

Likewise, Miranda's punning of "raising" and "reason" in "The Tempest" suggests that "reason" was once pronounced like the French "raison": "For still 'tis beating in my mind, your reason ("raison"), for raising this sea storm?"

A pun on "Rome" and "room" made by Cassius in "Julius Caesar" reveals that these two words once sounded alike: "Now is it Rome indeed, and room enough."

Similarly, Fabian in "Twelfth Night" says, "Let me be boiled to death with melancholy." If we know that "boiled" was once pronounced "biled," we appreciate this pun on "bile" (then thought to cause melancholy).

Yet another "raison" to enjoy this delightful Shakespearean comedy!


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, California, 90254.

Copyright 2023 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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