The Great English Vowel Shift
The Great English Vowel Shift
People who are learning English often find it difficult to pronounce English vowels. Some English vowels can be pronounced in several different ways, depending on the spelling of the word, and sometimes they are even pronounced differently in words that have similar spellings. For example, the ‘ea’ in ‘bread’ is pronounced the same as the ‘e’ in ‘bred,’ and not the same as the ‘ea’ in ‘break.’
English pronunciations weren’t always so difficult. In the past, English vowels were pronounced the same as vowels in term paper writing Spanish. There was only one way to pronounce each vowel. Over a period of 350 years, from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, English pronunciations changed drastically. People who study languages refer to this as “The Great Vowel Shift.”
What Happened During The Great Vowel Shift?
Historians have identified eight different stages to the Great Vowel Shift. The earliest vowels that were affected were ‘i’ and ‘u.’ In Old English, these vowels were pronounced the same as the Spanish equivalents. ‘I’ was long, like the ‘ee’ in the modern English word ‘reed,’ and the ‘u’ was pronounced like the ‘oo’ in the modern English word ‘food.’ In the first stage of the Great Vowel Shift, the ‘i’ was changed and became similar to the ‘ai’ in ‘raid,’ and the ‘u’ was changed to become similar to the ‘ou’ in ‘mouse.’
In the second stage, the vowels ‘e’ and ‘o,’ were changed. Previously, the English ‘e’ had been pronounced like the ‘ay’ in ‘say,’ and the ‘o’ had been pronounced like the ‘oa’ in ‘road.’ These vowels were raised, so that the ‘e’ took the place of the Old English ‘i’ and the ‘o’ took the place of the Old English ‘u.’
In the third stage of the Great Vowel Shift, the vowel ‘a’ was changed. In Old English, the ‘a’ was always pronounced like the ‘a’ in the word ‘ham.’ During the Great Vowel Shift, the ‘a’ was changed to sound like ‘ae’ and then changed again to sound like the ‘a’ in ‘make.’ It became a long ‘a’ instead of a short ‘a.’
In the next stage, the vowel ‘o,’ changed once more. In words with the vowel combination ‘oa,’ the ‘o’ changed to become the same as the ‘o’ in the modern English word ‘oh.’ At the same time, the vowel ‘e’ was further standardised, and was pronounced even more distinctly like the modern ‘ee.’
The fifth stage of the Great Vowel Shift is referred to as the ‘meet/meat merger.’ Previously, the ‘ee’ in ‘meet’ and the ‘ea’ in ‘meat’ were pronounced differently. During this stage, people began to pronounce them in the same way. This is the reason words such as ‘sea’ and ‘see’ are pronounced the same today.
In the sixth stage, a new pronunciation for the vowel ‘e’ was introduced. In some words, ‘e’ was pronounced like the ‘e’ in the modern English word ‘check.’ After this, in the seventh and eighth stages, new pronunciations were introduced for the vowel combinations ‘ai,’ ‘au,’ and ‘ei.’
During all the stages of the Great Vowel Shift, there were exceptions. Many words kept their old pronunciations, while people began to pronounce other words with the same spelling in a different way. This is the reason that words such as ‘bear,’ ‘great’ and ‘head’ all have different pronunciations today.
Another interesting fact about the Great Vowel Shift is that it didn’t affect all dialects of English. If you listen to someone from Scotland, for example, it will sound like they got caught somewhere between the second and fourth stages of the great vowel shift! People with Irish and Northern English accents have also kept many of the older pronunciations.
What Caused The Great Vowel Shift?
There are different theories as to what caused the Great Vowel Shift. Some historians have pointed out that it took place at the same time as the Black Death, when many people died of the plague. After the Black Death, people from many different regions emigrated to the southeast of England, and it’s thought that their accents were combined to create new pronunciations. Other historians point out that at this time the nobility were beginning to speak English instead of French. They think that people began to pronounce words differently in order to distance their language from the French.
No one knows for certain what caused the Great Vowel Shift, but it’s because of the changes during this period that English has so many strange pronunciations. Students who have difficulty pronouncing English words today can blame people who lived in England in the Middle Ages!