What Was the Great Vowel Shift?

The great vowel shift changed the way that the English language was spoken.
The great vowel shift changed the way that the English language was spoken.

The Great Vowel Shift refers to a set of changes in the pronunciation of the English language that began in southern England in 1350 and lasted until the 18th century. The shift affected the pronunciation of all Middle English long vowels, as well as the sound of some consonants, which became silent. Additionally, the Great Vowel Shift significantly influenced the English phonology and resulted in the switch from Middle English to Modern English. The term "Great Vowel Shift" was coined by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, who studied the changes in the English pronunciation.

Primary Changes

The major changes that resulted from the Great Vowel Shift were that the pronunciation of "i" and "u" changed to either "ǝi" and "ǝu","e" and "o" were raised to "i" and "u", "a" was raised to "æ", "𝜀" became "e", "ͻ" became "o", "æ" was raised to "𝜀", "e" was raised to "i", and "ǝi" and "ǝu" dropped to "ai" and "au". Examples of these changes in words include the pronunciation of "i" in the word bite, which was originally pronounced as /i:/ and became /ai/. The double "e" in the word meet was initially pronounced as /e:/ but later became /i:/. Examples of words with consonants that changed include knight and enough, which were pronounced /kni:xt/ and /I’no:x/ in Middle English, but became /nait/ and I’n∧t/, respectively, in Modern English. Some words such as father, broad, and room retained their Middle English pronunciations because they failed to pick up the new pronunciations. Additionally, some words in class "ea" such as swear and bear retained their old pronunciations even after the shift. However, some words like hear and near successfully adopted the Modern English pronunciation. Another exception to the Great Vowel Shift were loanwords such as soufflé and umlaut, which retained the spellings from their original languages.

Causes of the Great Vowel Shift

Scholars fail to agree on a specific cause of the Great Vowel Shift. However, there are many theories that attempt to provide reasons for the shift. Some scholars believe the shift was influenced by the rapid migration of people from northern England to the southeast part of the country to escape the Black Death that killed over 25 million people across Europe. The migration resulted in the mixing of accents, warranting changes in the standard London dialect. Others argue the Great Vowel Shift occurred in response to an increase in the number of French loanwords used in the English language. Additionally, some claim the shift was caused by a hypercorrection in response to the increase in the number of French loanwords, which occurred either intentionally or unintentionally, to make English vowels sound less like French. 

Impact of the Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift permanently affected the English language and the way it is taught. The shift changed English letters, sounds, and spellings, and given its significance, any study of the history of the English language typically includes discussion of the Great Vowel Shift.


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