The Great Vowel Shift

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

24 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1 Introduction

2 Description and Order of the Changes
2.1 Graphical Representations of the Great Vowel Shift
2.2 Dating the Changes
2.3 Push-Chain or Pull-Chain
2.4 Diphthongization

3 Explaining the Changes
3.1 Intralinguistic Factors
3.2 Extralinguistic Factors

4 Variation in the Changes
4.1 Regional and Social Variation

5 Conzeptualization of the Great Vowel Shift
5.1 The Great Vowel Shift as a Chimera
5.2 The Great Vowel Shift as a Metaphor

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography


The Great Vowel Shift of English has probably been the focal point for more controversy and speculation among historical phonologists than any other phenomenon in the history of the English language.

(Perkins 1977: 123)

Languages are regarded as constantly changing. Thus language change can be considered as being “inherent in the nature of language” (Milroy 1992: 1). However, these changes do not happen suddenly but evolve over a longer period of time. A specific linguistic change thus can be seen as a continuous process. The processes can be considered to stem from the complex and combinatory interaction of intralinguistic and extralinguistic factors (Smith 1996: 79). The changes of the long vowel system1 between the fourteenth and seventeenth century, called the Great Vowel Shift, have been considered as a “revolution in the pronunciation of the long vowels” (Pinker 1994: 250). Textbooks on the English language portray the changes in the long vowel system as interrelated movements of the different vowels. Next to a helpful diagram, which presents the changes in a graphical way and will be discussed in the following chapter, one can find statements about the Great Vowel Shift as such by Baugh and Cable in A History of the English Language:

All the long vowels gradually came to be pronounced with a greater elevation of the tongue and closing of the mouth, so that those that could be raised […] were raised, and those that could not without becoming consonantal […] became diphthongs.

(Baugh & Cable 1993: 233)

As in Baugh & Cable, many of the statements found in textbooks maintain the scholarly opinion derived from the ‘traditional model’2 of the Great Vowel Shift, which originates from the beginning of the twentieth century. Scholars as Luick and Jespersen described the sound changes of the long vowel system based on evidence presented by ‘orthoepists’, that is, ‘students of correct pronunciation’ (Bourcier 1981: 187), and through other evidence like rhymes or word lists. ‘Orthoepists’ offered for the first time a meta- linguistic discourse on sociolinguistic matters and linguistic structures in the language of English (Lass 1999a: 9). This evidence needs careful analysis as it lacks defined phonetic terminology and thus modern scholars need to determine the meaning of the specific terms used by the orthoepists (Smith 2007: 45). However, it is impossible to have an exact knowledge of the pronunciation at that time. Indirect reconstruction offers only a reasonable approximation (Barber 1997: 103) because the only sources available for the speech at that time are written documents.

Since the early days of the Great Vowel Shift there has been a vast body of research on the topic. There have been basic questions by scholars falling into the two main categories of describing and explaining the Great Vowel Shift. Often the answers offered to these questions, however, are far from being convincing. The main disagreement in reference to the Great Vowel Shift has been about the chronology of processes, the underlying causes for the Great Vowel Shift and the processes of diphthongization of the close vowels [i:] and [u:] (Perkins 1977: 124). Lately, the focus of research has turned to the conceptualization as Stockwell and Minkova questioned the general existence of the Great Vowel Shift (Stockwell & Minkova 1988a). The resulting debate has been a catalyst in research on the Great Vowel Shift for the last twenty years.

This paper addresses the charges put forward by Stockwell and Minkova. In order to discuss the criticisms brought forward against the Great Vowel Shift, it is necessary to recapitulate what has been collected and is understood under the term ‘Great Vowel Shift’, which problems and criticism arise with such a conceptualization, and ultimately, whether the concept of the Great Vowel Shift is any longer tolerable. At a first glance the field of research on the Great Vowel Shift seems to be chaotic and contradictory. Thus, this paper aims at providing an ordered account on the Great Vowel Shift. Following this introduction, the second chapter recounts what falls under the topic of describing those sound changes considered to belong the Great Vowel Shift. This includes the chronology of changes, a discussion of the push- or pull-chain debate, and the different positions within the disagreement about the diphthongization of the two close vowels. The third chapter tackles the topic of intralinguistic and extralinguistic influences on the sound changes. The fourth chapter is concerned with variation in the shift. Next to a diatopical and social contemplation of variants, the possible consequences of influence between variants for the spread of the sound changes will be discussed. Chapter five presents the debate about the conceptualization. At the end the discussion is summarized and a concluding statement on the conceptualization debate is given.


Indeed, so total was this shift that it has traditionally been represented as a natural boundary of fault line in the history of English.

(Giancarlo 2001: 28)

Karl Luick and Otto Jespersen belonged to the first to engage in a discussion about the changes which had taken place in the vowel system in the transition from Middle English to Modern English. The latter came up with the term ‘Great Vowel Shift’ (Jespersen 1909: 231). In contrast to their predecessors, like Henry Sweet and John Ellis, Luick and Jespersen argued for unity and causality within the vowel changes. The Great Vowel Shift has ever since been represented as a ‘natural boundary’ in the history of English (Giancarlo 2001: 28) and once the concept was accepted it was possible to state facts about it.

2.1 Graphical Representations of the Great Vowel Shift

In almost every textbook on the English language one will find some kind of graphic representation of the Great Vowel Shift, next to a basic statement about it. Graphical representations (as in figure 1 and 2) bring the changes into geometric order. Furthermore, they provide information about relationship between the different changes. The following diagrams depict the changes as being interrelated. Each vowel movement calls for another movement.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Jespersen’s diagram as presented in Lass (1987: 130)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2: Barber’s diagram as presented in Barber (1993: 192)

Hence, such diagrams always contain information about the assumed underlying mechanisms of change. The diagram of Jespersen, for example, asserts that the changes can be interpreted as a unit. The long vowels /i:, e:, E:, a:/ are interrelated and the vowels /u:, o:, O:/. While /i:/ and /u:/ diphthongize and move out of their original position, the other long vowels are raised one position filling the empty slots. Alternative graphical representations3 by other authors may include different information on the changes. Figure 2 shows a diagram taken from Charles Barber’s The English Language: A Historical Introduction. Here the changes are mapped on a cardinal vowel diagram, and thus give details on the space of pronunciation. In addition, the initial positions of the long vowels in Middle English are given.

However, diagrams are limited in their capabilities to adequately and fully reproduce the changes. With such a generalization of changes in diagrams, nuances are lost and data is omitted (Giancarlo 2001: 29). Graphical representations of the Great Vowel Shift can moreover mislead to believe that the presented changes are uniform for the whole language, thus neglecting variational differences. In addition diagrams fail to address adequately the aspect of chronology within the Great Vowel Shift. The chronological ordering of the changes will be addressed in the following subchapters.

2.2 Dating the Changes

Dating single changes is a very difficult task and many authors have pointed to the problems and limitations in determining the exact date of a specific change (Bourcier 1981: 198, Barber 1997: 109). Furthermore, one has to keep in mind that lexical items may have differing temporal profiles, which additionally may vary diatopically and socially (Lass 1999b: 78). Thus, the presented dates for the changes are nothing more than approximations. Still though, dating may help to provide a relative chronology of the changes. The following brief account of changes will refer to the variety which developed into the standard language of Early Modern English, and relies heavily on the account of Barber (1997: 106-7).

The starting point for an analysis has to be the Middle English vowel system (see figure 3). Middle English /i:/ and /u:/ seem to have moved their first element already early in the fifteenth century and around 1500 there are already considerable incidents of their new qualities. However, their quality remains a matter of dispute throughout the sixteenth century. Only in the second half of the seventeenth century they reach their centralized position of [ai] and [aU]. The process of diphthongization will be discussed in further detail later in section 2.4. Middle English /e:/ and /o:/ reached their new realisations of [i:] and [u:] by 1500. The Middle English half-open vowels of /E:/ and /O:/ remain in their position up to the beginning of the sixteenth century and only change in the course of the sixteenth century to [e:] and [o:]. This process is finished by 1600 although their original form of pronunciation can still be found in conservative speech in the seventeenth century. The ‘ meet-meat merger’, although well developed in some dialects, came into effect very late in the Early Modern English period. Middle English /a:/ started moving upwards through the intermediate stages of [&:] early in the sixteenth century, to [E:] by 1600 and to its final position of [e:] in the middle of the seventeenth century. Figure 3 summarizes the developments described by Barber.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 3: Development of the Long Vowels after Barber (1997: 108)

Today, not all the changes presented above are any longer considered to belong to the Great Vowel Shift, an aspect which will be returned to in chapter five.

2.3 Push-Chain or Pull-Chain

On the two different sides of the line of demarcation produced by the Great Vowel Shift, often two authors are placed: Chaucer and Shakespeare. While at Chaucer’s time the long vowels still had their so-called “continental value” (Baugh & Cable 1993: 233), at Shakespeare’s time these vowels seem to have changed close to their Modern English pronunciation. But such a comprehensive change was not accomplished at once but must haven taken place gradually (Jespersen 1909: 232). This leads to the question what has set the sound changes in motion and how these changes are related with one another.

There has been considerable debate about what has set the shift in motion. Basically two positions emerged in the traditional model. On the one hand, Jespersen argued that the diphthongization of the close vowels /i:/ and /u:/ started the movement within the vowel system. After the two vowels left their place vacated, the other vowels were one after the other pulled or dragged to the next empty slot. Hence, this mechanism of change became to be known as a drag-chain or pull-chain. On the other hand, Luick claimed that the raising of /e:/ and /o:/ should be considered as the starting point and by their upward movement all the other long vowels were pushed out of their original position and were raised. The two highest vowels could not be raised and thus were diphthongized. Both positions have found their advocates. However, asymmetry in the developments of the Middle English long vowel /u:/ in the south and north of England, which will be addressed in chapter four, supports the theory of a push-chain, as those dialects of the north which show no diphthongization of /u:/ are proceeded by a front reflex of /o:/ leaving a gap in the back long vowel series (Lass 1992: 150)4. An argument in favour of a pull-chain can be derived from the fact that close vowels became diphthongs earlier than the lower vowels moved upward (Barber 1997: 106).

Both positions are based on the argument of an underlying chain relation and the assumption that language tends to develop a balanced sound system with sounds remaining distinct from another (Luick 1896: 315, Jespersen 1909: 233). A ‘shift’ thus can be described as the process of two phonemes changing their place of articulation but at the same time retaining their distinctiveness. Based on the Great Vowel Shift Labov comes up with general principles for vowel shifting5 (Labov 1994: 118). He also concludes that

[…] whatever path we describe for chain-shifting vowels, they cannot at any time occupy the same position in phonological space: if they do so, they will by definition merge, and we will have described a merger rather than a chain shift.

(Labov 1994: 141)

This is exactly the position advocated by Stockwell and Minkova who argue that the Great Vowel Shift is neither a push nor a drag chain, but a set of mergers and standardization (Stockwell & Minkova 1988: 378). They claim that there were pre-existing nuclei with which /i:/ and /u:/ merged and this led to the possibility of a subsequent drift (Stockwell & Minkova 1997: 286-7). The term drift is used by them instead of chain shift because shift implies causal associations and functional consequences, which these vowel changes do not have. Their argument will be reconsidered in chapter five.


1 Unfortunately the term Great Vowel Shift is often misleadingly applied to the whole Middle Englishto-Present-Day English change (Lass 1999b: 73), which unnecessarily complicates the matter.

2 This is the term Smith uses when referring to the Great Vowel Shift conceptualized as unit with inner coherence (2007: 128).

3 Giancarlo provides a detailed account on the graphical representations of the Great Vowel Shift (Giancarlo 2001: 29-37).

4 For a detailled presentatiton of the process in northern dialects and the arguments for mid vowel raising as the trigger for the shift, see Lass (1992: 152).

5 Labov (1994) formulates three principles that govern chain shifts of vowels. Next to the example of the Great Vowel Shift Labov offers evidence from other shifts as the Northern Cities Shift and the Southern Shift. For a critical reflection on these principles see Stockwell and Minkova (1997).

Excerpt out of 24 pages


The Great Vowel Shift
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
Early Modern English
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Bewertung: "Der Überblick über den Great Vowel Shift, der in dieser Arbeit gegeben wird, ist grundsätzlich recht gut gelungen. Die Darstellung zieht sehr viel Literatur heran und es gelingt sehr gut, die verschiedene Beiträge zum Thema in sinnvoller Reihenfolge zu präsentieren und zu evaluieren. Allerdings gibt es zwei grundsätzlichen Probleme: Zum einen orientiert sich die Darstellung zu eng an der zugrunde gelegten Literatur (...). Zum anderen ist die Darstellung rein reproduktiv (...). Sprachlich ist die Arbeit auf sehr gutem Niveau."
Early Modern English, Frühneuenglisch, Great Vowel Shift, Große Lautverschiebung, Phonologie, Phonetik, Phonology, Phonetics
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Timm Ole Bernshausen (Author), 2011, The Great Vowel Shift, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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