Great Vowel Shift

Have you ever wondered why English pronunciation is so difficult? Why are words written one way but pronounced in another? In addition to English’s bastard origins, there was a great event over a couple of centuries of extreme linguistic and phonological importance called the Great Vowel Shift.

Questions, questions?

So what is this Great Vowel Shift? When did it happen? Why is it so significant?

To explain all of these, we need to go back several centuries and talk about how English was before the Great Vowel Shift. Between about 1350 and 1400, when the first changes started to take place, the mixing of French and Old English was already history and Middle English reigned with linguistic supremacy in England. Middle English had 7 long vowels while Modern Received Pronunciation has 6 vowels. None of them sound similar to their Middle English ancestors. What happened? Did we lose a vowel and did the others go for a holiday, pick up the local dialect and come back?

To explain this next section, readers need to have basic knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), or how to write down things as they are pronounced in a standard, international way. A quick(ish) guide can be found here and may help with the forthcoming explanation.

Middle English had the following long vowels:  /iː eː ɛː aː ɔː oː uː/  These aren’t the modern equivalents that are used in IPA today. In fact, here are how the vowels actually sounded:

  • /iː/ => Modern English wheat
  • /eː/ => Modern English date
  • /ɛː/ => Modern English beat
  • /aː/ => Modern English father
  • /ɔː/ => Modern English boat
  • /oː/ does not exist in Modern English, but somewhere between north and cot
  • /uː/ => Modern English out

If you are familiar with IPA or have read the guide on phonetics, you will see immediately that Middle English vowels sounded quite different from their modern-day counterparts.

Phase One of the Great Vowel Shift – closed vowels

The Great Vowel Shift can be split into three parts or phases. Quick note: a closed vowel means that during pronunciation, the tongue is very close to the rough of the mouth. During the first phase, the closed vowels /iː uː/ became dipthongs; this is where two vowels are pronounced by sliding to one another, rather than pronouncing them separately. This sounds like /ei ou/ or /əi əu/, while the mid-close vowels (not as close as closed) /eː oː/ underwent a raising process. This means the placement of the tongue is higher in the mouth than it was before, becoming new, closed vowels /iː uː/. it isn’t called a Shift for nothing.

Phase Two of the Great Vowel Shift – open vowels

The second phase saw the other, more open vowels /a: ɛː ɔː/ become /eː iː oː/, which are more closed respectively. Contrary to the simplicity of ‘vowel A becomes vowel B’ in the first sentence of this paragraph, the reality is that the vowel shifts often went through a few intermediate sounds rather than from pronunciation A to pronunciation B. This changes often happened at lightning speeds (linguistically at least). Over the course of a few generations, great-grandparents would not have been able to understand their great-grandchildren as easily as we could have communicated with ours due to the vowel shifts.

Unfortunately, the lateral moving doesn’t stop there. Since we are talking about pronunciation, we also have to mention the concept of phonemes or units of pronunciation. The easiest way to explain phonemes is with an example: think about the differences between the words cat and bat. The difference in pronunciation is the hard ‘c’ sound (/k/) in cat and the ‘b’ sound (/b/) in bat. The other phonemes in the two words are the same. But why are they so important here?

Phase Three of the Gerat Vowel Shift – Losing phonemes

During the Great Vowel Shift, as vowels were being thrown left, right, and centre, English started losing phonemes for words like meet and meat, which were pronounced separately before. By this time, around the 1600s (so about 250-300 years after the start of the shift), there were several shift variants. As I said before, it wasn’t from A to B, but more like a trip from A to G to Z back around to B) of which (ironically) one of the least complex became the basis of modern Received Pronunciation. This is also the reason why mate, great, and steak all have the same vowel sound (loss of the difference in phonemes).

Starting to get a headache? Confused as to what is going on? Well, maybe this table will help set matters to right:

WordVowel pronunciation
late MEEModEModE
1400150016001900
bite /iː//ei//ɛi/ /aɪ/
meet /eː/ /iː//iː/
meat /ɛː/ /eː/ /iː/
mate /aː//æː/ /ɛː/ /eɪ/
out /uː//ou//ɔu/ /aʊ/
boot /oː/ /uː//uː/
boat /ɔː/ /oː/ /oʊ/
(click on the links to open sound files of the pronunciation of either the individual vowels or the word through the different centuries. Courtesy of Wikipedia)

So if the Great Vowel Shift occurred, why are there so many different dialects that have their own vowel sounds? Well, the English variants spoken in Northern England and Scotland also went through the Great Vowel Shift. To make a long story short, the history is parallel to what happened to the English that would become Received Pronunciation above, but the starting point was a bit different; for Scots, the /o:/ had already shifted. Due to some differences in sounds to begin with, certain sounds did not undergo a shift, such as the long back vowels where the tongue is towards the back of the mouth, such as in the word bowl, while other vowels shifted to dipthongs (or didn’t when Southern English did).

Exceptions?!?

To make matters even more complicated, there are exceptions to the Great Vowel Shift and they are common, everyday words father and room, both of which retain their Middle English pronunciation (i.e. failed to shift). Since vowels often depend on their neighbouring consonants for their starting and ending positions, certain consonants, like the ‘m’ in room, forced the word to keep its original pronunciation. Other good examples are the double o (‘oo’), which has different pronunciations for flood/blood and book/good and ‘ea’ vowel combinations, which are shorted before some words, like dead but retains a longer sound for words like ear.

Consonants?!? But I thought it was the Great Vowel Shift?!?

Unfortunately, changes do not stop there. The Great Vowel Shift also affected some consonants as well when in combination with vowels. The word knight used to be pronounced fully (as in, the ‘k’ and ‘gh’ had their own sounds as well), but when the /i:/ was raised to the sound we know and love today (/aɪ/), those sounds were dropped and it was the combination of the vowel/consonant shift that created one of the weirdest words to spell in the English language.

And there you have it, one of the main reasons why English pronunciation is so difficult to decipher from writing alone! But wait, there’s more:

Did you know that English is not the only European language to undergo vowel shifts? Actually, German went through something similar at roughly the same time. So why is Standard German pronounced the way it looks? Standard German originated as a written language that was used to communicate by groups from different dialects. Standard German has, over time, grown to replace certain dialects, such as around Hannover (today the home of the ‘highest’ German). As a result, pronunciation followed the writing system, not the other way around.

Written German actually still evolves somewhat artificially in the sense that Orthography Reforms take place (such as the latest one in 1996 and its modification in 2006). English, on the other hand, started the standardisation process slowly beginning in the 1470s due to the introduction of the printing press, a potential 100 years after the start of the Great Vowel Shift. Middle English retained some Old English spelling that was no longer pronounced the same way and Modern English compounded on that by adopting most of the same spellings. In other words, English writing became more stagnant at the time while English pronunciation was out experimenting.

If you are interested in more English language information, visit my English Language Materials page for resources and more articles like this one.

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