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The Great Vowel Shift - what the heck is that?

The Great Vowel Shift - what the heck is that?

Have you ever wondered why English spelling can be so different from its pronunciation? The reason for this is largely due to the so-called “Great Vowel Shift,” which occurred roughly between the 15th through the 18th centuries in England. The shift was one of the major changes to occur in the English language, and marked the transition from Middle to Modern English. The Great Vowel Shift refers to the changing of where the vowels are articulated in the mouth; roughly, moving from single vowels to diphthongs, and from lower to higher positions in the mouth.

For example, the word “bite” in Middle English would have been pronounced as a monophthong, sounding more like the modern word “beet.” Today it is pronounced with the diphthong /ai/ as in “bite”, rhyming with “light.” A word like “goose” would have been pronounced as “gous”, with /ou/ as in “boat” in the 15th century, but by the 16th century it would sound like “goos.” The word “feet” used to sound like “feit” with the vowel /ei/ as in “pay”. Thus, English pronunciation changed radically in about 200 years.

Unfortunately, English spelling didn’t change to keep up with the shifts in pronunciation, and this may be partly attributed to the mechanical printing press arriving in England in 1476. The vowel shift was occurring as hundreds of books were being printed, thus standardizing spellings that didn’t reflect pronunciation after the shift had occurred.

Why did this shift happen? You may be asking. The truth is we don’t know for sure, but there are a few theories. One of the most compelling has to do with migration; due to the plague, which wiped out huge portions of the population, people all over Europe were on the move. Migrants settled in the southeast of England, and perhaps the many different accents combined with the London dialect and changed it, or perhaps Londoners purposefully distinguished themselves from new immigrants by changing their own speech.

To make matters even more confusing, some words took on the new pronunciation, while others remained the same as before the shift. For example, some words with the spelling "ea" as in “head” and “bread” retained their old sound as /ɛ/ even after the shift, while others such as “heat” and “please” changed to /i/ in the shift, and now sound like the vowel in "leaf." Also, loanwords from French often retained their original spellings, such as “soufflé,” which added to the mashup!

The great vowel shift had an enormous effect on the English language. A 14th century English speaker and a Modern English speaker would find it very difficult to understand each other, even though they would be using many of the same words.

For tips on how to pronounce various English vowel spellings, see previous blog, "Why is English Spelling So Crazy? We provide 1-1 courses in advanced English fluency and American accent for non-native English speakers. Your course is customized to your individual objectives and challenges. Book a free info call and get all your questions answered >


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