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.3 The Great Vowel Shift 3.3.

1 What, if anything, was

the Great Vowel Shift? By the late nineteenth century, historians had worked out the basic phonetic correspondences between earlier and Present-Day English. The picture that emerged relating the Middle English long vowels c. 1400 and the modern ones has not required extensive revision (though our understanding of it has changed): Every ME long vowel has become something else, and /e:/ and /E:/ have merged. The ME/PDE relations look unsystematic: the original high vowels have become diphthongs with low first elements, two mid front vowels have become one high vowel, the higher mid back one has raised, and the low /a:/ and mid /O:/ have become diphthongs with mid first elements. But if we divide this long time-span, and intercalate developments at about 1500 and 1600, we get a quite different (here simplified) picture:
(12) 1400 1500 1600 ModE i: e: a: u: o: ei i: Ei i: e: a: ou u: u: o: u: E: E: i:
OU O: O: aU eI @U aI E:

(11) 1400 Modern bite meet meat mate out boot boat i: aI E: e: a: u: o: i: O:
eI aU @U

u:

Roger Lass 72 Ro

What is the Great Vowel Shift?

The Great Vowel Shift was a massive sound change affecting the long vowels of English during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. Basically, the long vowels shifted upwards; that is, a vowel that used to be pronounced in one place in the mouth would be pronounced in a different place, higher up in the mouth. The Great Vowel Shift has had long-term implications for, among other things, orthography, the teaching of reading, and the understanding of any English-language text written before or during the Shift. Any standard history of the English language textbook (see our sources) will have a discussion of the GVS. This page gives just a quick overview; our interactive See and Hear page adds sound and animation to give you a better sense of how this all works.

Otto Jespersen "Discoverer" of the GVS Picture by courtesy of Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen

When we talk about the GVS, we usually talk about it happening in eight steps. It is very important to remember, however, that each step did not happen overnight. At any given time, people of different ages and from different regions would have different pronunciations of the same word. Older, more conservative speakers would retain one pronunciation while younger, more advanced speakers were moving to a new one; some people would be able to pronounce the same word two or more different ways. The same thing happens today, of course: I can pronounce the word "route" to rhyme with "boot" or with "out" and may switch from one pronunciation to another in the midst of a conversation. Please see our Dialogue: Conservative and Advanced section for an illustration of this phenomenon.

ger Lass

The Great Vowel Shift


One major change in the pronunciation of English took place roughly between 1400 and 1700; these affected the long vowels, and can be illustrated in the diagram below. This is known as the Great Vowel Shift (GVS). Generally, the long vowels became closer, and the original close vowels were diphthongised.

Here are some examples of words affected by the shift.

Word
how, house food boat size green meat bake

ME
u; o; O; i; e; E; a;

1400

150 0

1600

1700
aU u; o; aI i; i; e;

RP tod ay
aU u; oU, @U aI i; i; eI

Uu o; O; Ii e; E; a;

@U u; o; @I i; e; &;

@U aU u; o; @I aI i; e; E; e;

You might wonder how we can be confident about describing pronunciations in earlier centuries. Researchers have depended on what people have said about pronunciation; on the spelling errors that were made; and on the rhymes used by poets of the time. In the 16th century, the first dictionaries, spelling books and grammars of English were produced. John Harts An Orthographie, first published in 1569, advocated a new spelling system, which he justified based on the various pronunciations of words.

The question that troubles people is why there was the GVS at all. The original ME vowels seem to be distinctive, and todays vowels mean that words like sea and see are no longer distinguished in pronunciation.

Some linguists have described these chain reactions as drag chains or push chains (the French linguist Andr Martinet coined the French terms chane de traction and chane de propulsion).

According to him, in a drag chain one sound moves from its original place, and leaves a gap which an exisitng sound rushes to fill, whose place is in turn filled by another, and so on. In a push chain, the reverse happens. One sound invades the territory of another, and the original owner moves away before the two sounds merge into one. The evicted sound in turn evicts another, and so on (Aitchison 1991: 154)

Leith suggests that there is also some social explanation for the change as different accented speakers met in London, the bourgeoisie were keen to distance themselves from the lower class and therefore consciously move towards closer vowel sounds.

One way [of creating distance] was to raise the vowel of mate even higher than that of the lower-class variant; and raising of the lowest vowel in the system would necessitate raising all the vowels above and, ultimately, pushing the vowel of tide into a diphthong. (Leith 1997: 145)