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The Great Vowel Shift

 

The Great Vowel Shift Explained by David Crystal

During the GVS the long vowels underwent a series of changes. The long vowels can be heard today in the Received Pronunciation of words like seat (as opposed to the short vowel of sit) and lose (vs. loss). In Middle English, there were seven such vowels, and their values are shown in the table below, along with an approximate equivalent in modern Received Pronunciation.

Word

Vowel quality in c. 1400

Nearest Modern English (RP) vowel
time /i:/ teem /i:/
see

/e:/

first part of say /ei/
sea /ε:/ first part of Sarah ə/
fame /a:/ farm /α:/
so /ɔ:/ saw /ɔ:/
do /o:/ first part of doe /ou/
now /u:/ new /u:/

Around 1400, some of these vowels began to change their values, and by around 1600 all of them had done so. We can tell when a shift was taking place because of the way the spellings changed: if we see a word like blod 'blood', which was traditionally spelled with an o, beginning to be spelled with a u, as in bloud or blud, it suggests that some sort of pronunciation change in the direction of /u:/ is taking place. Taking into account these changes, and those that took place after 1600 also, we end up with the modern system, again illustrated here from Received Pronunciation.

Vowel quality in c. 1400 Vowel quality today

Modern English word (RP)

/i:/ > /ai/ time
/e:/ > /i:/ see
/ε:/ > /i:/ heath
/a:/ > /ei/ fame
/ɔ:/  > /əʊ/ so
/o:/  > /u:/ do
/u:/  > ʊ/ now

The cumulative difference is striking. A sentence such as

We do make time to go now

would have roughly sounded, in Chaucerian pronunciation, as

Way doe mahk teem to gaw noo.

It only took a few generations before the changes formed a real comprehension barrier. Today, if we hear Chaucer read in a Middle English pronunciation, it can be very difficult to understand him. It would have been difficult for Shakespeare, too.

The phenomenon is traditionally called the 'Great Vowel Shift', but the label is misleading in its suggestion that it was a single shift operating at a standard rate. The evidence of spellings, rhymes, and commentaries by contemporary language pundits suggests that it operated in more than one stage, affected vowels at different rates in different parts of the country, and took over 200 years to complete. Nor did it apply in the same way everywhere. The /u:/ value became a diphthong in most parts of England, as we hear in modern now and house, but this change did not happen in the north-east, or in Scotland, where the 1400 value may still be heard, as can be seen in such Scots spellings as noo and hoose.

Nobody has been able to establish why the change began the causes of a sound-change are never easy to determine and studies plotting its spread are still ongoing. Some parts of the country seem to have been more involved at the outset than others. One analysis has suggested that the low vowels, such as /a:/, began to change first in the North, specifically in the Yorkshire area, and the high vowels (such as /i:/) in the North Midlands and the South-West. A varied dialect pattern is very likely: we know that the speakers of some dialects are more conservative than others, and take more time to assimilate a change. 

The first of these changes was well under way when Caxton was born, and by the time he set up his press in London several words would have had competing pronunciations in the speech of those around him. Many people from the Midlands would have brought the change with them. Doubtless older people were more conservative, younger ones more innovative. Perhaps women were more ready to be innovative than men, as they are often known to be today.

Copyrighted material

 

Source: David Crystal. The Stories of English (Penguin Books, 2005)

 
 
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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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