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The Great Vowel Shift

 

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.

Otto Jespersen
"Discoverer" of the GVS

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.

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.

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THE GREAT VOWEL SHIFT

  What is the Great Vowel Shift?

  Explanation by David Crystal

MIDDLE ENGLISH

  Middle English Subperiods

  French vs. English

  Geoffrey Chaucer

  Emerging Standard

  More

 

 
 
 
 

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