The Great Vowel Shift In English English Language Essay


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Why do foreigners all articulate their vowels 'incorrectly'? This is a question which might be posed by English-speaking students of other languages. The English long 'e' for example, in words such as the common noun 'leaf' is pronounced like the French long 'i'. Why is this the case? The answer lies in the fact that the 15th century saw the beginning of a major change in the way the English language was pronounced, particularly in the South of England, which is today known as the Great Vowel Shift. This essay consists of a critical analysis of this fundamental sound change, an evaluation of the evidence put forward surrounding it and offers possible explanations of why the Great Vowel Shift was so 'great'.

Undeniably, Chaucer's pronunciation differs considerably from Shakespeare's, due to the effects of the Great Vowel Shift. Otto Jespersen- a Danish linguist who coined the term said "The great vowel-shift consists in a general raising of all long vowels" (Jespersen) Vowel length, of course, is the perceived duration or period of a vowel sound and long vowels in the English language include: /eI/ (lake), /i:/ (key), /aɪ/ (size), /əʊ/ (cone) and /u:/ (flute). The essentials of the Great Vowel Shift are displayed in the diagram below:-

The arrows show the direction of change

All vowels "become closer in quality" (Barber, Beal and Shaw :201), except for /i:/ and /u:/, which are already as close as they can be, meaning they are articulated with the tongue positioned as close to the roof of the mouth as possible, without creating any constriction. These two vowels became diphthongized, meaning they become "sounds which consist of a movement or glide from one vowel to another" (Roach:17)- /i:/ became /əI/, whereas /u:/ became /əu/. In the diagram above, the blue arrows displays where the two diphthongs in question begin and indicates their probable change in position. Subsequently, the other long vowels then 'moved up' into the space now made available by these two diphthongs. Examples include the Middle English [eː] raised to Modern English [iː] (as in feet); Middle English [ɔː] raised to [oː], and in the eighteenth century this became Modern English [oʊ] or [əʊ] (as in boat) and Middle English [oː] raised to Modern English [uː] (as in boot).

The table below summarises the effects the Great Vowel Shift had on distinguishing the phonology of Middle English to Modern English:-


Middle English

Modern English

Front vowels










Central vowels




Back vowels










Source:(Tutschka. V: 8)

The Great Vowel Shift is generally perceived as a turbulent tug-of-war between linguistics on deciding its causes and has succumbed to much discussion and debate. As John Algeo claims, "The stages by which the shift occurred and the cause of the shift are unknown. There are several theories, but the evidence is clearly ambiguous" (T. Pyles and J. Algeo). Personally, I believe the most plausible theory to be "the influx of Old French loan words penetrating into adoption into Middle English" (Bertacca. A). I believe this to be the most credible theory, as it appears to have proof lying within problems, for instance the failed amalgamation of /e:/ with /ɜ:/. As Antonio Bertacca points out: "The diphthongization of the Middle English /i:/, the alternation between the vowels /o:/ and /e:/, the loss of inflectional morphology and the loss of unstressed final syllables, may very well be linked to the changes in long stressed vowels".

Another theory similar to the one previously mentioned, is that loan words during the Middle and Early Modern English periods, coming from Romance languages, were the engine that drove the turbine in shaping the English vowels during this time. Evidence for this is given through the variation of how vowels of present day English are pronounced and created by the stressed vowels in the Middle English period, "in particular the long, high, mid and low mid vowels and diphthongs ending in -i". (Diensberg, Bernhard).

Based on the evidence, those are the theories I agree the most with, based upon the changes of English of that time, which was heavily influenced from languages that were perceived to be of more prestige. Many influences have shaped English from these languages, such as removing inflections and final vowels. This is why I believe this to be the most notable evidence supporting the theories of the Great Vowel Shift.

Although the above theories do seem plausible, without the presence of a time machine, none of them are likely to ever be testable. The 'push' and 'pull' theories are two models put forward to suggest the pattern of these vowel changes. Firstly, the 'pull theory' is whereby the upper vowels moved before the lower vowels and 'pulled' them along, whereas the 'push theory' is whereby the lower vowels moved forward and up, which subsequently 'pushed' the others ahead. However, I personally don't believe these two theories are particularly strong, as neither of the two provides us with explanations of reasons for the shift. Furthermore, regional variation considerably complicated the actual movement of the shift of the vowels and thus it will be troublesome to ever sort out more than a general arrangement or pattern of shifting. An assembly of vowel pronunciations has consequently resulted from the regional variation of the shift, which are not either Standard Continental nor Standard English.

"The evidence of spellings, rhymes, and commentaries by contemporary language pundits suggest that the Great Vowel Shift operated in more than one stage, affected vowels at different rates in different parts of the country, and took over 200 years to complete" (Crystal). Evidence also suggests that the Great Vowel Shift was not applied in the same way in all parts of the country. For example, 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'. In addition, prior to the Great Vowel Shift, Chaucer rhymed 'food', 'good' and 'blood', pronounced with the vowel /əʊ/. (Crystal)

During Shakespeare's time, however, after the Great Vowel Shift, the words 'food', 'good' and 'blood' still rhymed, although by that time all of them rhymed with 'food', using the vowel /u:/. "More recently, 'good' and 'blood' have independently shifted their pronunciations again" (Watson Todd). Moreover, low vowels, such as /a:/, began to change first in the North, specifically in the Yorkshire area, whereas the high vowels (such as /i:/) in the North Midlands and the South-West (Crystal). 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. (Crystal). However, it has been suggested that "The 'standardization' described by the Great Vowel Shift may simply have been the social fixation upon one variant among several dialectical options available in each case, a variant selected for reasons of community preference or by the external force of printing standardization", (Giancarlo. M) which implies the Great Vowel Shift was not entirely a complete phonetic shift.

The Great Vowel Shift is given remarkable prominence in histories of the English language. As English spelling started to become standardised in the 15th and 16th centuries with prescriptivism gripping the language, the pronunciation of English changed whilst spelling did not, and thus the Great Vowel Shift was responsible for many peculiar spellings within the English language. Spellings which were understandable by the rules Middle English pronunciation were kept in Modern English, due to William Caxton, who introduced the printing press in 1476. Take for instance the confusion of the suffix '-ough'. There are several pronunciations for this combination of letters, ranging from "trough" to "dough" to "dough" to "bough". Each of these words were standardized at different times during the Great Vowel Shift, and thus the shift is symbolical of marking the separation between Middle and Modern English. Similarly, in the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill, the first stanza is as follows: 'Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water, Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after'. It is extremely likely that at the time the rhyme was written, 'water' and 'after' will have rhymed, whereas now, the /a:/ vowel in 'water' has shortened to /æ/.

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