Great Vowel Shift

Jul 30, 2010 by

In several earlier postings I promised to write about the Great Vowel Shift, so finally the wait is over.

The Great Vowel Shift was first studied and described by a Danish linguist and Anglicist Otto Jespersen (1860-1943). He was also the one to coin the term Great Vowel Shift. And it’s an apt term as this was a major upheaval in the pronunciation of English vowels, especially of the long vowels. It took place between mid-14th and mid-17th century, with various vowels gradually morphing into new ones.

In Middle English, prior to the Great Vowel Shift, there were seven long vowels: /i:/, /e:/, /a:/, /o:/, /u:/, as well as lower, more open versions of /e:/ and /o:/.
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. Thus, /i:/ became /aj/ (as in child and rise) and /u:/ became /aw/ (as in loud and mouth). Also, /e:/ became /i:/ (as in three and feet) and /o:/ became /u:/ (as in good and goose). Furthermore, lower version of /e:/ became /e:/ and later /i:/ (as in speak or beam) and the lower version of /o:/ became /o:/ and later /ow/ (as in holy and stone). Finally, /a:/ became /æ:/ and later /ej/ (as in name).

These changes as well as their intermediate stages are schematized in the chart below.

To make things even more complicated, the Great Vowel Shift did not apply uniformly in all relevant words. For example, the open version of /e:/ spelled as ea converted to /e:/ and later to /i:/ in words like speak and beam, but only to /e:/ (and not to /i:/) in great, break and steak, where /e:/ further morphed into /ej/, nor in swear or bear. So as a result, we now have the same sequence of letters spelling distinct sounds.

Another interesting consequence of the Great Vowel Shift is that it left English without /a:/. Yet, /a/ is the most vowel-like of all vowels and is virtually universal across languages. So English too could not remain without /a:/ for long. But curiously, the gap was filled in different ways in different varieties of English. In some, short /a/ that was unaffected by the Great Vowel Shift (which only applied to long vowels) was lengthened in some words, such as father. In other varieties, long /a:/ was created by the processes of l-deletion and compensatory lengthening (i.e., lengthening due to deletion of another sound). This is what happened in words like calm, palm, half, calf and the like for those who pronounce them [ka:m], [pa:m], [ha:f] and [ka:f]. Note that additional developments led to these words being pronounced differently in different varieties of English, including restoration of [l] for some speakers (they pronounce these words as [ka:lm], [pa:lm], [ha:lf] and [ka:lf]). In yet other varieties, the back mid-low rounded vowel (sort of a more open version of /o:/) unrounded, lowered and lengthened in words like not, pot, hot, Don making them [na:t], [pa:t], [ha:t] and [da:n]. In yet other varieties, a long /a:/ was created through r-deletion and compensatory lengthening in words like park (pronounced [pa:k]), car (pronounced [ka:]), far (pronounced [fa:]), dark (pronounced [da:k]), etc.

In the next posting, we’ll consider some other complications, exceptions, and possible causes of the Great Vowel Shift.

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