“The Great Vowel Shift”

 

What it is

§       single name given to a series of sound changes

§       notice how giving a name to something makes it more real, e.g. poltergeist, post-traumatic stress syndrome

 

What it explains

o      why English long vowels differ from those in other languages

o      why vowels of some loanwords differ from that of their source

o      e.g. English employee /i/ vs French /e/

 

o      variant English pronunciations of loanwords

o      e.g. divorcee /e/ or /i/?

o      e.g. viva /i/ or /ay/

o      e.g. syllabi /i/ or /ay/

 

o      chronology of loanwords (sometimes)

·        e.g. were polite and oblige borrowed before police and machine?

 

o      why English ‘short’ (lax) and ‘long’ (tense) vowels differ in quality as well as quantity, e.g. bit and bite, mat and mate

 

o      inconsistencies in the GVS cause glitches in English spelling system

o      why some words sound the same but are spelled differently, e.g. meat and meet

o      why some words are spelled the same but are pronounced differently, e.g. meat and great

 

o      some rhymes in older poetry

o      on /e/: away, sea; rail, steal

 

o      some dialect differences: GVS isn’t fully realized in all dialects

o      Ireland: beat /e/, not /i/ (think of Yeats and Keats)

·        Scotland: house, mouse /u/, not /au/

·        Canada!: why bite and lout have /*I/ and /*U/ but bide and loud have /aI/ and /aU/

 

 

What it did

§       affected all long vowels in stresed syllables

o      wasn’t ‘phonetically conditioned’

§       changed them from something like the sounds of mainland European languages (French useful point of reference for us) to the sounds they have now

§       raised the vowels that could be raised

o      e.g. OE->ME meet /e/ -> /i/

o      e.g. Old French lessé ->ME /e/ -> lessee /i/

§       diphthongized the ones that couldn’t go any further

o      e.g. wise /i/ -> /ay/

·        e.g. polite /i/->/ay/,

o      cf. French poli /i/

 

Where you can read more about it

·        Pyles and Algeo, pp. 160-163

·        Crystal, p. 55

 

A good online source: Melinda Menzer’s Great Vowel Shift website


 

Very broad outline

 

key words

ME

eModE

PDE

Bite

i:

*i

aI

Meet

e:

i

i

Meat

ε:

e

i

Mate

a:

æ: -> ε:

e

Out

u:

*u

aU

boot

o:

u

u

boat

)

o

o

) = bore      * = ‘schwa’

ME

i        bide                               loud         u:

 

  e:     meet                               boot      o:

 

     ε:  meat                              boat     )

                  

        a:   mate

 

eModE

i        meet                                                      boot    u

 

  e      meat    *i  bide    loud   * u             boat    o

 

     ε:                                       

          æ:      mate

 

PDE (some dialects)

 

          i        meet, meat                                        boot  u

 

          e        mate                                       boat    o

 

                   ai  bide       loud  au

 


 

 

 


Why it may have happened

Further reading:

Lass, Roger. The shape of English: structure and history. London: Dent, 1987. 129-131.

[Short clear explanation; the book is a great account of modern English from the historical point of view.]

Lass, Roger. “Phonology and morphology.” Volume 3 of The Cambridge history of the

English Language. Cambridge: CUP, 1999. 72-85.

[A much more detailed linguistic account, including summaries of different theories.]

Smith, Jeremy. An historical study of English: function, form, and change. London &

New York: Routledge, 1996. 86-111.

[Considers sociolinguistic factors, such as dialect contact in London.]

 

Linguistically

o      was it a ‘pull’ chain?

o      (i.e. the high vowels diphthongized, leaving room for the other ones to rise)

§       problem: in the north, /u/ didn’t diphthongize (Sc. house /u/)

o      or a ‘push’ chain?

o      (i.e. the mid vowels raised, pushing/diphthongizing the high vowels and creating a space for the lower vowels to rise)

§       more manuscript evidence for this

·       esp very early spellings of <ou> for what had been ME /o/

§       doun ‘to do’, bloude ‘blood’

·       only a bit later do you get <i> spellings for what had been ME /e/

o      e.g. hyre ‘hear’, appyr ‘appear’

 

Sociolinguistically

o      coexistence in London of different dialect speakers

o      some distinguished /ε:/ and /e/ (e.g. meat and meet)

§       of these, some (higher-status speakers) also had even higher variants of /ε:/ and /):/ [in words showing lengthening in open syllables]

·       vowels all got higher when the lower-status ones imitated the higher-status ones who tried further to differentiate themselves from them!

o      some groups (e.g. East Anglians) didn’t distinguish /ε:/ and /e/ at all

§       as in PDE   !