What is the great vowel shift?

SnakI Survived the Great Vowel Shift

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What is the great vowel shift?

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jan 24, 2008, 1:55pm

This is an interesting title for the group--what does it refer to?

Redigeret: jan 24, 2008, 2:09pm

It's the set of changes in vowels that took Middle English to Modern English in about the 16th century. Roughly, long vowels were raised (ie the highest part of the tongue moved higher), those which couldn't be raised became diphthongs.

ETA: I expect one of the real linguists here will correct my mistakes.

jan 24, 2008, 2:09pm

JIMROBERTS: Can you give me an example ?

jan 24, 2008, 2:12pm

Not easily, unless we both learn the IPA :) But if you have been exposed to Chaucer in the original pronunciation, you could compare some of his words to the modern equivalents.

jan 24, 2008, 2:18pm

Wikipedia has a good chart.

jan 26, 2008, 12:15am

# 3
A flaky example is to take a name like Marguerite. In this word, the i is pronounce like th ee in beet. Normally, the i sound is pronounced differently: the word rite (also spelled right or write) does not rhyme with Marguerite, but rhymes with the words in the parentheses. Originally, English pronounced all its long i's roughly like the i in Marguerite, but the sound shift changed that to the usual pronunciation we hear today. By the way the long i (also spelled eye) is a dipthong which means the actual sound is two sounds put together. So long I is a smudging together of ah & ee (ah-ee). If you close your eyes and say the long I real slowly, you can feel your lips close somewhat as you pronounce the i.. With a non-dipthong, your lips would hold steady. The long oo in food is held pretty steady. IPA would describe all this more efficiently, but there is a fair learning curve to learn it.

jan 26, 2008, 2:39pm

vpfluke: Thanks for example. You explain something complicated quite well :)

feb 1, 2008, 8:41pm

Very simply, it's a shift in the pronunciation of long vowels from the way most Europeans (French, Germans, Spanish, etc.) pronounce them to the way English speakers now pronounce them.

a -- from aah to eh(drawn out)
e -- from eye to ee
i -- from ee to eye
o -- from ooo to oh(drawn out)
u -- from ou to you

not technically linguistically correct, but it should work pronunciation-wise.

feb 1, 2008, 11:01pm

Funny that E and I would switch....

feb 1, 2008, 11:17pm

9> They didn't exactly. I was taught that in general the vowels rose in articulation with some loop back for the high vowels. The front vowels were affected more than the back vowels. /e/ was pronounced in isolation eh or ey; it still is in plenty of words, but, in isolation and some other words it is ee. /i/ was pronounced in isolation ih (as in id) or ee; like the other, it still is in plenty of words, but, in isolation and other words it is a diphthong of a low vowel and a high one. Long vowels went high while a good many short vowels stayed where they were.

Meanwhile, English has a huge number of borrowed words. Some were borrowed before the change in English and some after, so we sometimes have the same word borrowed and now in two pronunciations. A vocalic example does not come instantly to mind, but there was another change from k to ch or sh; we borrowed 'skirt' twice from one of the low countries and have it now as 'shirt' (from the first borrowing plus change) and 'skirt' (the second borrowing after, and so without, the change).

Sadly, in order to say something consequential about old and middle English, you pretty much have to know everything, so I looked at formal languages then dropped out.


feb 1, 2008, 11:21pm

Couple of mistakes, one simple and one complex:

Long e was originally pronounced as "eh(drawn out)", not "eye".

Long u shifted from "oo" to "ow". The way this one is spelled is complicated by the fact that modern English spelling is based on French spelling, and French had undergone its own vowel shift where u was shifted to a front vowel and the spelling ou was used for the back vowel. Thus English speakers used "ou" for the old long u (then pronounced "oo", now pronounced "ow" thanks to the GVS), and pronounced u as "you" as a rough approximation since they didn't have the front vowel that u is pronounced as in French. Back in Old English, though, "u" was used to write long u, so for example modern English "out" corresponds to Old English "ut" (pronounced "oot").

feb 2, 2008, 12:44pm

Now that I've read this thread I believe I may claim I have survived the great vowel shift. (-;

feb 3, 2008, 12:08am

I think Greek also went through a vowel shift. The wikipedia article is not very exact on this subject:

Then there is the situation of English shifting the vowels of Greek derived words.

feb 9, 2008, 3:10am

If you want to get into the difference between English and Greek you can bring up the First Germanic Consonant Shift (aka Grimm's Law), which was the first of these historic shifts to have been researched:


(For those curious about the use of the word "first": the second Germanic consonant shift (aka the High Germanic Consonant Shift) is the big difference between modern day germanic words in English/Dutch (and related "low german" languages) and German.)

I don't know much more than the various Wikipedia pages on these subjects, but I sometimes find it fascinating.

feb 9, 2008, 12:30pm

I think consonant shifts can be as intersting as vowel shifts. The second (High) Germanic sound shift is discussed at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_German_consonant_shift

The problem with the Greek vowel sound shift is that we don't have sufficient (and precise) data on how they were pronounced in ancient times.

maj 14, 2008, 5:50pm

Another way of putting it is that it changed how you shape your mouth, how wide open it is, and where you put your tongue when you speak each of the vowel sounds. Do it in front of a mirror and laugh at yourself. Do it in front of children, get them to play, too, and everyone laughs!

maj 14, 2008, 11:09pm

Wikipedia describes a vowel shift that extends from 50 miles west of Albany, NY, through the Great Lakes region: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_cities_vowel_shift
Most people aren't too cognizant of this one, but the day when educated speech in Cleveland was considered the radio broadcast standard in the U.S. has probably passed due to most Clevelanders having shifted a bunch of their vowels.

Actually doing a search on vowel shift comes up with 325 entries in Wikipedia, so lesser vowel shifts are fairly frequent in languages.

Redigeret: maj 16, 2008, 3:59pm

Ever notice how some pairs of words are clearly related, but pronounced differently? Think of "cave" and "cavernous". "Midwife" and "midwifery". "Sheep" and "shepherd". Doubtless you'll think of others.

What you're hearing when you pronounce each word pair is the vowel shift. "Cave" used to be pronounced like the first syllable in "cavernous". "Midwife" used to rhyme with "cliff", and "sheep" with "step". In each pair, one word underwent the vowel shift, and the other didn't.

maj 16, 2008, 3:26am

Nicole's post is most interesting! It's only 9 am here, & I already learned something new. Over the years, English seems to me a very tricky language. French doesn't have so many pronunciation subtleties, I think.

maj 16, 2008, 2:42pm

English is sometimes regarded as having an etymological spelling. This means you can frequently denote the language the word came from by its spelling. In English the 'tion' in a word like 'nation' is pronounced just like the English word 'shun'. The tion indicates a Latin original. If English had a word like 'nashun', which is doesn't, then we would presume perhaps an Anglo-Saxon origin. Many people speaking English pronounce the word 'click' the same way as 'clique', but the latter is obviously French, and the former isn't.

As another note, in the Detroit area, actually in the suburb of Grosse Pointe, there is a street named 'Provencal'. In French, this word has cedilla under the c to make it an s sound, so the workd comes out sounding something like Pro-vo~n-sal. In Detroit, though, it is frequently pronounced: Pro- vo~n' -chal (accent on the nasalized 2nd syllable). I don't know if there are any French dialects which make the c into a ch sound (like Italian), but one suspects that maybe people from the south of France had settled in the area near Provencal Road.

maj 18, 2008, 10:56pm

Italian makes "c" into a "ch" sound only before the vowels i and e. Before a, o, and u, it sounds like k. Both are in "cacciatore."

I wonder whether ProVONchal Road got its pronunciation from Slavic speakers? I'm no expert, but in Slavic languages/dialects that use the Roman alphabet (Polish, Czech, Slovak, Croatian), "c" is either a "ts" as in tsunami or a "ch" as in church. Unless I'm wrong!

maj 19, 2008, 5:33am

I cannot think of an instance of 'c' being pronounced 'ch' in Provence... (But I maybe wrong.) French spoken in Provence can notably differ from the standard pronounciation to the point of being ununderstandable even to a French ear. An instance would be 'pneu' (abbreviated form of 'pneumatique', i.e. tyre), pronounced in French as 'pneuh', and in Provence as 'peuhneuh'; or the termination '-on' deformed in '-ong' instead of '-on~'. A typical phrase would be 'Il faut que tu changes ton pneu, con !' (you have to change your tyre, bloody!), 'con' being almost systematically used at the end of a sentence, even if the person you are talking to is not a damn fool. The phrase would be pronounced in Provence : 'Il fo keuh tu changeuh tong peuhneuh, kong !'.

The only place in France where I think they pronounce 's' as 'ch' is in the North of France with what is called chtimi, a dialect in northern Picardy. They say 'les chiens' instead of 'les siens'. As 'les chiens' means in French 'the dogs', they turn the difficulty by pronouncing 'les chiens' (the dogs) 'les kiens' (i.e. 'ch' is pronounced 'k'). Needless to say this can puzzle the anaware foreigner.

But all this seems to be rather far away from the title of this thread...

maj 19, 2008, 12:02pm

On further thought on the Grosse Pointe road, Provencal, I am beginning to think that speakers were thinking of the English word, 'provincial', in which the the 'ci' is pronouonced as a 'ch' sound.

With regard to the chtimi accent in Picardy, this is not far from Flanders. There are a lot of Flemish in the Detroit area (but few Dutch). On the far east side of Detroit is a restaurant called the Cadieux Cafe, where Flemish food is served and Flemish bowling can be done. This place is almost walking distance from Grosse Pointe.

(By the way, Cadieux, which is French, and not Flemish, is pronounced Ca - jew, the 'a' is the same as the 'a' in hat.)

Sorry for the topic drift, but I thought of Detroit, because there has been a lesser sound shift in vowels going on there in recent decades, and I did live there for 18 years.

dec 29, 2008, 1:58am

Isn't it true that vowels keep shifting all the time; differently in different places? I have heard people from Missouri pronounce the last 'i' as 'ah'. Someone will correct me for sure, but this means that since 'i' takes up the job of the 'a', now 'a' will be pronounced as some other vowel, is it 'e'?
Sorry, not too familiar with American accents, I just thought Missouri accent sounded different from any that I had heard previously.

dec 29, 2008, 11:12am

Pronouncing the final i in Missouri as ah (actually more like a schwa) is pretty widespread in Missouri and has been for a long time (one can see this in a linguistics atlas from the 1930's). I've asked a person at my church in New York City, who grew up in Missouri, and he thinks it goes both ways, but as he thought about it, when he speaks and does not think about it, the ah sound comes out, rather than the i (ee) sound. I think the i sound is used most prominently by educated folks from St. Louis. I have a hephew sho lives in St. Louis and teaches at Wash Univ, and I'm sure he and his wife uses the i sound all the time, but then they didn't grow up in Missouri. A friend I have from Joplin (SW corner of the state), I can't imagine him saying anything but the ah sound.

feb 13, 2009, 3:15pm

I think of "the great vowel shift" as a change in how English speakers both spelled vowel sounds already in their language as well as how they then began to read vowel letters in texts. For example, people didn't change how they pronounced the sound /ee/ that was already in their language; what changed was the letter they used to spell that sound as well as the name of that letter. For example, the letter "e" used to spell the sound /a-e/ as in "great" and its name sounded like that as well (and still does in German.) And the letter "a" spelled the sound /o/ as in "ma", "pa", "father" or "all" and its name sounded like /o/ not /a_e/ as it does now. (And, again, the letter "a" is still pronounced and read that way in German.)

As I recall, the changes in how English speakers spelled the sounds in their language made sense in terms of the history of the English language, including: the original speakers of the English language (Germans), who was speaking it (e.g., the common people versus those times in English history when those in power were speaking French), the influx, thus influence, of words and spellings from other languages (e.g, French, Latin & Greek), the dialects of who were learning to read English, and most importantly who was in charge of spelling those words (e.g., priests as missionaries from the Catholic church, scribes in court...American spellings versus English).

I guess what I'm trying to say is that people all over the world make changes in how they say/pronounce words, but the spellings--at least in recent times--have stayed consistent (e.g., the word "the" used to be pronounced /thee/ and now is pronounced /thuh/ but the spellings haven't changed to reflect that.) I think that "The Great Vowel Shift" was first a great shift in how the existing words in our language were spelled, rather than a change in pronunciation.

feb 13, 2009, 9:06pm

I've always assumed that the shift in the pronunciation happened , and the spellings remained somewhat constant in the sound shift era, ~1200-~1600. Spelling was certainly inconsistent in this period. I think a look at the OED can tell whether many Middle English words had spelling changes that preceded the sound shift. Of course, the evidence of pronunciation is somewhat scant apart from looking at poetical rhymes. The Wikipedia article on the Sound shift: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift

The current Northern Cities (i.e. U.S. Great Lakes cities) that's going on right now is all in pronunciation.

feb 13, 2009, 9:32pm

>26 bonniebooks: Incidentally, "the" is often pronounced "thee" when singing in a more Bel Canto style because "uh" isn't quite a full "ah", and the only vowels (most of the time) are "a" (ah), "e" (a), "i" (ee), "o" (same), "u" (oo). This also happens (around where I live) when "the" precedes a word with a vowel sound in the initial position ("the angel", as opposed to "the car").

feb 13, 2009, 9:38pm

Yes, vpfluke, I agree with you and wikipedia's explanation of TGVS, believe it or not! :-) I guess I'm not being very clear. What I'm trying to say is that, for example, the sound /ee/ was already a part of the English language when it was decided to spell that sound with the letter "e" rather than "i," just as the sound /a_e/ was earlier spelled with the letter "e" or "ea." And, of course, there have been lots of variations on how words were spelled until the advent of dictionaries such as the OED.

feb 13, 2009, 9:45pm

>28 yue:, Yes! I still say /thee/ when I'm emphasizing something such as: "That was the (pronounced as /thee/) best chocolate cake I've ever eaten!" Or parents and kids still say, "The end!" in the same way.

feb 13, 2009, 9:48pm

>30 bonniebooks: Chocolate cake . . . :)

feb 14, 2009, 4:08am

#26: bonniebooks

You are making the mistake, common among educated people in highly literate societies, of thinking of language as primarily the written language. Remember, though, that when the GVS was going on, most of the population was illiterate. But also, think of your own experience. You learned to speak at a very young age and learned to read and write later: by the time you began reading and writing, you had already been good at speaking for quite some time.
Also, as vpfluke says, currently ongoing sound changes are independent of spelling.

feb 14, 2009, 6:38am

But that's exactly what I'm trying to say! :) Spoken language, and, obviously, the sounds in spoken language that letters eventually come to spell came first!

feb 14, 2009, 8:48am


Sorry for the misunderstanding. So what you are saying is, that we changed the pronunciation but, mostly, not the spelling, and then children learning to read after the change of pronunciation had to associate the old letters with the new sounds. That's certainly true.

feb 15, 2014, 10:03am

I just joined this site after having googled "Great Vowel Shift" and finding this list of posts.
Nicole, I was particularly interested in your explanation of words like cave and cavernous.

I'm looking for any explanation that would help Spanish speakers trying to learn English pronunciation. I thought maybe a small understanding of the Great Vowel Shift would help. Any suggestions? I do know the IPA, if that helps? thanks

feb 15, 2014, 5:55pm


To start on an answer for you. The link to the English article in Wikipedia can be found in Post # 5, the Spanish version of the same article is at: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gran_desplazamiento_voc%C3%A1lico . Both of these articles seem a little technical for a first-timer, but the Spanish version is an abbreviation of the English one.

From my perspective, this means that most vowels in English are mostly not pronounced the same as the basic European standard, Spanish, Italian, German when not umlauted etc. Plus the so-called long vowel in English is not a long version of the short vowell, but actually a separate sound. Most long vowels in English are dipthongs. That's when the pronunciation starts on one vowel and ends on another vowell -- so the mouth typically closes a bit when pronouncing the long vowell. So the long A in English is pronounced starting with more of an E sound and then slides to an I sound. In IPA it is written eı. Long A's in English are words like: name (e silent), day, pain (the ay ai is a singular dipthong).

One should not that English spelling is more like an archaeological dig than an accurate cue on how the word is normally spoken.

Some sounds have problems without being part of a sound shift. For instance, in many dialects, the final r in a word is not pronounced, in other it is. If the final r is always pronounced, then some people say that the speaker uses a rhotic r. Rhotic r's are used in the U.S. in the northern states that are west of Central New York. In Eastern New England, r's are dropped the most, but r's are added to many words which end in vowels. In England, the standard is not to pronounce the r, but there are a fair number of dialects that do. In England, one gets the feeling that dropping the r has some 'properness' to it, whereas in the U.S. it is more purely geographical.

One sly thing that English does to help pronounce its plethora of short words (one-syllable), is that the the vowel is held longer (maybe a tenth of a second) when the final consonant is voiced. This helps to distinguish between bit and bid, where the i in bid is pronounced very slightly longer than the i in bit. Note, d is voiced and bit is unvoiced.

One could go on and on about English pronunciation. I am not a professional linguist, so maybe someone in this thread can direct you to a book, CD, or something that might be useful.