Great Vowel Shift

From Middle to Standard English

Term Paper, 2009

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 History and Causes of the Great Vowel Shift

3 Steps of the Great Vowel Shift
3.1 Step 1: /i:/ and /u:/ drop and become /əɪ/ and /əu/
3.2 Step 2: /e:/ and /o:/ move up, becoming /i:/ and /u:/
3.3 Step 3: /a:/ moves forward to /æ/ and raises to /ɛ:/
3.4 Step 4: /ɛ:/ moves to /e:/ and /ɔː/ becomes /o:/
3.5 Step 5: /e:/ moves to /i:/
3.6 Step 6: /ɛ:/ moves to /e:/
3.7 Step 7: əɪ/ and /əu/ drop to /aɪ/ and /aʊ/; /o:/ becomes /əʊ/

4 Exceptions and Irregularities

5 Conclusion

6 References

1 Introduction

Every language changes over time. Due to historical, political and social events, like population shifts or movements, a language develops and becomes versatile, as intralinguistic variations emerge between different regions and dialects.

One of the most important changes in the English language, which appeared especially in the south of England during the 15th to 18th centuries, was a Chain Shift, the so-called Great Vowel Shift. [INT1] A Chain Shift is “a change in the position of two phonemes in which one moves away from an original position that is occupied by the other.”(Labov 1994: 118)

The linguist William Labov classifies three principles, which are applicable to all the Chain Shifts:

- Principle I: long vowels rise (as in the Great Vowel Shift)
- Principle II: short vowels fall
- Principle IIa: the nuclei of upgliding diphthongs fall
- Principle III: back vowels move to the front

(Labov 1994:116)

The Danish linguist Otto Jespersen studied and mint the term ‘Great Vowel Shift’ first in his “Modern English Grammar” (in the first of seven volumes published from 1909 until 1949). (Labov 1994: 145) He already provided the following figure:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Another “authentic source of evidence for the shifting of the long vowels at a transitional stage” (Freeborn 2006: 308) is John Hart. In his “An Orthographie”, he tried to standardise the London English spelling, build on the contemporary pronunciation. He wanted to adopt the best and drop the worst features of all dialects. (Freeborn 2006: 308) I will refer to some of his spelt words as an evidence of the Shift in the chapter “Steps of the Great Vowel Shift”.

This paper will try to give an overview about the history and causes of the Great Vowel Shift, each step of its development will be examined and illustrated and some irregularities and exceptions that can be found while analysing the Shift will be mentioned.

2 History and Causes of the Great Vowel Shift

In the late 14th century the English philosopher and poet Geoffrey Chaucer had a huge influence in standardising the London-based Middle English. This was one of many spoken languages in England at that time, but the language of the majority. Some main characteristics of Middle English were

- Great diversity of scribal forms in Latin letters
- Written dialectal forms
- pronunciation of all letters, e.g. knight = /kniçt/
- in the beginning all written vowels were pronounced, but Chaucer made the final <e> silent later.


If you compare the pronunciation of vowels in Chaucer’s Middle English and Modern English, you detect an enormous shift. While the consonants stayed mainly the same, except e.g. Chaucer’s rolling <r> and the pronunciation of both elements of consonant combinations, like in <kn>, especially the long stressed vowels underwent a significant change: The Great Vowel Shift. [INT3] The Shift began in the 15th century and took until the 18 th century to fully develop. It was no “uniform process, but a series of local developments” (Nevalainen, 2006: 120) over time. The changes didn’t occur in all regions, e.g. in northern dialects, mainly the front vowels were affected. Furthermore there are some words that show irregularities, i.e. their pronunciation of long vowels is still similar to that of Middle English. (Nevalainen, 2006: 120) The effect of the shift was that vowels were “either raised or became diphtongs” ( Freeborn, 2006: 308) . This process occured only English. In no other language a similar complex shift of vowels can be found. [INT4]

The cause of this systematic vowel movement is still not completely clarified.

Some theories say that the mass immigration to South England after the pandemic Black Death and the resulting social mobility could be a reason. Afterwards, the numerous dialects with their different vowel sounds and the emerging middle class in London altered the speech into a new standard pronunciation, which finally disseminated to other regions. A great support of the spreading could have been the developing printing press in the 15th century, which enabled a higher amount of education and literacy in the English society. (INT1)

In 1972, William Labov created the theory that you can only examine the Great Vowel Shift with regard to the social background and environment of people adopting the new pronunciations. ([INT5]: 6) Every time, a language experiences a change in pronunciation, there are speakers, who adopt the new way of speaking very fast, whereas others “maintain the older ones” [INT6] In doing so, every speaker is influenced by his or her own life and environment, i.e. the education, the class of society, the gender and the age of the person.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Great Vowel Shift
From Middle to Standard English
University of Erfurt  (Sprachwissenschaft)
Regionale Varietäten
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ISBN (Book)
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Great Vowel Shift, Middle English, pronunciation, vowels, chain shift
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Victoria Tutschka (Author), 2009, Great Vowel Shift, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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