The Great Vowel Shift

There is a very good website that explains the Great Vowel Shift (with audio). Not as entertaining as my after dinner party trick, but it does a great job.

My shorter, highly simplified (and rather boring, presented this way) explanation if you aren’t interested in the bells and whistles:

Sometime around 1400 the long vowels of English began to shift upward, which means basically that the degree of opening of the mouth narrowed. Means nothing to you, right? Never mind. If you speak American English, say the word father. That first vowel is an open vowel. Probably the most open vowel in your personal phonemic inventory. Now say the word ink. That is a close (or closed) vowel. If you say the vowel in father and the vowel in ink, you’ve got the extreme of open and closed for most varieties of American English (for the back vowels; there are also front vowels).

Backing up: about 1400 the long vowels began to shift unless they were followed by two distinct consonants. So the the vowel in the world house changed, but the vowel in the word husband did not; once both were pronounced with a sound you might write as ooo. Lots of pairs like this: goose/gosling, wife/midwivery. (Note we are not talking about spelling, but the sounds of the words as they are spoken.

Note: language change is always happening. It’s a natural process, and nothing to get upset over. The Great Vowel Shift was a series of language shifts that took place over a very long period of time — and in fact, never quite finished or caught on in some places. A good many varieties of English spoken in northern Great Britain never participated in the GVS, so in Scotland you are likely to hear hoose for house. The GVS is one of the reasons that written English is so strange; the spellings we use today were set down before the GVS, and for the most part, we never updated our orthography. You see this in many other parts of the language beyond the GVS. For example, the word night. Before 1400 (and still today in some parts of Scotland), this word would be pronounced neeeecht, where the ch is a very throaty fricative. We still write the fricative (night) though it passed out of the spoken language for most of the English speaking world a long timea go.

That’s it, in a nutshell. I really do suggest the other website, the audio examples make it all much clearer.

9 Replies to “The Great Vowel Shift”

  1. I always wondered about some of those Scottish pronunciations (hooose for house). Interesting.

    So, is ‘American’ English shortened even more than ‘British’ English? Or is there a description other than shortened that describes the change that has occurred?

  2. Danielle — the gvs was over and done before immigration to the North American continent ever occured to anybody at all. So the waves of immigrants from England, Scotland and Ireland came here with whatever variety of English they spoke, and new communities were formed, and the new generation of kids took that mixed data and over time, new varieties of English — American English were established.

    That’s a quick and probably not very clear explanation. Finally, ‘shortened’ isn’t the term to use about the gvs. The long vowels were ‘raised’.

  3. I heard that one of the closest spoken equivalents to Shakespearean (Early Modern?) English is that spoken by the modern day people of Newfoundland. I’ll admit that I accepted this as fact right away, if you’ve ever met a Newfoundlander you know they do something special to their English out in the Maritimes. I imagined some of it had to do with their isolation from the rest of Canada, but it never really clicked for me before that it was what they were speaking when they came here that created/sustained so many dialects. Thanks for clearing that up for me.

    I have a question. Feel free to ignore it Sara, but something tells me you’d be the one to know the answer…

    My mother was born and raised in New York City. She claims she can tell what block somebody grew up on based on their accent. I don’t have her Kreskin-like powers. (e.g. knowledge of when the fridge door opens when she isn’t in the room, knowing to the penny how much groceries will cost with tax even if you throw miscellaneous things in the cart when she isn’t looking, etc.) I was wondering if accents really are that pronounced in NYC that her claim is valid? Is this just a New York thing, can people do the same in Chicago? Boston? Montreal isn’t the same that way; you can tell what city/ville a person is from, but neighbourhoods now are a horse of a different colour, they all start to blend after a while…

  4. I’ll be anxious to see what Sara has to say about the accents vs. neighborhood question. I’ve lived in Chicago for fifteen years now, and it seems to me that if a person’s Chicagoan accent is srong (think Da Bears), they are most likely from the southern neighborhoods. You don’t seem to hear the stronger accents from people on the north side of the city or in the suburbs. And this is a generalization, because of course there are exceptions.

  5. Lynn — all my experience is with the north side of the city, where there are very definitely strong, neighborhood specific accents. I stay in contact with people I grew up with, and talking to them on the phone is always a bit of a mind bending experience, because I’ve been away for a long time and they’ve continued to dig in to their local identities.

  6. God I love linguistics– and your explanations in paricular. Now if I could only convince myself that a graduate degree in it would get me a job…

    (yes yes, I know it got you a job, but that’s you.)

  7. Joshua, you’re smarter than me. Get a PhD in linguistics, I’d bet you another quarter you’d get a job.

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