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The Great Vowel Shift

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Many English-speaking students of other languages must be confused when confronted with the long vowels of a language such as French. 'Why do these foreigners all say their vowels wrong?' they must think. The French long 'i', for example, is pronounced like the English long 'e'. Why is this so? The answer is the almost rudely named phenomenon of The Great Vowel Shift of English pronunciation.

What Was It?

The Great Vowel Shift was a gradual process which began in Chaucer's time (early 15th Century) and was continuing through the time of Shakespeare (early 17th Century). Speakers of English gradually changed the parts of their mouth used to articulate the long vowels. Simply put, the articulation point moved upward in the mouth. The vowels, which began being pronounced at the top, could not be moved farther up (without poking into the nose); they became diphthongs1. The upshot has been that the Anglo-Saxons lived (like the Scottish still do) in a 'hoose', and the English live in a 'house'; the Anglo-Saxons (like the Scottish) milked a 'coo', and the English milk a 'cow'; an Anglo-Saxon had a 'gode' day and the English have a 'good' one; an Anglo-Saxon had 'feef' fingers on each hand and the English have 'five'; they wore 'boats' on their 'fate' while the English wear 'boots' on our 'feet'. The Great Vowel Shift is still continuing today in regional dialects; many speakers are now trying to move the topmost articulation points farther up, producing new diphthongs.

Why Was It?

There are theories for why the Great Vowel Shift has occurred, but none are likely ever be testable without a time machine. Two models of the pattern of vowel change are the 'pull theory' in which the upper vowels moved first and 'pulled' the lower ones along, and the 'push theory' in which the lower vowels moved forward and up, pushing the others ahead. Neither theory gives us an answer to why the shift happened, and the actual shifting was so complicated by regional variation that it will be difficult to ever sort out more than a general pattern of shifting. The regional variation of the shift has lead to a multitude of vowel pronunciations which are neither standard English nor standard Continental such as this anecdote:

Boy in North-East England is sitting by a river, crying. Passer by asks what's up.
Boy says 'Me mate fell in the water'.
'Oh - that's terrible, how did it happen?'.
'Fell right out of my sandwich, into the water!'

Or the Cockney woman who, when trying to buy a cut loaf of bread was asked by the puzzled baker 'Is it a bread especially for cats?' Both of these examples are vowels that have shifted beyond the strict definition of the Great Vowel Shift. This is a demonstration that the English language is still evolving in wonderful (and confusing) ways. In addition, the reconstruction of the sounds is based on texts, which are rarely a perfect means of recording sound. The printing press further complicated this problem, as it tended to fix spelling in the 15th and 16th Centuries, before the sounds of speech had finished shifting (if they ever did finish). Today, we speak with 21st Century pronunciation, but we write our words in a 15th Century form.

Since the Great Vowel Shift did not occur in other languages or in some regional dialects of English (see, the Scottish 'house' and 'cow', above), it is the Standard English speakers and not the speakers of other languages, who have the wacky vowels.

1A diphthong is not a floppy sandal one wears at the beach, and it is certainly not an ill-fitting undergarment worn by a socially-inept person, it is a sound made by combining two vowels, or, more simply, it is a vowel sound during the production of which the mouth moves.

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