The Great Vowel Shift English Language Essay

Undeniably, Chaucer’s pronunciation differs considerably from Shakespeare’s, due to the effects of the Great Vowel Shift. Otto Jespersen- a Danish linguist who coined the term said Vowel length, of course, is the perceived duration or period of a vowel sound and the long vowels in the Middle English, prior to the Great Vowel Shift were: /i:/ /e:/ /a:/ /o:/ and /u:/.

The essentials of the Great Vowel Shift are displayed in the diagram below:-

All vowels “become closer in quality” (Barber, Beal and Shaw 2009:201), except for /i:/ and /u:/, which are already as close as they can be, meaning they are articulated with the tongue positioned as close to the roof of the mouth as possible, without creating any constriction. These two vowels became diphthongized, meaning they became “sounds which consist of a movement or glide from one vowel to another” (Roach 2009:17)- /i:/ became /É™I/, whereas /u:/ became /É™u/. In the diagram above, the blue arrows displays where the two diphthongs in question begin and indicates their probable change in position. Subsequently, the other long vowels then ‘moved up’ into the space now made available by these two diphthongs, demonstrated by the dotted arrows. The Middle English [e:] was raised to Modern English [i:] (as in meet); Middle English [É”:] was raised to the vowel [o:], and later on to the diphthong [əʊ] (as in coat); Middle English [o:] was raised to the Modern English [u:] (as in shoot); Middle English [a:] was fronted to [æ:] and then eventually raised to [É›:] and finally the Middle English vowel [iː] became the diphthong [ɪi], and it is highly probable that it was followed by [əɪ] and then to the Modern English [aɪ] (as in rice).

The table below summarises the effects the Great Vowel Shift had on distinguishing the phonology of Middle English to Modern English:-

The second point I wish to address in this essay is what evidence is there to suggest the Great Vowel Shift existed? The Great Vowel Shift is generally perceived as a turbulent tug-of-war between linguistics on deciding its causes and has succumbed to much discussion and debate. As John Algeo claims, “Personally, I believe the most plausible theory to be I believe this to be the most credible theory, as it appears to have proof lying within problems, for instance the failed amalgamation of /e:/ with /Éœ:/. As Antonio Bertacca points out:

Another theory similar to the one previously mentioned, is that loan words during the Middle and Early Modern English periods, coming from Romance languages, were the engine that drove the turbine in shaping the English vowels during this time. Evidence for this is given through the variation of how vowels of present day English are pronounced and created by the stressed vowels in the Middle English period.

Based on the evidence, those are the theories I agree the most with, based upon the changes of English of that time, which was heavily influenced from languages that were perceived to be of more prestige. Many influences have shaped English from these languages, such as removing inflections and final vowels. This is why I believe this to be the most notable evidence supporting the theories of the Great Vowel Shift. Although the above theories do seem plausible, without the presence of a time machine, none of them are likely to ever be testable.

For example, concerning spelling, prior to the Great Vowel Shift, Chaucer rhymed ‘food’, ‘good’ and ‘blood’, pronounced with the vowel /əʊ/. In contrast, during Shakespeare’s time, however, after the Great Vowel Shift, the words ‘food’, ‘good’ and ‘blood’ still rhymed, although by that time all of them rhymed with ‘food’, using the vowel /u:/. Regarding spelling, many of the rhyming words in Chaucer’s poetry, such as The Canterbury Tales, no longer rhyme today, for instance Similarly, in the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill, the first stanza is as follows: It is extremely likely that at the time the rhyme was written, ‘water’ and ‘after’ will have rhymed, whereas now, the /a:/ vowel in ‘water’ has shortened to /æ/, which again clearly highlights the effect the Great Vowel Shift had in distinguishing the linguistic features between the two periods.

Another piece of evidence which suggests that Great Vowel Shift’s existence is the fact that Shakespeare’s puns are only understandable with some knowledge of the Great Vowel Shift. For example, in Henry IV, This is a play on the words ‘reason’ and ‘raisin’, which were pronounced the same before the Great Vowel Shift. There is also evidence to suggest the merging of two phonemes. “In the standard language, the same vowel was used in ‘sea’, ‘seize’, ‘dame’ and ‘mate’.” (Barber, Beal and Shaw 2009:203). Evidence also suggests that “there was a non-standard variant pronunciation going right back to Middle English, in which Ä™ had changed into, or been replaced by Ä“”. “In the later seventeenth century, the two styles of pronunciation were in competition, and in the eighteenth century the variant pronunciation replaced the other in educated speech” (Barber, Beal and Shaw 2009:203). This evidence suggests there were social changes in the period: “the rising of the middle classes were permeating the gentry and may have bought some of their pronunciations with them” (Barber, Beal and Shaw 2009:203).

However, it has been suggested that which implies the Great Vowel Shift was not entirely a complete phonetic shift.

Evidence which supports Crystal’s claim that the shift occurred as only one rearrangement of the whole system and was not in-fact independent isolated changes, is the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ theories are two models put forward to suggest the pattern of these vowel changes. Firstly, the ‘pull theory’ is whereby the upper vowels moved before the lower vowels and ‘pulled’ them along. As Jean Aitchison describes: In contrast, the ‘push theory’ is whereby the lower vowels moved forward and up, which subsequently ‘pushed’ the others ahead. In essence, However, I personally don’t believe these two theories are particularly strong, as neither of the two provides us with explanations of reasons for the shift. Furthermore, regional variation considerably complicated the actual movement of the shift of the vowels and thus it will be troublesome to ever sort out more than a general arrangement or pattern of shifting. An assembly of vowel pronunciations has consequently resulted from the regional variation of the shift, which are not either Standard Continental nor Standard English.

The Great Vowel Shift is given remarkable prominence in histories of the English language. As English spelling started its journey on a path towards standardisation in the 15th and 16th centuries, the pronunciation of English changed whilst spelling did not, and thus the Great Vowel Shift was accountable for numerous peculiar spellings within the English language and thus was an extremely important historical event. Spellings which were understandable by the rules of Middle English pronunciation were kept in Modern English, due to William Caxton, who introduced the printing press in 1476. Take for instance the confusion of the suffix ‘-ough’. There are several pronunciations for this combination of letters, ranging from ‘trough’ to ‘dough’ to ‘dough’ to ‘bough’. Each of these words were standardized at different times during the Great Vowel Shift, and thus the shift is symbolical of marking the separation between Middle and Modern English, hence why it is given so much prominence.

Moreover, The Great Vowel Shift seems to be extremely prominent in histories of English, as considering English is one of the most, if not the most, studied language in historical linguistics, this magnifies the significance of the Shift, and the grandness of the name can be attributed to that, most notably more than anything else. However, could it be argued that the prominence of the Great Vowel Shift is exaggerated? Take for instance the peculiarities it implemented into English spelling. Could the shift be described as just a ‘historical accident’ which unwisely occurred after the introduction of the printing press? Moreover, other languages apart from English have had shifts, however they are either unnamed or are called different names, such as the first and the second Germanic sound shifts.

In conclusion, in the whole history of the English language, it is clear that the Great Vowel Shift was the most complex and influential change in English phonology, which is why it is termed the ‘Great Vowel Shift’ and not simply the ‘Vowel Shift’. The causes of the shift are generally unknown, but its effects were vast. It is undeniable if the Great Vowel Shift hadn’t occurred, the spelling English would be a lot simpler, instead of the peculiar and distinctive spellings which we have today, which make the English language so unique.