Not long ago, I was listening to an audiobook of Emily of New Moon, one of my favourite of L.M. Montgomery’s novels. In chapter 22, the sensitive, poetic Emily must leave New Moon to visit her Great-Aunt Nancy Priest in her somewhat impressive, somewhat faded home, Wyther Grange. Given Aunt Nancy’s wealth, there is a sense that Emily’s adoptive family hopes that she might be able to win over this unconventional and eccentric old lady, and thus secure Emily’s future. Emily truly is winsome, and projects her own unconventional individuality that intrigues Aunt Nancy. Although there is no way to separate Aunt Nancy with her fortune, dead or alive, Emily does inherit two things from her–though one of these is something that Nancy has stolen from Emily.
The audiobook reader was generally pretty good–though I have yet to find an absolutely brilliant reading of the novel. I did have hopes of a new discovery last summer. Because I was a child of the last century, Megan Follows was for me the “voice” of Anne, since she starred in the 1980s Kevin Sullivan Anne of Green Gables films. Last summer, Follows released her reading of an audiobook production of Emily of New Moon. It is well done as a performance, and I particularly like Megan Follows’ reading of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella, Carmilla. However, the abridgement of Emily was so strange and egregious, that it became the subject of my discussion in the 2021 Emily of New Moon Roundtable (read more here).
Until the great performance comes along, my dog-eared paperback and this other audio reader will have to do.
However, there is one moment in the audiobook that I just cannot get past. When we come to Emily’s critical encounter with Aunt Nancy at Wyther Grange, the reader pronounces “Wyther” as “Why-there” (to rhyme with eye-ther), rather than a soft “wi” sound. I had to stop the tape. I just couldn’t imagine “Weye-ther” to be the correct pronunciation. Though I had never in my life looked up the word, I was certain that “wyther” was most likely a variant of “wither”–as in “shrivelled up,” or “dried up,” like how a vine slowly withers at summer’s end, turning slowly brown after a season where it has reached great heights clinging to some grand wall.
“What do you think of us?” demanded Aunt Nancy. “Come now, what do you think of us?”
Emily was dreadfully embarrassed. She had just been thinking of writing that Aunt Nancy looked “withered and shrivelled;” but one couldn’t say that—one couldn’t.
“Tell the truth and shame the devil,” said Aunt Nancy.
“That isn’t a fair question,” cried Emily.
“You think,” said Aunt Nancy, grinning, “that I’m a hideous old hag and that Caroline isn’t quite human. She isn’t. She never was—but you should have seen me seventy years ago….”
The archaic spelling of “Wyther” would add to the atmosphere of the home for Montgomery and for readers. The word “Grange” as a country home also has an oldish feel, even a century ago. Other uses in her short stories, “Ingelow Grange” and “Penhallow Grange,” have the same kind of old-timey feel. Even the homonymic adverb “whither” evokes a lost world, and is usually used in whimsy and quotation in Montgomery’s prose.
But then … “Why-there?” is kind of an interesting question for the novel at this point….
Even though the etymology is not terribly impressive in the OED, “wyther” is indeed a variety of “Wither”–and there are a goodly number of variants, though not nearly as many as the adverbial “whither.” Figuratively, “wither” spelled as “wyther” in the Coverdale Bible (Ecclesiasticus 10:17) makes a good counterpoint to our image of Aunt Nancy in the text.
However, while my instinct was correct, I had to ask myself: why was I so certain and so judgy? After all, the “y” in “judgy” and “Emily” is an “ee” sounds. And “tyre” rhymes with “buyer” and is pronounced like “tie,” being a UK variant of “tire.” “Y” can easily go long…. As in the word “why,” right? And it is sitting right there in WHYther Grange. Still, I can’t imagine there is any such thing as a “wythe”–though “whyȝt” is a kind of wind in Middle English.
Perhaps it comes down to whether the “y” comes to us from the Greek Upsilon (lowercase υ, though some transliterate as Ypsilon and the uppercase form is Υ), or from the Greek through Latin, or from the Old English rune “yr” (ᚣ), or evolved in vowel shifts both great and small…. Sometimes pronunciation works this way, like how “-ize” and “-ise” words are distinguished in British English because of their etymologies (while Americans have picked a side and Canadians remain confused).
And obviously, this all works differently when “Y” works as a consonant than when it works as a vowel or semivowel. That whole “a, e, i, o, u and sometimes ‘y’” vowel rhyme is a bit of a bust when it comes to a letter like “w,” isn’t it? And what about “h” in “ah!”, or “gh” in “thigh”? And then there are all those umlauts and accents and ligatures and digraphs. There is the æ in “mediæval” or “dæmon,” but lost in “archaeology” in any spelling I’ve seen. Or the œ that is everywhere in beautiful French words but nearly lost in English, except occasionally, like in “œdipal” or (rarely) all the “pœia” words I like, and remembered in names like “Phoebe” or “Phoenix,” but lost in most œ technical words. What do we do with those?
I feel let down Sesame Street on this one.
So as I dig into it, I still am amazed to find that “y” can have a history of letters/sounds as broad as ɘ, i, ɨ, ɪ, j, u, ʊi, v, w, ʏ, or ȝ. It can even steal thorn’s thunder–the þ that we might find in “whyþer”–an offence that you can still see in signs like “Ye Olde Bookshoppe.”
I would normally blame the Welsh for vowel/consonant complexity, but we can’t even do that here.
So, in forming this complaynt, and though I might be as hypocritical as yon lady or need hypodermic treatment, and there is a long distance from sylvan wonderlands to the psych ward, I am happy to say that, all myths, sound systems, and lyrical gymnastics aside, and beyond every journey in a canyon of doubt or literary martyrdom, it’s not always clear, even reading Wycliffe and Tyndale–or Emily of New Moon–boy, it’s hard to know how to pronounce “y”–even on a typical day like this.
And still, the audiobook was wrong.