The Great Vowel Shift

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This came up on a thread the other day and I just can’t get my head around what happened and why. I can’t read IPA which obviously isn’t helping my reading

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7 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

There are a couple of great YouTube videos on this, that don’t require you to read IPA.

RobWords: [](

The History Guy: [](

(And others.) I hope this passes “rule 3” muster, but it truly is almost impossible to explain without hearing, so videos are way better than writing it out.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Okay for starters you’ll need to learn IPA. You can’t ask a question about .. say.. Russian spellings without learning their alphabet. IPA is the alphabet of pronunciation.

English speakers changed the way we say vowels. The cause is unknown. But maybe you have some friends who say a particular word in a particularly weird way… just for fun? You can still understand them even if the pronunciation isn’t perfect. We mispronounce things all the time. Sometimes is dialect. Sometimes it’s just fun.

So when enough people start pronouncing something differently… it sticks. Kids learn what they hear and repeat it, nevermind the spelling.

I’m spitballing here because… again… nobody knows why the vowels shifted. They just did. We have evidence they did, and the fact that it DID shift is separate entirely from WHY.

I’ll give you one example from the wikipedia page.

The word “law” used to be pronounced with the “ow” from “cow” or “slouch” even if today it is pronounced with the “aw” from “awesome” and “auto”

Anonymous 0 Comments

Think about how English has vowels that we pronounce inconsistently. Like sometimes “i” and “e” could be swapped in a word.

Now imagine words were once pronounced differently. Like a different accent. For example “bite” being pronounced more like “beat”.

The pronunciation shifted over centuries to what we say today but the spelling stayed the same.

The shift refers to the location in the mouth the sound is made.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The name is a bit of a misnomer because it includes changes in pronunciation to consonants, adopting some French pronunciations, adopting a TON of French vocabulary, losing grammatical gender, AND shifting English long vowels.

For example, consider the noun meat. As in, the thing you eat after you kill an animal. It is pronounced indistinguishably from mete, as in to mete out punishment, or meet, as in to meet a friend for lunch. In old English, the vowels would be independently pronounced. However, in some cases, like the word out, it shifted from sounding like someone saying ‘uttt’ to ‘ow-t’. English started to ‘vowel’ break, or create diphthongs. In English, a dipthong combines two vowels to create one sound. It isn’t always unique, as in our previous example with mete and meet, the second word includes a dipthong but the pronunciation is the same as other words which don’t have them. Or, as in ‘out’, it forms a vowel sound that is unlike any other vowel in English.

People often don’t mention the development of SVO as part of the shift because, strictly speaking, it doesn’t have much to do with pronunciation, but it is worth talking about. English tells you what the subject, verb, direct object, and indirect object are by syntactic context, that is you figure out what the words do by their placement in the sentence. Syntax is how you describe one or more words ordered in a way that makes sense. Gendered languages use syntax less or not at all. In order to accomplish this, a complex set of declensions are needed for nouns, since I need to convey possession number AND its function in the sentence by changing the morphology of the word. Or, more familiarly, case endings and prefixes. Since a language will contain a bunch of nouns, it is hard to make all nouns follow the same rules. To deal with that, we gender nouns, or classify them into big buckets. European languages tend to have 3, masculine, feminine, and neuter. It is important to understand that these bear little to no relation to sex. English jettisoned gendered nouns in favor of SVO construction at the beginning of the ‘great vowel shift.’

Anonymous 0 Comments

Disclaimer: Not a linguist

The thing to keep in mind is the great vowel shift didn’t come all in one night, this was a 300 year process, with many contributing factors. The black death, migration, outside cultural influences, and deliberate spelling reform were all key components.

Our brains are pattern seeking, and generally we only tolerate a certain amount of disorder before we feel the need to clean things up. This is the case in language, as well. During the medieval age and later, a large amount of french loan words were entering into English vocabulary due to the nobles primarily speaking Anglo-norman. Norman began to sound more like english, and english began to sound more like norman, as the high class and low class interacted more throughout the years. It was only natural that the two began to mix to reduce inconsistencies.

It’s also important to keep in mind that nobody could read during this time, except for nobility and clergy. Then, in 1439, a guy in germany invented a printer, and suddenly everyone was learning to read. This means you need standardization so everyone is reading things the same way. This was a large factor in the move from middle english to modern english, but even during the early modern english era, spelling was mostly the same as today but pronunciation was very different. As more anglo-norman words entered the early modern english language, its influence showed more and more. Most literaturists at this time even still wrote in french.

Cue 300 more years of development, and by 1650-1700 you have modern english, of which nearly 30% of words are of french origin.

tldr; 400 years of french influence with social implications of those influences will drastically change the way you speak.

Anonymous 0 Comments

This is going to require you to sit at your desk or in front of your phone and make silly noises to yourself. Have fun!

First, try saying some vowels out loud and try to sort of *feel* where they occur in your mouth. Pay close attention to where your tongue is. Like, an open mouth “ahh” sound, like the o in “rock” should feel like it’s happening back towards your throat. In the word “stone”, you’ll start with a middle of the mouth oh sound that transitions ([via diphthong]( to an oo sound that should feel like it’s happening towards the front, with your lips.

Similarly, you can start with ahh again and then go to an eh sound, like in “then” that moves a little forward, and then ih as in “ship”, and then ee as in “sheep”. In the middle, you have the diphthong that makes an English “long I” sound, as in “bright” that goes from ah to ee, “long A” sound, as in “great” that goes from eh to ee. Hopefully, you can feel what I’m talking about with all these things, especially with where your tongue is. When scholars say that vowels shifted “towards the front of the mouth” or “higher in the mouth”, that’s what they’re talking about. Take all those sounds that feel like they happen in the back towards the throat, and just kind of…move them up a bit. Wikipedia has some examples:

> * Long i in mite was pronounced as /iː/, so Middle English mite sounded similar to Modern English meet.
* Long e in meet was pronounced as /eː/, so Middle English meet sounded similar to modern Australian English met but pronounced longer.
* Long a in mate was pronounced as /aː/, with a vowel similar to the broad a of ma.
* Long o in boot was pronounced as /oː/, so Middle English boot sounded similar to modern Southern England, Australian and New Zealand English bought.

Ignore the IPA symbols there. So, [in pronunciation, not spelling] “maht” became “mate”, and “mate” became “meet”, and “meet” became “mite”, *broadly speaking*. This happened to English “long vowels” which meant the vowels literally were spoken for a slightly longer amount of time. It’s also where we used diphthongs. As the link above explains, a diphthong is where you use two or more vowel sounds together as one syllable. For example, “my” is really the sounds “mah” + “ee” but shoved together so it becomes one sound. During the Great Vowel Shift, a lot of long vowels went from being one vowel sound held for a duration to being a diphthong of two sounds said together.

All of these changes occurred over a few hundred years, from about 1400 to 1700, and is what linguists use to mark when Middle English became Modern English. Like the evolution of species, exactly when one species has evolved into a new species is not a line but a sort of smear across time. You could, with effort, understand someone speaking Middle English. It’s *almost* the same language “species” as the English we speak today. Old English is very different, though. the GVS is a good transition to point to and say, “there was Middle English, and then *something something something* for 300 years, and now we have Modern English.”

Scholars still debate *why* the GVS happened. There are a lot of explanations, not least of which is an influx of French; or, conversely, the English wanting to *stop* sounding French, or stop sounding poor and uncultured.

Anonymous 0 Comments