Great Vowel Shift

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The Great Vowel Shift was a major change in the pronunciation of the English language that took place in the south of England between 1450 and 1750.[1] The Great Vowel Shift was first studied by Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), a Danish linguist and Anglicist, who coined the term.[2]

Contents

Effect

The values of the long vowels form the main difference between the pronunciation of Middle English and Modern English, and the Great Vowel Shift is one of the historical events marking the separation of Middle and Modern English. Originally, these vowels had "continental" values much like those remaining in Italian and liturgical Latin. However, during the Great Vowel Shift, the two highest long vowels became diphthongs, and the other five underwent an increase in tongue height with one of them coming to the front.

Great Vowel Shift.svg

The principal changes (with the vowels shown in IPA) are roughly as follows.[3] However, exceptions occur, the transitions were not always complete, and there were sometimes accompanying changes in orthography:

  • Middle English [aː] (ā) fronted to [æː] and then raised to [ɛː], [eː] and in many dialects diphthongised in Modern English to [eɪ] (as in make). Since Old English ā had mutated to [ɔː] in Middle English, Old English ā does not correspond to the Modern English diphthong [eɪ].
  • Middle English [ɛː] raised to [eː] and then to modern English [iː] (as in beak).
  • Middle English [eː] raised to Modern English [iː] (as in feet).
  • Middle English [iː] diphthongised to [ɪi], which was most likely followed by [əɪ] and finally Modern English [aɪ] (as in mice).
  • Middle English [ɔː] raised to [oː], and in the eighteenth century this became Modern English [oʊ] or [əʊ] (as in boat).
  • Middle English [oː] raised to Modern English [uː] (as in boot).
  • Middle English [uː] was diphthongised in most environments to [ʊu], and this was followed by [əʊ], and then Modern English [aʊ] (as in mouse) in the eighteenth century. Before labial consonants, this shift did not occur, and [uː] remains as in soup).

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