How the English pronounced de Vere

While today the name de Vere is usually pronounced with a long e––de Veer, in Oxford’s time it was pronounced de Vayer. We know this because this is how it was spelled in a letter written July 15, 1590, from Sir Thomas Stanhope to Lord Burghley, in which he refers to Burghley’s granddaughter, Oxford’s eldest daughter Elizabeth, as “Lady Vayer” (Akrigg 32). This was no mistake; it was simply the way people spelled back then; de Vayer is how the name de Vere was pronounced at that time. We can be certain of this for two reasons:

First, because Oxford’s ancestors first came to England in 1066 with William the Conqueror from regions surrounding Normandy France, where the name Vair or du Vair appears in history throughout the centuries for both persons and places. Having been established as the rulers of England, the Norman invaders changed the language used at the highest levels of government and society from Saxon (Old English),  bequeathed the English by an earlier invader, to French, where it would dominate for centuries. In Oxford’s time a number of other members of the aristocracy had names similarly descended from the Norman French. The name Seymour, surname of the Duke of Somerset, uncle of Edward VI, was originally St. Maur; the name Devereux, surname of the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth’s final favorite, came to him via his Norman ancestor, Robert (“Robair”) d’Evreux.

Second, a word spelled Vere at that time and for centuries later would have been pronounced just as Stanhope wrote it in 1590, either as Vair or Vayer, because in those days the letter e was pronounced as today we pronounce the letter a. This was due to what orthographers refer to as “the Great Vowel Shift,” defined by Wikipedia as “a series of changes in the pronunciation of the English language that took place primarily between 1400 and 1700, beginning in southern England and today having influenced effectively all dialects of English” during which the pronunciation of all long vowels was changed. While spelling gradually became standardized in the 15th and 16th centuries, many words and names continued to be spelled one way and pronounced another. As recently as 1819, the word wind was pronounced to rhyme with the word behind, as we know from the final line of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” The English still pronounce e as a in words like Hertford which they pronounce Hartford, or clerk which they still pronounce clark.

According to Alan Nelson’s malicious biography, one of Oxford’s more notorious idiosyncrasies is his spelling of the word like, which Oxford spells leake, leke or leek, from which Nelson deduces that there was “something wrong with his hearing” (64). How Nelson, whose major literary focus has been paleography, could remain unaware of the Great Vowel Shift, before which leak would have been pronounced lake while like would have been pronounced leek, suggests yet another of his many failures to pursue a matter to a truthful conclusion due to his passionate hatred of the Earl of Oxford. In addition, this spelling of leek for like has been found in the works of others from that time, among them a letter sent by Ralph Lane to Lord Burghley in January 1573, where like is spelled “lyeke.” We know this because it’s on page 106 in Nelson’s own book that we found it!

While a change in the pronunciation of his name may mean little to us today, it’s important to understand how, to a poet like Oxford, it would have created any number of verbal allusions, as it would also to the poets he always had in mind whenever he published. Most meaningful was the fact that his name was pronounced the same as the Latin root ver, the root of every word meaning truth (verity, verismo), also words meaning Spring––the vernal equinox, the season of his birth and of the rebirth of all living things. In French it’s vert, pronounced the same unless followed by a word beginning with a vowel, it means the color green, the color of plants, the color that in spring replaces the black, white and gray of winter. From Middle English and Anglo-Norman comes vertu, meaning “manliness, bravery, worth, moral excellence” (Wiktionary). It rhymes with fair, a word filled with positive connotations and one of Shakespeare’s favorites.

Veer just doesn’t cut it. We should call him by the name he called himself.