History of English Language: The Great Vowel Shift

By Alyssa Shallberg and Carolyn Skoul


The Great Vowel Shift (GVS) began in the early 15th century and ended in the early 18th century: between Chaucer's and Shakespeare's time. It was a period in which the pronunciation of vowels changed in the English language. The GVS changed the way English was spoken permanently. It has continually mystified linguists, as there is no clear reasoning as to why the shift took place, nor what instigated it. It is odd that so little is known about such a crucial event in the development of language. Even so, there are a few differant proposals and speculations. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A980624)

General History

The Great Vowel Shift was an "extreme altercation of the pronunciation to the English language"
(http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/language/qt/GVS.htm). Basically, the GVS forever changed how English is spoken and is the main reason for the seperation between the pronounciation of Old English, which is similar to the pronounciation of Latin, and Modern English. The change was so dramatic that some say a man raised in 1400 would not speak the same language as his grandson in 1450 (http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/great_vowel_shift.html).

William Shakespeare, c. 1600
William Shakespeare, c. 1600
Before the GVS, English vowels were pronounced similarly to their counterparts in other languages. However, only long vowels were affected by the change--short vowels continued to be pronounced in the same way.

While the exact reason for the shift is unknown, there are a several theories. Some linguists hypothesize that, after the Black Plague, many people moved from south to east England. This may have caused a blending of both language and culture. Another proposal was that the sound of the vowels changed when the ruling class changed. In Medieval times, the language spoken by the ruling class was French, but by the fifteenth century they had switched to English. As these monarchs travelled across Europe, they occasionally picked up on other speaking patterns. Also, their children were taught to be fluent in both languages, which may have partially facilitated the mixing. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_vowel_shift)

Many people today have great difficulty reading Geoffrey Chaucer's works from over six hundred years ago. Scholars classify his writing as Middle English (it is not as foreign as Old English, however, it does take a bit of concentration to transfer into Modern English). However, in Chaucer's day, his language was considered "normal" (http://olc.spsd.sk.ca/de/elab30/chaucer.html). Chaucer wrote for the educated upper-English class, and it shows. His language "later became the model for standard modern English when other dialects began to lose prestige"
A page from The Canterbury Tales
A page from The Canterbury Tales

However, as his stories were repeated orally thousands of times, and as language changed, so did the original meanings and pronounciations of Chaucer's work. Particularly in the century after his death, English underwent a series of drastic transformations. Consciously or unconsciously, those fifteenth century speaksers "effected minor innovations within the limited sets of distinctive sounds, intonations, grammatical forms, sentence patterns, and words currently in use; and in time the subtle balance within these sets of interdependent speech elements was changed so that the "old" language seems unnatural or obscure" (http://olc.spsd.sk.ca/de/elab30/chaucer.html)

This is precisly what happened between the times of Chaucer and William Shakespeare. Elizabetheans enjoying Much Ado About Nothing or Julius Caesar would hardly be able to read Chaucer's most famous work, The Canterbury Tales--even though they were less than only two centuries apart, or a "linguistic generation" (http://www.bardweb.net/language.html). In the entire history of language, this is not a long time. Not only were some of Chaucer's words outdated, many of his sentences were oddly structured and the newly-shifted vowel sounds marred the sound of the original language. While Shakespeare's diction was similar to Chaucer's in that they were both "highly compressed and highly structured," the effects of the GVS can be noticably seen if the two are compared. (http://www.folger.edu/template.cfm?cid=937).

The Change Itself

The Great Vowel Shift was a somewhat complex transformation that changed the way English was spoken; it involved an evolution of vowels. The GVS was first studied by the Danish linguist and Otto Jespersen (1860-1946), who named the shift. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_vowel_shift.)
Previously, vowels were pronounced using the front of the mouth, now they are pronounced with the back.
This change only affected the long vowels or “tense vowels” it did not have any affect on short vowels. Long vowels are distinguished by the repetition of the letter as in feet, tooth, or feel. They are also recognized but as “e” at the end of the word, for example in came, name, and like

The following chart shows the most common changes caused by the GVS:
  • Middle English (ME) a is pronounced as the a in father. Early modern English (EME) pronounces the long a as in gate.
  • ME pronounces the long e as the long a in gate. EME pronounces the long e as the e in tweet.
  • ME pronounces the long i as the e in tweet. EME pronounces the long i as the i in light.
  • ME pronounces the long o as the o in tool. EME pronounces the long o as the o in goal.

Linguists have determined there are eight "generic" steps in the GVS. Each of these steps took several years to become commonplace. The chart on the following webpage adequately lists and illustrates the steps of the GVS: http://facweb.furman.edu/~mmenzer/gvs/what.htm.


The Great Vowel Shift changed the way English was spoken forever. It is the primary reason for the "odd" English spellings of some words (words that are not spelled like they sound--e.g. knife). The GVS took place relatively quickly, but without it, Americans and the British might still be speaking Old or Middle English today. While it can be a pain to decipher the works of Chaucer or Shakespeare, the time spent is well worth it, as reading those original texts gives the modern reader a glimpse into life nearly six hundred years ago.

Works Cited


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