The Info List - Great Vowel Shift

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The GREAT VOWEL SHIFT was a major series of changes in the pronunciation of the English language that took place in southern England, primarily between 1350 and the 1600s and 1700s. Through the Great Vowel Shift , all Middle English long vowels changed their pronunciation. English spelling was becoming standardized in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the Great Vowel Shift is responsible for many of the peculiarities of English spelling.


* 1 History of analysis * 2 Overall changes

* 3 Details

* 3.1 Middle English vowel system * 3.2 Changes * 3.3 First phase * 3.4 Second phase * 3.5 Later mergers

* 4 Northern English and Scots * 5 Exceptions * 6 Spelling * 7 See also * 8 Notes

* 9 Sources

* 9.1 References * 9.2 Bibliography

* 10 External links


The Great Vowel Shift was first studied by Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), a Danish linguist and Anglicist , who coined the term.


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The main difference between the pronunciation of Middle English in the year 1400 and Modern English ( Received Pronunciation ) is in the value of the long vowels . Long vowels in Middle English had "continental " values, much like those in Italian and Standard German , but in standard Modern English, they have entirely different pronunciations. The change in pronunciation is known as the Great Vowel Shift.


Late Middle English before the GVS Modern English after the GVS

BITE /iː/ /aɪ/

MEET /eː/ /iː/

MEAT /ɛː/

MATE /aː/ /eɪ/

OUT /uː/ /aʊ/

BOOT /oː/ /uː/

BOAT /ɔː/ /oʊ/

This timeline shows the main vowel changes that occurred between late Middle English in the year 1400 and Received Pronunciation in the mid-20th century by using representative words. The Great Vowel Shift occurred in the lower half of the table, between 1400 and 1600. The changes that happened after 1600 are not usually considered part of the Great Vowel Shift proper. Pronunciation is given in the International Phonetic Alphabet :



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Before the Great Vowel Shift, Middle English in Southern England had seven long vowels, /iː eː ɛː aː ɔː oː uː/. The vowels occurred in the words _bite_, _meet_, _meat_, _mate_, _boat_, _boot_ and _out_.

Southern Middle English vowel system


CLOSE /iː/: _bite_ /uː/: _out_

CLOSE-MID /eː/: _meet_ /oː/: _boot_

OPEN-MID /ɛː/: _meat_ /ɔː/: _boat_

OPEN /aː/: _mate_ —

The words had very different pronunciations in Middle English from their pronunciations in Modern English. Long _i_ in _bite_ was pronounced as /iː/ so Middle English _bite_ sounded like Modern English _beet_ /biːt/; long _e_ in _meet_ was pronounced as /eː/ so Middle English _meet_ sounded similar to Modern English _mate_ /meɪt/; long _a_ in _mate_ was pronounced as /aː/, with a vowel like Scottish English _ah_ in _father_ or General American short _o_ in _cot_ /kät/; and long _o_ in _boot_ was pronounced as /oː/, similar to modern _oa_ in General American _boat_ /oʊ/. In addition, Middle English had a long /ɛː/ in _beat_, like modern short _e_ in _bed_ but pronounced longer, and a long /ɔː/ in _boat_.


After around 1300, the long vowels of Middle English began changing in pronunciation. The two close vowels, /iː uː/, became diphthongs (vowel breaking ), and the other five, /eː ɛː aː ɔː oː/, underwent an increase in tongue height (raising ).

The changes are known as the Great Vowel Shift. They occurred over several centuries and can be divided into two phases. The first phase affected the close vowels /iː uː/ and the close-mid vowels /eː oː/: /eː oː/ were raised to /iː uː/, and /iː uː/ became the diphthongs /ei ou/ or /əi əu/. The second phase affected the open vowel /aː/ and the open-mid vowels /ɛː ɔː/: /aː ɛː ɔː/ were raised, in most cases changing to /eː iː oː/.

The Great Vowel Shift changed vowels without merger so Middle English before the vowel shift had the same number of vowel phonemes as Early Modern English after the vowel shift. After the Great Vowel Shift, some vowel phonemes began merging. Immediately after the Great Vowel Shift, the vowels of _meet_ and _meat_ were different, but they are merged in Modern English, and both words are pronounced as /miːt/. However, during the 16th and the 17th centuries, there were many different mergers, and some mergers can be seen in individual Modern English words like _great_, which is pronounced with the vowel /eɪ/ as in _mate_ rather than the vowel /iː/ as in _meat_.

This is a simplified picture of the changes that happened between late Middle English and today's English. Pronunciations in 1400, 1500, 1600, and 1900 are shown. To hear recordings of the sounds, click the phonetic symbols.



1400 1500 1600 1900

BITE /iː/ /ei/ /ɛi/ /aɪ/

MEET /eː/ /iː/ /iː/ /iː/

MEAT /ɛː/ /ɛː/ /eː/ /iː/

MATE /aː/ /æː/ /ɛː/ /eɪ/

OUT /uː/ /ou/ /ɔu/ /aʊ/

BOOT /oː/ /uː/ /uː/ /uː/

BOAT /ɔː/ /ɔː/ /oː/ /oʊ/

Before labial consonants and also after /j/ , /uː/ did not shift, and /uː/ remains as in _sOUp_ and _rOOm_ (its Middle English spelling was _roum_).


The first phase of the Great Vowel Shift affected the Middle English close-mid vowels /eː oː/, as in _beet_ and _boot_, and the close vowels /iː uː/, as in _bite_ and _out_. The close-mid vowels /eː oː/ became close /iː uː/, and the close vowels /iː uː/ became diphthongs. The first phase was complete in 1500, meaning that by that time, words like _beet_ and _boot_ had lost their Middle English pronunciation, and were pronounced with the same vowels as in Modern English. The words _bite_ and _out_ were pronounced with diphthongs, but not the same diphthongs as in Modern English.

First phase of the Great Vowel Shift WORD VOWEL PRONUNCIATION

1400 1550

BITE /iː/ /ɛi/

MEET /eː/ /iː/

OUT /uː/ /ɔu/

BOOT /oː/ /uː/

Scholars agree that the Middle English close vowels /iː uː/ became diphthongs around the year 1500, but disagree about what diphthongs they changed to. According to Lass, the words _bite_ and _out_ after diphthongization were pronounced as /beit/ and /out/, similar to American English _bait_ /beɪt/ and _oat_ /oʊt/. Later, the diphthongs /ei ou/ shifted to /ɛi ɔu/, then /əi əu/, and finally to Modern English /aɪ aʊ/. This sequence of events is supported by the testimony of orthoepists before Hodges in 1644.

However, many scholars such as Dobson (1968) , Kökeritz (1953) , and Cercignani (1981) argue for theoretical reasons that, contrary to what 16th-century witnesses report, the vowels /iː uː/ were actually immediately centralized and lowered to /əi əu/.

Evidence from northern English and Scots (see below ) suggests that the close-mid vowels /eː oː/ were the first to shift. As the Middle English vowels /eː oː/ were raised towards /iː uː/, they forced the original Middle English /iː uː/ out of place and caused them to become diphthongs /ei ou/. This type of sound change, in which one vowel's pronunciation shifts so that it is pronounced like a second vowel, and the second vowel is forced to change its pronunciation, is called a push chain .

However, according to professor Jürgen Handke, for some time, there was a phonetic split between words with the vowel /iː/ and the diphthong /əi/, in words where the Middle English /iː/ shifted to the Modern English /aɪ/. For an example, _high_ was pronounced with the vowel /iː/, and _like_ and _my_ were pronounced with the diphthong /əi/. Therefore, for logical reasons, the close vowels /iː uː/ could have diphthongized before the close-mid vowels /eː oː/ raised. Otherwise, _high_ would probably rhyme with _thee_ rather than _my_. This type of chain is called a drag chain .


The second phase of the Great Vowel Shift affected the Middle English open vowel /aː/, as in _mate_, and the Middle English open-mid vowels /ɛː ɔː/, as in _meat_ and _boat_. Around 1550, Middle English /aː/ was raised to /æː/. Then, after 1600, the new /æː/ was raised to /ɛː/, with the Middle English open-mid vowels /ɛː ɔː/ raised to close-mid /eː oː/.

Second phase of the Great Vowel Shift WORD VOWEL PRONUNCIATION

1400 1550 1640

MEAT /ɛː/ /ɛː/ /eː/

MATE /aː/ /aː/, /æː/ /ɛː/

BOAT /ɔː/ /ɔː/ /oː/


During the first and the second phases of the Great Vowel Shift, long vowels were shifted without merging with other vowels, but after the second phase, several vowels merged. The later changes also involved the Middle English diphthong /ai/, as in _day_, which had monophthongised to /ɛː/, and merged with Middle English /aː/ as in _mate_ or /ɛː/ as in _meat_.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, several different pronunciation variants existed among different parts of the population for words like _meet_, _meat_, _mate_, and _day_. In each pronunciation variant, different pairs or trios of words were merged in pronunciation. Four different pronunciation variants are shown in the table below. The fourth pronunciation variant gave rise to Modern English pronunciation. In Modern English, _meet_ and _meat_ are merged in pronunciation and both have the vowel /iː/, and _mate_ and _day_ are merged with the diphthong /eɪ/, which developed from the 16th-century long vowel /eː/.

Second phase of the Great Vowel Shift WORD 16TH CENTURY PRONUNCIATION VARIANTS

1 2 3 4

MEET /iː/ /iː/ /iː/ /iː/

MEAT /ɛː/ /eː/ /eː/

DAY /ɛː/ /eː/

MATE /æː/

Modern English typically has the _meet_–_meat_ merger: both _meet_ and _meat_ are pronounced with the vowel /iː/. Words like _great_ and _steak_, however, have merged with _mate_ and are pronounced with the vowel /eɪ/, which developed from the /eː/ shown in the table above.


The Great Vowel Shift affected other dialects as well as the standard English of southern England but in different ways. In Northern England , the long back vowels remained unaffected because the long mid back vowel had undergone an earlier shift. Similarly, the Scots language in Scotland had a different vowel system before the Great Vowel Shift, as /oː/ had shifted to /øː/ in Early Scots . In the Scots equivalent of the Great Vowel Shift, the long vowels /iː/, /eː/ and /aː/ shifted to /ei/, /iː/ and /eː/ by the Middle Scots period and /uː/ remained unaffected.

The first step in the Great Vowel Shift in Northern and Southern English is shown in the table below. The Northern English developments of Middle English /iː, eː/ and /oː, uː/ were different from Southern English. In particular, the Northern English vowels /iː/ in _bite_, /eː/ in _feet_, and /oː/ in _boot_ shifted, while the vowel /uː/ in _house_ did not:



BITE /iː/ /ɛi/ /ai/

FEET /eː/ /iː/ /iː/

HOUSE /uː/ /uː/ /au/

BOOT /oː/ /iː/ /uː/

The vowel systems of Northern and Southern Middle English immediately before the Great Vowel Shift were different in one way. In Northern Middle English, the back close-mid vowel /oː/ in _boot_ had already shifted to front /øː/ (a sound change known as fronting ), like the long _ö_ in German _hören_ ( listen ) "hear". Thus, Southern English had a back close-mid vowel /oː/, but Northern English did not:

Southern Middle English vowel system


CLOSE iː uː


OPEN-MID ɛː ɔː

OPEN aː —

Northern Middle English vowel system


CLOSE iː uː

CLOSE-MID eː, øː —

OPEN-MID ɛː ɔː

OPEN aː —

In both Northern and Southern English, the first step of the Great Vowel Shift raised the close-mid vowels to become close. Northern Middle English had two close-mid vowels – /eː/ in _feet_ and /øː/ in _boot_ – which were raised to /iː/ and /yː/. Later on, Northern English /yː/ changed to /iː/, so that _boot_ has the same vowel as _feet_. Southern Middle English had two close-mid vowels – /eː/ in _feet_ and /oː/ in _boot_ – which were raised to /iː/ and /uː/.

In Southern English, the close vowels /iː/ in _bite_ and /uː/ in _house_ shifted to become diphthongs, but in Northern English, /iː/ in _bite_ shifted but /uː/ in _house_ did not.

If the difference between the Northern and Southern vowel shifts is caused by the vowel systems at the time of the Great Vowel Shift, /uː/ did not shift because there was no back mid vowel /oː/ in Northern English. In Southern English, shifting of /oː/ to /uː/ could have caused diphthongisation of original /uː/, but because Northern English had no back close-mid vowel /oː/ to shift, the back close vowel /uː/ did not diphthongise.


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Not all words underwent certain phases of the Great Vowel Shift. Examples are _father _, which failed to become /ɛː/, and _broad_, which failed to become /oʊ/. The word _room_, which was spelled as _roum_ in Middle English, retains its Middle English pronunciation. It is an exception to the shifting of /uː/ to /aʊ/ because it is followed by _m_, a labial consonant .

The class _ea_ did not take the step to /iː/ in several words. The presence of /r/ in _swear_ and _bear_ caused the vowel quality to be retained but not in the cases of _hear _ and _near_. Shortening of long vowels at various stages produced further complications: _ea_ is again a good example by shortening commonly before coronal consonants such as _d_ and _th_, thus: _dead_, _head_, _threat_, _wealth_ etc. (That is known as the bred–bread merger .) The _oo_ was shortened from /uː/ to /ʊ/, in many cases before _k_, _d_ and less commonly _t_: _book_, _foot_, _good_, etc. Some words subsequently changed from /ʊ/ to /ʌ/: _blood_, _flood_. Similar but older shortening occurred for some instances of _ou_: _could_.

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.


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Main article: English orthography

The printing press was introduced to England in the 1470s by William Caxton and later Richard Pynson . The adoption and use of the printing press accelerated the process of standardization of English spelling , which continued into the 16th century. The standard spellings were those of Middle English pronunciation, and spelling conventions continued from Old English. However, the Middle English spellings were retained into Modern English while the Great Vowel Shift was taking place, which caused some of the peculiarities of Modern English spelling in relation to vowels.


* Canaanite Shift * Chain shift * Vowel shift * Consonant mutation * History of the English language * International Phonetic Alphabet * Phonological history of English vowels * " The Chaos "


* ^ Centralizing to /ɨi ɨu/ and then lowering to /əi əu/ argued by Stockwell (1961).



* ^ Stockwell, Robert (2002). "How much shifting actually occurred in the historical English vowel shift?" (PDF). In Minkova, Donka; Stockwell, Robert. _Studies in the History of the English Language: A Millennial Perspective_ ( PDF )format= requires url= (help ). Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-017368-9 . * ^ Wyld, H. C. (1957) , _A Short History of English_ * ^ Denham, Kristin; Lobeck, Anne (2009), _ Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction_, Cengage Learning, p. 89 * ^ Labov, William (1994). _Principles of Linguistic Change_. Blackwell Publishing. p. 145. ISBN 0-631-17914-3 . * ^ _A_ _B_ Lass 2000 , p. 72. * ^ Wheeler, L Kip. " Middle English consonant sounds" (PDF). * ^ _A_ _B_ _C_ Lass 2000 , pp. 80–83. * ^ _A_ _B_ Lass 2000 , pp. 83–85. * ^ _A_ _B_ _C_ Görlach 1991 , pp. 68–69. * ^ Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (2006). _The Atlas of North American English_. Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter. p. 14. ISBN 3-11-016746-8 . * ^ _A_ _B_ Lass 2000 , pp. 74–77. * ^ Jürgen Handke (Dec 7, 2012). "PHY117 – The Great Vowel Shift". _YouTube_. The Virtual Linguistics Campus. * ^ Wales, K (2006). _Northern English: a cultural and social history_. Cambridge: Cambridge University. p. 48. * ^ Macafee, Caroline; Aitken, A. J., _A History of Scots to 1700_, DOST, 12, pp. lvi–lix


Baugh, Alfred C.; Cable, Thomas (1993). _A History of the English Language_ (4 ed.). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. Cable, Thomas (1983). _A Companion to Baugh & Cable's History of the English Language_. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. Cercignani, Fausto (1981). _Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation_. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Dillon, George L., "American English vowels", _Studying Phonetics on the Net_ Dobson, E. J. (1968). _English Pronunciation 1500–1700 (2 vols)_ (2 ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. (See vol. 2, 594–713 for discussion of long stressed vowels) Freeborn, Dennis (1992). _From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Language Variation Across Time_. Ottawa, Canada: University of Ottawa Press . Görlach, Manfred (1991). _Introduction to Early Modern English_. Cambridge University Press . Kökeritz, Helge (1953). _Shakespeare's Pronunciation_. New Haven: Yale University Press . Lass, Roger (2000). "Chapter 3: Phonology and Morphology". In Lass, Roger. _The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III: 1476–1776_. Cambridge University Press. pp. 56–186. Millward, Celia (1996). _A Biography of the English Language_ (2 ed.). Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace. Pyles, Thomas; Algeo, John (1993). _The Origins and Development of the English Language_ (4 ed.). Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace & Co. Rogers, William 'Bill', _A Simplified History of the Phonemes of English_, Furman


* /https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyhZ8NQOZeo Great Vowel Shift Video lecture/ * Menzer, M., "What is the Great Vowel Shift?", _Great Vowel Shift_, Furman University * "The Great Vowel Shift", _ Geoffrey Chaucer _, Harvard University

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