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The Great Vowel Shift was a major change in the pronunciation of the English language that took place in England between 1350 and 1700. The Great Vowel Shift was first studied by Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), a Danish linguist and Anglicist, who coined the term.
Because English spelling was becoming standardized in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Great Vowel Shift is responsible for many of the peculiarities of English spelling.
The main difference between the pronunciation of Middle English and Modern English is in the value of the long vowels, described as the Great Vowel Shift. Vowels of Middle English had "continental" values much like those remaining in Spanish 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.
The principal changes (with the vowels shown in IPA) are roughly as follows. However, exceptions occur, the transitions were not always complete, and there were sometimes accompanying changes in orthography:
|Changes to the long front vowels||Changes to the long back vowels|
|Middle English [aː] (help·info) fronted to [æː] (help·info) and then raised to [ɛː] (help·info), [eː] (help·info) and in many dialects diphthongized in Modern English to [eɪ] (help·info) (as in make). The [aː] in the Middle English words in question had arisen earlier from lengthening of short a in open syllables and from French loan words.||Old English [ɑː] (help·info) was rounded and raised to early Middle English [ɔː] (help·info). This Middle English [ɔː] then raised to [oː] (help·info), and in the 18th century this became Modern English [oʊ] (help·info) or [əʊ] (help·info) (as in boat).|
|Middle English [ɛː] (help·info) raised to [eː] (help·info) and then to modern English [iː] (as in beak).||Middle English [oː] (help·info) raised to Modern English [uː] (help·info) (as in boot).|
|Middle English [eː] (help·info) raised to Modern English [iː] (help·info) (as in feet).|
|Middle English [iː] (help·info) diphthongized to [ɪi], which was most likely followed by [əɪ] and finally Modern English [aɪ] (help·info) (as in mice).||Middle English [uː] (help·info) was diphthongized in most environments to [ʊu], and this was followed by [əʊ] (help·info), and then Modern English [aʊ] (help·info) (as in mouse) in the 18th century. Before labial consonants, this shift did not occur, and [uː] remains as in soup and room (its Middle English spelling was roum).|
This means that the vowel in the English word same was in Middle English pronounced [aː] (similar to modern psalm); the vowel in feet was [eː] (similar to modern fate); the vowel in wipe was [iː] (similar to modern weep); the vowel in boot was [oː] (similar to modern boat); and the vowel in mouse was [uː] (similar to modern moose).
The effects of the shift were not entirely uniform, and differences in degree of vowel shifting can sometimes be detected in regional dialects both in written and in spoken English. In Northern English, the long back vowels remained unaffected, the long front vowels having undergone an earlier shift. In Scotland, Scots differed in its input to the Great Vowel Shift, the long vowels [iː], [eː] and [aː] shifted to [ei], [iː] and [eː] by the Middle Scots period, [oː] had shifted to [øː] in Early Scots and [uː] remained unaffected.
The effect of the Great Vowel Shift may be seen very clearly in the English names of many of the letters of the alphabet. A, B, C and D are pronounced /eɪ, biː, siː, diː/ in today's English, but in contemporary French they are /a, be, se, de/. The French names (from which the English names are derived) preserve the qualities of the English vowels from before the Great Vowel Shift. By contrast, the names of F, L, M, N and S (/ɛf, ɛl, ɛm, ɛn, ɛs/) remain the same in both languages, because "short" vowels were largely unaffected by the Shift.
Not all words underwent certain phases of the Great Vowel Shift. ea in particular did not take the step to [iː] in several words, such as great, break, steak, swear, and bear. The vowels mentioned in words like break or steak underwent shortening, possibly due to the plosives following the vowels, and then diphthongization. The presence of [r] in swear and bear caused the vowel quality to be retained, though not in all cases. Other examples are father, which failed to become [ɛː], and broad, which failed to become [oʊ]. The word room, which was spelled as roum in Middle English, retains its Middle English pronunciation, so it is an exception to the shifting of [uː] to [aʊ]. This is because it is followed by m, a labial consonant.
Shortening of long vowels at various stages produced further complications. ea is again a good example, shortening commonly before coronal consonants such as d and th, thus: dead, head, threat, wealth etc. (This is known as the bred–bread merger.) oo was shortened from [uː] to [ʊ] in many cases before k, d and less commonly t, thus book, foot, good etc. Some cases occurred before the change of [ʊ] to [ʌ]: blood, flood. Similar, yet older shortening occurred for some instances of ou: could.
Note that some loanwords, such as soufflé and Umlaut, have retained a spelling from their origin language that may seem similar to the previous examples; but, since they were not a part of English at the time of the Great Vowel Shift, they are not actually exceptions to the shift.
The printing press was introduced to England in the 1470s by William Caxton and later Richard Pynson. The adoption and use of the printing press accelerated the process of standardization of English spelling which continued into the 16th century. The standard spellings were those of Middle English pronunciation, as well as spelling conventions continued from Old English. However, the Middle English spellings were retained into Modern English while the Great Vowel Shift was taking place, resulting in some of the peculiarities of Modern English spelling in relation to vowels.
German and Dutch also experienced sound changes resembling the first stage of the Great Vowel Shift. In German, by the 15th or 16th centuries, long [iː] had changed to [aɪ], (as in Eis, 'ice') and long [uː] to [aʊ] (as in Haus, 'house'), though some dialects resist those changes to this day (Alemannic, Limburgish, Ripuarian and most varieties of Lower German). In Dutch, the former became [ɛi] (ijs), and the latter had earlier become [yː], which then became [œy] (huis). In German, there also was a separate [yː], which became [ɔʏ], via an intermediate similar to the Dutch. In the Polder Dutch pronunciation, the shift has actually been carried further than in Standard Dutch, with a very similar result as in German and English.
Dutch and German have, like English, also shifted common Germanic *[oː] to [uː] (German) or [u] (Dutch), as in Proto-Germanic *fōt- 'foot' → German Fuß, Dutch voet (as well as the rare secondary *[eː] to [iː] in German and [i] in Dutch). However, this similarity turns out to be superficial on closer inspection. Given the huge differences between the structures of Old English vowel phonology on one side, and that of Old Dutch and Old High German on the other, this is hardly surprising. While there is no indication that English long vowels other than [aː] did anything but move up in tongue-body position, Dutch [u] and German [uː] appear to have come about through a process of diphthongization.
In the very earliest longer, connected Old High German and Old Dutch texts (9th century), the vowel [oː] is already largely written -uo-. That is, it had broken into a nucleus with a centering glide. This complex nucleus smoothed in Middle High German and Middle Dutch, becoming the [uː] of Modern German and the [u] of Modern Dutch around the same time as the long high vowels began to diphthongize.
The [oː] of Modern German has a variety of sources, the oldest of which is Proto-Germanic *aw, which smoothed before /t d r x/ (so rot 'red', Ohr 'ear', Floh 'flea', etc.) Elsewhere the sound was written -ou- in OHG. In Old Dutch, this sound had become -o- everywhere, explaining the difference in words such as Dutch boom and German Baum.
While English has, to a large extent, kept its orthography from before the vowel shift, German and Dutch have adapted their orthographies to the changes. Therefore, pronunciation of German and Dutch words is largely predictable from the written form still today, unlike English words. Unpredictable pairs, such as "wind" vs. "find", or "meat" vs. "great" vs. "threat" do not occur in either of the two languages.
Norwegian and Swedish also experienced something similar to the Great Vowel Shift in their back vowels, although the results were different. As in early modern English, [ɔː] (spelled å, and the cognate of English oa as in "boat") shifted to [oː], while the long o had chain-shifted to [uː] (cf. English "oo"). But instead of diphthongizing, the older [uː] was fronted to [ʉː]. Danish has not undergone these changes in the back vowels, but instead the front vowels have been affected. As in early modern English, long a, [aː], shifted to [æː] (short a is now [æ], like in standard English), while long e, [eː], has moved toward [iː], clashing with long i.