What is the Great Vowel
The term “The Great Vowel Shift” is used to describe a
time period between the mid 1300s and 1700, when the
English language began to change.
Before the shift, the spelling and pronunciation were
flexible and inconsistent. While it began to be consistent
during this period, it’s also responsible for some of the
unusual spellings and pronunciations we have.
Why did it happen?
There are lots of theories why this happened, but no one
knows for sure. Some are:
1 – migration. The “Black Death,” or the plague began in
1348. People began to move southward to escape the disease.
2 – Emerging middle class. (Upper classes, including
monarchy, spoke French or Latin.) The plague affected every
class, therefore some lower classes were able to raise above
3 – Language Contact. Because of increased travel (including
wars), people who spoke different languages met more often,
meaning they were able to affect each other’s pronunciation.
4 – Most importantly, the printing press invention in 1440,
which helped standardize spelling.
What does this mean?
Spelling and pronunciation changed drastically during this
time period. You’ll be able to see more evidence of this as
we progress through the semester. Reading the
Canterbury Tales in your textbook is tricky, right? Flip
ahead to something towards the end, like John Locke’s
“Two Treatises of Government,” or Thomas Gray’s
poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Church yard.” Just at
a glance, it’s MUCH easier to read isn’t it? That is
evidence of the Great Vowel Shift.
What did it sound like?
The best example I can find is from Wikipedia. (You know
English teachers usually run away from Wikipedia, but this is
really the easiest example for you to look at.) Hopefully the
Teaching Gods will forgive me!
To go https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift and
scroll down to Details/Changes. There is a sound file where
you can hear the changes as they occur from Late Middle
English, to Early Modern English (think Shakespeare), to
Isn’t that the most important question? English is an
unusual language, full of weird spellings and
pronunciations. The Great Vowel shift helps to explain
why things changed, and how.
And the question I can’t help but ask: Could we go
through this again? Our language has already changed
significantly because of technology. Will future
generations speak the same way we do?
Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of
Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print
History of English – The Great Vowel Shift. Perf. Jurgen
Handke. Youtube. Virtual Linguistics Campus, 7 Dec. 2012.
Web. 15 Aug 2015.