What is the great vowel shift?
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ETA: I expect one of the real linguists here will correct my mistakes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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").
Then there is the situation of English shifting the vowels of Greek derived words.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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...
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.
Sorry, not too familiar with American accents, I just thought Missouri accent sounded different from any that I had heard previously.
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.
The current Northern Cities (i.e. U.S. Great Lakes cities) that's going on right now is all in pronunciation.
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.
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.
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
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.