Vowel Shift – boys in barrettes – Feb 12

The Great Vowel Shift

as noted in the shakespeare pronunciation video above, the period of early modern english is characterized primarily by a massive change in vowel pronunciation, which is called the great vowel shift. this shift involved all of english’s long vowels and diphthongs, rearranging them and distributing them in a generally systematic way (there were exceptions. there are always exceptions.)

to really explain the details, it’s helpful to understand the basics of how vowels work. two important factors of articulation are height and “backness”. height refers to how high the tongue is in the mouth, or how open or closed the jaw is; a low vowel, such as the “a” in “father”, is often called an open vowel, and high vowels like “ee” in “meet” are also called close vowels. backness refers to how far forward or backward the tongue is in the mouth: front vowels include “ee” in “meet” and “a” in “cat”, while back vowels include “u” in “rude” and “o” in “dog” (at least the “standard” pronunciations; many english dialects, including my own, have significantly different pronunciations of these vowels). another important feature of vowel articulation is roundedness; this is usually broken into “rounded” and “unrounded”, referring to lip shape, though with basically every linguistic topic things are actually more complicated than that. but w/e

many of you are probably already familiar with the international phonetic alphabet, or IPA. it is designed to indicate sounds with far more specificity than relative indicators like the “u” in “rude”. (strictly speaking, there’s still a bit of ambiguity in the IPA, as it’s designed for phonemic rather than phonetic use, but that’s not strictly critical to the discussion of the great vowel shift.) as a matter of convention, phonemes are indicated with slashes: /i/, /t/, /æ/; long vowels are indicated with the symbol “ː” (the great vowel shift did not affect short vowels, though this is not to say they remained stable through this period). vowels are commonly indicated on a vowel chart arranged by articulation:

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(you don’t need to worry about every single vowel on this chart, they will not be on the test)

think of it as a diagram of your mouth, with your teeth in front of the “i” and “e” and “æ” and your uvula back behind the “u” and “o”.

sometimes a sound shift only affects one or two sounds, such as the change of the “th” sounds (/θ/ and /ð/ in IPA) to “f” and “v” in some dialects of english. but often an entire series of sounds will change, one taking the place of another, in what is called a chain shift. the great vowel shift is an example; another is the consonant shift known as grimm’s law that characterizes the germanic languages. there are essentially two types of chain shifts: push chains, in which one sound change forces another to avoid a merger (/k/ becomes /g/, so the previously existing /g/ becomes /dʒ/, the sound in “edge”); and pull chains, in which one sound shift “pulls” other sounds into the now-empty “gap” where the sound once was; this latter type characterizes the great vowel shift. in about the fifteenth century, the sound /iː/ became a diphthong: /əi/ or /əɪ/, later to become modern /ai/ (or /aɪ/). this left the /i/ slot open, and the /eː/ sound moved to fill it. this then led to the long /ɛː/ sound filling the spot, which was accompanied by /aː/ moving up to /æː/. a similar process in the back vowels was begun by the high vowel /uː/ likewise becoming a diphthong, /əʊ/ (today’s /aʊ/).

essentially what happened was the high vowels /iː/ and /uː/ became diphthongs, and the remaining long vowels each moved higher. there were a couple of mergers—most notably the original /ɛː/, which had become /eː/ when original /eː/ became /iː/, ended up merging with that sound and becoming /iː/ itself, leading to (for example) “meet” and “meat” becoming homophones. here’s a chart that explains the general process far better than i can do in text:
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wikipedia has a diagram that doesn’t highlight the chain aspect as well, but has much more detail (including the fate of the original diphthongs). also it’s upside-down for some reason:
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one interesting thing to note is that some dialects in england didn’t go through all stages of the great vowel shift. i don’t know a whole lot about british dialectology, but i have heard that there are some dialects that still distinguish “meet” and “meat”; can anyone confirm this? another interesting thing is that vowels shifted in different ways in scotland than they did in england, and this shift could arguably be considered the point when scots “became” distinct from just northern english in general, or at least when the split was cemented. again, if someone knows more about this than i do (which is setting a pretty low bar) by all means fill us in

the great vowel shift is also a huge reason why english spelling is so fucked up and why our vowels don’t match the spelling of other european languages. our vowel letters generally indicate pre-vowel shift pronunciation, which is why the english word “leer” is pronounced /liːr/ but the (unrelated) german word “leer” is pronounced /leːr/.

grimm’s law is cool too, maybe i’ll do a post on that later