The Great Vowel Shift was first studied by Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), a Danish linguist and Anglicist, who coined the term.
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 Italian and 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 with one of them coming to the front.
The principal changes (with the vowels shown in IPA) are roughly as follows. However, exceptions occur, the transitions were not always complete, and there were sometimes accompanying changes in orthography:
- Middle English [aː] (ā) fronted to [æː] and then raised to [ɛː], [eː] and in many dialects diphthongised in Modern English to [eɪ] (as in make). Since Old English ā had mutated to [ɔː] in Middle English, Old English ā does not correspond to the Modern English diphthong [eɪ].
- Middle English [ɛː] raised to [eː] and then to modern English [iː] (as in beak).
- Middle English [eː] raised to Modern English [iː] (as in feet).
- Middle English [iː] diphthongised to [ɪi], which was most likely followed by [əɪ] and finally Modern English [aɪ] (as in mice).
- Middle English [ɔː] raised to [oː], and in the eighteenth century this became Modern English [oʊ] or [əʊ] (as in boat).
- Middle English [oː] raised to Modern English [uː] (as in boot).
- Middle English [uː] was diphthongised in most environments to [ʊu], and this was followed by [əʊ], and then Modern English [aʊ] (as in mouse) in the eighteenth century. Before labial consonants, this shift did not occur, and [uː] remains as in room and droop).
This means that the vowel in the English word date was in Middle English pronounced [aː] (similar to modern dart); the vowel in feet was [eː] (similar to modern fate); the vowel in wipe was [iː] (similar to modern weep); the vowel in boot was [oː] (similar to modern boat); and the vowel in house was [uː] (similar to modern whose).
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 western and northern England and particularly Scotland, where English was still largely a foreign language until the late middle ages.
Not all words underwent certain phases of the Great Vowel Shift. ea in particular did not take the step to [iː] in several words, such as great, break, steak, swear and bear. Other examples are father, which failed to become [ɛː] / ea, and broad, which failed to become [oː].
Shortening of long vowels at various stages produced further complications. ea is again a good example, shortening commonly before coronal consonants such as d and th, thus: dead, head, threat, wealth etc. (This is known as the bred-bread merger.) oo was shortened from [uː] to [ʊ] in many cases before k, d and less commonly t, thus book, foot, good etc. Some cases occurred before the change of [ʊ] to [ʌ]: blood, flood. Similar, yet older shortening occurred for some instances of ou: country, could.
Note that some loanwords such as soufflé and Umlaut have retained a spelling from their origin language which may seem similar to the previous examples, but since they were not a part of English at the time of the Great Vowel Shift, they are not actual exceptions to the shift.
The sudden social mobility after the Black Death may have caused the shift, with people from lower levels in society moving to higher levels (the pandemic also hit the aristocracy). Another explanation highlights the language of the ruling class; the medieval aristocracy had spoken French, but by the early fifteenth century, they were using English. This may have caused a change to the “prestige accent” of English, either by making pronunciation more French in style, or by changing it in some other way, perhaps by hypercorrection to something thought to be “more English” (England was at war with France for much of this period).Another influence may have been the great political and social upheavals of the fifteenth century, which were largely contemporaneous with the Great Vowel Shift.
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 because of the adoption and use of the printing press, which was introduced to England in the 1470s by William Caxton and later Richard Pynson.
ExampleIn English, the word “amen” has two primary pronunciations, ah-men (/ɑːˈmɛn/) or ay-men (/eɪˈmɛn/), with minor additional variation in emphasis (the two syllables may be equally stressed instead of placing primary stress on the second). The ah-men pronunciation is usual in British English, the one that is used in performances of classical music, in churches with more formalized rituals and liturgy and liberal to mainline Protestant denominations. The ay-men pronunciation, a product of the Great Vowel Shift dating to the 15th century, is associated with Irish Protestantism and conservative Evangelical Protestant denominations generally, and the pronunciation that is typically sung in gospel music. Increasingly Anglophone Roman Catholics are adopting the “ay-men” pronunciation for speech, although the broad “ah” is usually retained for singing.
German and Dutch also experienced sound changes resembling the first stage of the Great Vowel Shift. In German, by the 15th or 16th centuries, long [iː] had changed to [aɪ], (as in Eis, ‘ice’) and long [uː] to [aʊ] (as in Haus, ‘house’). In Dutch the former became [ɛi] (ijs), and the latter had earlier become [yː], which became [œy] (huis). In German there also was a separate [yː] which became [ɔʏ], via an intermediate similar to the Dutch. In the Polder Dutch pronunciation, the shift has actually been carried further than in Standard Dutch, with a very similar result as in German and English.
German has, like English, also shifted common Germanic *[oː] to [uː], as in Proto-Germanic *fōt- ‘foot’ > German Fuß (as well as the rare secondary *[eː] to [iː]). This similarity however turns out to be superficial on closer inspection. Given the huge differences between the structures of Old English and Old High German vowel phonology, this is hardly surprising. There is no indication that English long vowels other than [iː uː] did anything but just move up in tongue-body position (there is no hint, for example, of the diphthongal features of Modern bee, bay, bone in any of the orthoepic pronunciation manuals of the 17th and 18th centuries). In German, the process was totally different, as well as much earlier than the English developments: already in the very earliest Old High German texts (9th cent.; note: Old Bavarian is an exception) the vowel in question is consistently written –uo-. That is, it had “broken” into a nucleus with a centering glide. This complex nucleus “smoothed” as the term has it in Middle High German, becoming the [uː] of Modern German around the same time as the long high vowels diphthongized. The [oː] of Modern German has a variety of sources, the oldest of which is Proto-Germanic *aw, which smoothed before /t d r x/ (so rot ‘red’, Ohr ‘ear’, Floh ‘flea’, etc.) Elsewhere the sound was written –ou– in OHG. Similarly original *ai became [eː] before /r x w/, remaining what was written –ei– elsewhere. In some German dialects original /oʊ eɪ/ remain distinct from these new diphthongs, but in standard German they fell together with the newly created /aʊ/ and /aɪ/ respectively. The latter is still somewhat eccentrically written –ei– as a rule, a holdover of the days when /eɪ/ was the only such diphthong. Otherwise, German spelling has been kept far more consistent than the spelling of English.
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Would you have understood the king’s speech?
Here at Collected Wisdom, we have always had the greatest respect for the Queen’s English. Today, however, we take a look at the King’s English – the king in question being that one who had six wives.
Having watched the television series The Tudors, Lane Stanley of Whitby, Ont., wonders whether today’s average English-speaker would be able to understand the language of the real Henry VIII.
In short, no, says Gabriel Poliquin of Ottawa. That being said, he adds, if Henry VIII wrote a note and passed it to an English-speaker today, he or she would have no problem understanding it because the king’s vocabulary “would have been roughly similar to Shakespeare’s, which we can mostly understand, with many exceptions, of course.”
Mr. Poliquin, who has a PhD in linguistics from Harvard, points out that the pronunciation of English words has changed tremendously since then. Starting around 1450, he says, English underwent a major but change known as the Great Vowel Shift.
Roughly speaking, before the shift, the letter “i” was pronounced “ee,” so the word “bite” would have been pronounced “beet.” The letter “e” was pronounced “ey,” so the word “meet” would have been something like “meyeyt.” The word “meat,” meanwhile, would have sounded something like “mayt.”
There were other changes too, he writes. Before the shift, the “u” in “hut” would have been more uniformly pronounced like the “u” in “put.”
“What makes things tricky,” he says, “is that one might say the shift was incomplete, in that it didn’t affect all words, and some were left unchanged.” Also, the shift happened differently in different dialects of English.
“The combination of all those differences would give the impression that Henry spoke with a really different accent, which would be almost impossible to understand for contemporary English-speakers.”
However, Fritz Newmeyer, adjunct professor of linguistics at the University of British Columbia, takes a different view. He writes: “If Henry VIII talked slowly and we listened very carefully, we’d catch a lot of what he was saying, but we would miss a lot too. The surprising thing is that he would sound to us more like a North American than like a Brit.”