Great Vowel Shift

Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift was a major change in the pronunciation of the English language that took place in England between 1350 and 1500.[1] The Great Vowel Shift was first studied by Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), a Danish linguist and Anglicist, who coined the term.[2]

Because English spelling was becoming standardised in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Great Vowel Shift is responsible for many of the peculiarities of English spelling.[3]



The values of the long vowels form the main difference between the pronunciation of Middle English and Modern English, and the Great Vowel Shift is one of the historical events marking the separation of Middle and Modern English. Prior to the Great Vowel Shift, these vowels had "continental" values much like those remaining in Italian and liturgical Latin. However, during the Great Vowel Shift, the two highest long vowels became diphthongs, and the other five underwent an increase in tongue height with one of them coming to the front.

Great Vowel Shift.svg

The principal changes (with the vowels shown in IPA) are roughly as follows.[4] However, exceptions occur, the transitions were not always complete, and there were sometimes accompanying changes in orthography:

  • Middle English [aː] (ā) fronted to [æː] and then raised to [ɛː], [eː] and in many dialects diphthongised in Modern English to [eɪ] (as in make). Since Old English ā had mutated to [ɔː] in Middle English, Old English ā does not correspond to the Modern English diphthong [eɪ], but was rather formed from the lengthening of short a in open syllables.
  • Middle English [ɛː] raised to [eː] and then to modern English [iː] (as in beak).
  • Middle English [eː] raised to Modern English [iː] (as in feet).
  • Middle English [iː] diphthongised to [ɪi], which was most likely followed by [əɪ] and finally Modern English [aɪ] (as in mice).
  • Middle English [ɔː] raised to [oː], and in the eighteenth century this became Modern English [oʊ] or [əʊ] (as in boat).
  • Middle English [oː] raised to Modern English [uː] (as in boot).
  • Middle English [uː] was diphthongised in most environments to [ʊu], and this was followed by [əʊ], and then Modern English [aʊ] (as in mouse) in the eighteenth century. Before labial consonants, this shift did not occur, and [uː] remains as in soup and room (its Middle English spelling was roum).

This means that the vowel in the English word date was in Middle English pronounced [aː] (similar to modern non-rhotic dart); the vowel in feet was [eː] (similar to modern fate); the vowel in wipe was [iː] (similar to modern weep); the vowel in boot was [oː] (similar to modern boat); and the vowel in house was [uː] (similar to modern whose).

The effects of the shift were not entirely uniform, and differences in degree of vowel shifting can sometimes be detected in regional dialects both in written and in spoken English. In Northern English, the long back vowels remained unaffected, the long front vowels having undergone an earlier shift.[5] In Scotland, Scots differed in its input to the Great Vowel Shift, the long vowels [iː], [eː] and [aː] shifted to [ei], [iː] and [eː] by the Middle Scots period, [oː] had shifted to [øː] in Early Scots and [uː] remained unaffected.[6]

The effect of the Great Vowel Shift may be seen very clearly in the English names of many of the letters of the alphabet. A, B, C and D are pronounced /eɪ, biː, siː, diː/ in today's English, but in contemporary French they are /a, be, se, de/. The French names (which the English names are derived from) preserve the English vowels from before the Great Vowel Shift. By contrast, the names of F, L, M, N and S (/ɛf, ɛl, ɛm, ɛn, ɛs/) remain the same in both languages, because "short" vowels were unaffected by the Shift.


Not all words underwent certain phases of the Great Vowel Shift. ea in particular did not take the step to [iː] in several words, such as great, break, steak, swear, and bear. The vowels mentioned in words like break or steak underwent the process of shortening, due to the plosives following the vowels. Obviously that happened before the great vowel shift took place. Swear and bear contain the sound [r] which was pronounced as it still is in North American, Scottish, and Irish English and other rhotic varieties. This also affected and changed the vowel quality. As a consequence, it prevented the effects of the Great Vowel Shift. Other examples are father, which failed to become [ɛː] / ea, and broad, which failed to become [oː]. The word room retains its older medieval pronunciation as m is a labial consonant, but its spelling makes it appear as though it was originally pronounced with [oː]. However, its Middle English spelling was roum, and was only altered after the vowel shift had taken place.

Shortening of long vowels at various stages produced further complications. ea is again a good example, shortening commonly before coronal consonants such as d and th, thus: dead, head, threat, wealth etc. (This is known as the bred–bread merger.) oo was shortened from [uː] to [ʊ] in many cases before k, d and less commonly t, thus book, foot, good etc. Some cases occurred before the change of [ʊ] to [ʌ]: blood, flood. Similar, yet older shortening occurred for some instances of ou: country, could.

Note that some loanwords, such as soufflé and Umlaut, have retained a spelling from their origin language that may seem similar to the previous examples; but, since they were not a part of English at the time of the Great Vowel Shift, they are not actually exceptions to the shift.


The exact causes of the shift are continuing mysteries in linguistics and cultural history. But some theories attach the cause to the mass migration to the south-east part of England after the Black Death, where the difference in accents led to certain groups modifying their speech to allow for a standard pronunciation of vowel sounds. The different dialects and the rise of a standardised middle class in London led to changes in pronunciation, which continued to spread out from the city.

The sudden social mobility after the Black Death may have caused the shift, with people from lower levels in society moving to higher levels (the pandemic also having hit the aristocracy). Another explanation highlights the language of the ruling class: the medieval aristocracy had spoken French, but, by the early fifteenth century, they were using English. This may have caused a change to the "prestige accent" of English, either by making pronunciation more French in style or by changing it in some other way, perhaps by hypercorrection to something thought to be "more English" (England being at war with France for much of this period). Another influence may have been the great political and social upheavals of the fifteenth century, which were largely contemporaneous with the Great Vowel Shift.

Because English spelling was becoming standardised in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Great Vowel Shift is responsible for many of the peculiarities of English spelling. Spellings that made sense according to Middle English pronunciation were retained in Modern English because of the adoption and use of the printing press, which was introduced to England in the 1470s by William Caxton and later Richard Pynson.

Other languages

German and Dutch also experienced sound changes resembling the first stage of the Great Vowel Shift. In German, by the 15th or 16th centuries, long [iː] had changed to [aɪ], (as in Eis, 'ice') and long [uː] to [aʊ] (as in Haus, 'house'), though some Alemannic dialects resist those changes to this day, as does Limburgish. In Dutch, the former became [ɛi] (ijs), and the latter had earlier become [yː], which then became [œy] (huis). In German, there also was a separate [yː], which became [ɔʏ], via an intermediate similar to the Dutch. In the Polder Dutch pronunciation, the shift has actually been carried further than in Standard Dutch, with a very similar result as in German and English.

Dutch and German have, like English, also shifted common Germanic *[oː] to [uː] (German) or [u] (Dutch), as in Proto-Germanic *fōt- 'foot' > German Fuß, Dutch voet (as well as the rare secondary *[eː] to [iː] in German and [i] in Dutch). However, this similarity turns out to be superficial on closer inspection. Given the huge differences between the structures of Old English vowel phonology on one side, and that of Old Dutch and Old High German on the other, this is hardly surprising. Whereas there is no indication that English long vowels other than did anything but just move up in tongue-body position, Dutch [u] and German [uː] appear to have been raised through a process of diphthongisation.

In the very earliest Old High German and Old Dutch texts (9th cent.), the vowel [oː] is already consistently written -uo-. That is, it had broken into a nucleus with a centering glide. This complex nucleus smoothed, as the term has it in Middle High German and Middle Dutch, becoming the [uː] of Modern German and the [u] of Modern Dutch around the same time as the long high vowels began to diphthongize.

The [oː] of Modern German has a variety of sources, the oldest of which is Proto-Germanic *aw, which smoothed before /t d r x/ (so rot 'red', Ohr 'ear', Floh 'flea', etc.) Elsewhere the sound was written -ou- in OHG. In Old Dutch, this sound had become -o- everywhere, explaining the difference in words such as Dutch boom and German Baum.

See also


  1. ^ Robert Stockwell (2002). "How much shifting actually occurred in the historical English vowel shift?". In Donka Minkova; Stockwell, Robert. Studies in the History of the English Language: A Millennial Perspective. Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3110173689. 
  2. ^ William Labov (1994). Principles of Linguistic Change. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 145. ISBN 0-6311-7914-3. 
  3. ^ Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction, Kristin Denham, Anne Lobeck, Cengage Learning, 2009, p 89
  4. ^ L. Kip Wheeler. "Middle English consonant sounds" (PDF). 
  5. ^ Wales, K. (2006) Northern English: a cultural and social history, Cambridge: Cambridge University. p. 48
  6. ^ A History of Scots to 1700, DOST Vol. 12 pp. lvi-lix


External links

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