Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift was a major change in the pronunciation of the English language, generally accomplished in the 15th century, although evidence suggests it began as early as the 14th century. The shift continued for some time into the 16th century, spreading toward the non-metropolitan and non-port areas. It represented a change in the long vowels (i.e., a vowel shift).

The values of the long vowels form the main difference between the pronunciation of Middle English and Modern English, and the Great Vowel Shift is one of the historical events marking the separation of Middle and Modern English. Originally, these vowels had "continental" values much like those remaining in liturgical Latin. However, during the Great Vowel Shift, the two highest long vowels became diphthongs, and the other five underwent an increase in tongue height and one of them came to the front.

The principal changes (with the vowels shown in International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)) are roughly as follows. However, exceptions occur, the transitions were not always complete, and there were sometimes accompanying changes in orthography:

  • → (as in make)
  • → or (as in break or beak)
  • → (as in feet)
  • → (as in mice)
  • → (as in boat)
  • → (as in boot)
  • → (as in mouse)

This means that the vowel in the English word make was originally pronounced as in modern English father, but has now become a diphthong, as it is today in standard pronunciations of British English (see Received Pronunciation); the vowel in feet was originally pronounced as a long Latin-like e sound; the vowel in mice was originally what the vowel in feet is now; the vowel in boot was originally a long Latin-like o sound; and the vowel in mouse was originally what the vowel in moose is now, but has now become a diphthong.

The Great Vowel Shift was first studied by the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen (1860-1943), who coined the term.

The effects of the shift were not entirely uniform, and differences in degree of vowel shifting can sometimes be detected in regional dialects both in written and spoken English, for example in the speech of much of Scotland. The surprising speed and the exact cause of the shift are continuing mysteries in linguistics and cultural history, but some theories attach the cause to the mass immigration to South East England after the black death, where the difference in accents led to certain groups modifying their speech to allow for a standard pronunciation of vowel sounds. The different dialects and the rise of a standardized middle class in London led to changes in pronunciation, which continued to spread out from London.

Because English spelling was becoming standardised in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Great Vowel Shift is responsible for many of the peculiarities of English spelling. Spellings that made sense according to Middle English pronunciation were retained in Modern English.

German and Dutch also experienced sound changes resembling the first stage of the Great Vowel Shift: long i to changed to /ai/ (as in Eis and ijs, 'ice'), and long u to /au/ (as in Haus and huis, 'house'). This is why in German "ei" and in Dutch "ij" (actually "ii") are pronounced closer to /ai/; however, otherwise, those languages did a far better job at keeping their spellings consistent.

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