THE GREAT VOWEL SHIFT

Beginning in Middle English, the so-called "long vowels" in English were raised and fronted. This complex phenomenon proceeded at different rates in different dialects, and was not completed in standard London English until the eighteenth century. Unshifted long vowels still survive today in various dialects.

The Great Vowel Shift accounts for much of the "strangeness" of English spelling. That is, Present-Day English, though it uses the same Latin alphabet as many of the European languages, spells the long vowels differently from their counterparts in the European languages. Very generally speaking, PDE spelling reflects Middle English pronunciation--that is, the pronunciation of English prior to the Great Vowel Shift.

The Great Vowel Shift was going on for a long time. The simplified table that follows does not account for all of the effects of the Great Vowel Shift.

ME VOWEL
(ca. 1400)
EME VOWEL
(ca. 1600)
PDE VOWEL
(after 1800)
/i:/
/'i/
/aI/
/e/
/i/
/i/
/e:/
/e/
/i/
/a:/
/e/
/e/
/ô:/
/o/
/o/
/o/
/u/
/u/
/u/
/'u/
/aU/

A slightly less simplified account divides the Great Vowel Shift into eight stages, as follows.

1. ME /i:/ > EME /'i/, and ME /u/ > EME /'u/.

2. ME /e/ > EME /i/, and ME /o/ > EME /u/.

3. ME /a:/ > EME /æ:/.

4. ME /e:/ > EME /e/, and ME /ô:/ > EME /o/.

5. EME /æ:/ > EME /e:/.

6. EME /e/ (from Stage 4) > EME /i/.

7. EME /e:/ (from Stage 5) > EME /e/.

8. EME /'i/ > PDE /aI/, and EME /'u/ > PDE /aU/.

Because of dialectical variation, in some words the long vowels did not undergo the Great Vowel Shift. Most exceptions occur with ME /e:/ and ME /o/. In break, great, steak, and yea, for example, ME /e:/ stopped at EME /e/. ME /o/ normally became EME /u/, but then in some words the EME /u/ shortened to /U/, and in some words further unrounded to EME /'/. See "Shortening of Vowels."

A following /r/ often prevented the expected change of the Great Vowel Shift. See "The Influence of 'R' on Vowels."

For a much more thorough account of the Great Vowel Shift, visit Professor Melinda Menzer's site at http://www.furman.edu/~mmenzer/gvs.