The Great Vowel Shift - The Great English Tense Vowel Shift
Around the time we started speaking modern English -- the time of Shakespeare -- English underwent a dramatic change known as the Great Vowel Shift (GVS) that was partly responsible for our odd, unintuitive English spelling.
Prior to the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, English speakers pronounced the vowels about the same as other speakers, and not too differently from the way the Romans would have pronounced Latin. If, as a native English-speaker, you've ever studied French, you know that the letter "i" is pronounced like an English long "e". Say it aloud. That's probably how English speakers in, say, Chaucer's time, would have pronounced a long "i".
The Great Vowel Shift affected only the long (or "tense") vowels. The short vowels were not affected. This is the general process, here used to explain the pronunciation of Latin to English-speakers. It is not intended to be an adequate linguistic analysis of the GVS. Orthographically, long vowels in English are often marked
; by being repeated (e.g. "feet", "feel," "tooth") or
; by having an "e" at the end of the word that, our teachers tell us, make the preceding vowel long (e.g., "like", "came", "home").
Vowels are pronounced in different areas of the mouth. If you hold your chin while going through the vowel sounds, you'll notice your chin rises and falls. When your chin is up, you're pronouncing high vowels and when you're chin is as far down as it goes in vowel pronunciation, you're pronouncing an "a", the low vowel. Vowels are often pronounced more in the front or back of your mouth.
High vowels: /i/ /u/
Mid vowels: /e/ /o/
Low vowel: /a/
Back vowels: /u/ /o/
When the Great Vowel Shift took place, the vowels rose upward, pushing the next higher vowel into the slot above. The vowels on top had no higher place to go and so became diphthongs. The front vowels were one chain pushing upwards, and the back vowels were another. What was written as an "e" was pronounced like a modern long "a" before the shift. When it moved up it came to be pronounced like a modern long "e" or a French or Roman "i". An old "i" became a diphthong [aj] as in "high". "O" became "u" as in the word "moon", which must have previously been pronounced something like our word "moan."
Front vowel chain of the Great Vowel Shift
/long a/-->/long e/-->/long i/--/aj/
Back vowel chain of the Great Vowel Shift
/long o/ -->/long u/ -->/aw/
So, if you see the letter "i" in a Latin word, remember it's not the Romans who pronounced the vowels oddly. We do -- now, and thanks to the GVS. A Latin "i" is pronounced as our "i" used to be.
Great Vowel Shift
The systemic change in the pronunciation of English vowels (in phonetic terms, the raising and
fronting of the long, stressed monophthongs) that occurred in southern England during the late Middle English period (roughly the period from Chaucer to Shakespeare). According to linguist
Otto Jespersen, who coined the term, "The great vowel-shift consists in a general raising of all long vowels" (A Modern English Grammar, 1909). See also:
; English Language Timeline
; Historical Linguistics
Examples and Observations:
; "By the early Modern English period, all the long vowels had shifted: Middle English e,
as in sweete 'sweet,' had already acquired the value that it currently has, and the others were
well on their way to acquiring the values that they have in current English. . . .
"These changes in the quality of the long, or tense, vowels constitute what is known as the
Great Vowel Shift. . . .
"The stages by which the shift occurred and the cause of it are unknown. There are several
theories, but the evidence is ambiguous."
(T. Pyles and J. Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language. Harcourt,
; "The evidence of spellings, rhymes, and commentaries by contemporary language pundits
suggest that [the Great Vowel Shift] operated in more than one stage, affected vowels at
different rates in different parts of the country, and took over 200 years to complete."
(David Crystal, The Stories of English. Overlook, 2004)
; "The 'standardization' described by the GVS may simply have been the social fixation
upon one variant among several dialectical options available in each case, a variant selected for
reasons of community preference or by the external force of printing standardization and not as
a result of a wholesale phonetic shift."