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 will have a discussion of the GVS.
"Discoverer" of the GVS
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
The GVS is a particularly important linguistic change to understand
because not only did it effect a massive change in the language, it
did so at a time when people were increasingly interested in
standardizing English. Once upon a time, people spelled words the
way they sounded; those written manifestations of the language are
very helpful to the historical linguist. But once people started
standardizing the spelling of words, the written language no longer
kept up with the natural and inevitable changes in pronunciation.
Standardization is a problem for the linguist trying to understand
phonology, because he or she can no longer look to spelling as
evidence for phonological change.
Fortunately, there are ways of getting around this problem: one of
them is to look at rhymes and wordplay to figure out how an author
would pronounce a word. In this way, literature can be particularly
useful to the linguist. Conversely, the things that linguists can
tell us about the language can illuminate passages that don't make
sense or "sound funny" to the modern reader.