I am a language nut. I love, love, love to read and learn and study languages. Some people have comic books, others have stamp collections, others still have sports, I have language. There is something beautiful about the complexities and intricacies of how human beings communicate with each other. I want to communicate that beauty. I want us to realize how amazing our capacity for language actually is.
So I'm starting this series called the Phenomena of Language, in which I hope to bring to you what I find to be the most interesting aspects of languages. I think I'll start out with English and depending on the response also spread into foreign languages. I am still a student, so these installments will come when I have the time to write them.
In today's feature, I will discuss the Great English Vowel Shift (GVS), which is the reason the English vowel system so different from that of other European languages.
Disclaimer: I do not have a degree in linguistics. The extent of my exposure to the subject has been what I've read in my free time and the classes I took for my minor in undergrad. So I am in no way an expert on any of this stuff. I am simply a language nut, it's basically a hobby/obsession of mine. So if I get things wrong, I'd appreciate the help in getting it corrected.
The following are the basic long vowels of Middle English, which was the stage of English spoken from the Norman Invasion of 1066 to the late 15th century, and the corresponding sounds in Modern English.
If you’ll notice, the pattern of this sound change, you’ll realize why it’s called a "shift." The vowels literally shifted down (or up, depending on your starting point).
Now why would something like this happen? The most likely and most accepted explanation is called the drag chain vowel shift because the vowels were basically dragged by the diphthongs "ay" and "aw." A diphthong is a vowel sound which is actually made up of two vowels—e.g. ai "kite" or oi "oil."
Most likely under the influence of French, which because of the Norman invasion was the dominant language in England at the time, "ay" and "aw" monophthongized (say that five times in a row!), or in other words, became one simple vowel. Through a rather complicated process "ay" eventually became "eh" and "aw" eventually became "oh." It is hypothesized that "i" and "u" began to diphthongize to take their place.
These new diphthongs were the sound "i" as in "beet" followed by a "y" and the sound "u" as in "boot" followed by a "w." If you try to say both of these sounds, you’ll see, relatively speaking, these sounds are quite long. It’s not normal to have vowels this long in English, so this change was unstable and destined not to last for long.
So the long "i" and "u" parts of the new vowels were shortened to "ih" as in "sit" and "uh" as in "put." The sounds were now "ihy" and "uhw." After a while, these new sounds were relaxed into schwas (ə), which is the "a" in "about." The new sounds were "əy" and "əw."
These two new sounds were nothing like the original "i" and "u," and that was a problem. In most (but not all) languages in the world, there are at the very least the following five basic vowels: a, e, i, o, and u. English had just lost two of them, and that could not stand. So the vowels "e" and "o" stepped up to the plate. They began to change and sound more and more like "i" and "u" until eventually they became those two sounds.
At the same time that this was happening, an unrelated sound change was taking place. The long "a" was slowly becoming a long "æ," which is the sound in "cat" but longer. We’ll come back to the fate of this sound in just a second.
So, at this point the English langauge had its "i" and "u" back but was now missing long "e" and "o." Guess which two vowels took their place. That’s right, "eh" and "oh." These two vowels, most likely because of their similarity, became "e" and "o." And now we come back to "æ," which has been sitting in the wings ready to play its role. This vowel moved into the position in the vowel system that "eh" had formerly occupied.
Now all the vowels have moved at least once. You’d think this was good enough for English—well, you’d be wrong. The Great Vowel Shift had more shifting to do.
Because the language was in still in a state of flux, "e," the vowel formerly known as "eh," wasn’t stable in its position and eventually moved to "i." Now, we were missing an "e" sound again, but just like before "eh," which was formerly "æ," moved in to take its place.
Finally, we come back to "əy" and "əw." These two sounds eventually shifted further and became "ay" and "aw." Thus we come full circle back to the two diphthongs that started this whole mess.
To make this clearer, I’ll use actual words and show how their pronunciation changed over time.
i "bite" (beetuh) > iy (beeyt) > ihy (biyt) > əy (bəyt) > ay (bayt) "bite"
u "bout" (boot) > uw (boowt) > uhw (buwt) > əw (bəwt) > aw (bawt) "bout"
e "beet" (bait) > i (beet) "beet"
o "boot" (bote) > u (boot) "boot"
eh "beat" (bet [hold the vowel longer]) > ai (bait) > i (beet) "beat"
oh "boat" (bought [hold the vowel longer]) > o (bote) "boat"
a "name" (nahmuh) > æ (næm) > eh (nehm [hold the vowel longer]) > ai (naim) "name"
ay "bait" (bite) > eh (beht) > ai (bait) bait
aw "jaw" (jaw [rhymes with ‘cow"]) > oh (joh) "jaw"
Now, you may be wondering at this point what happened to the sound "a." Afterall, from all these shifts, it seems like "a" disappeared. Well, the thing about language is that for the most part it changes in a uniform manner, but there are always exceptions.
You can see these exceptions by the way we pronounce certain words such as "great" and "break." These were originally pronounced as "eh," so given what I have told you, you’d expect these words to be pronounced as "greet" and "breek." But they didn’t undergo that last step that would make them rhyme with "neat" and "meek."
In almost every instance that I can think of, the vowel shift was prevented because of the presence of the letter "r" or "l" in the word. Examples are words like "card" and "talk," which you would expect to be pronounced as "kaird" and "tailk." Apparently these vowels were originally short. The nature of the sounds "r" and "l" are such that they prevented the vowel shift from occurring. So the "a" sound continues to exist in English.
Note: To be sure, sometimes an "r" or an "l" wasn't enough to stop the change. For example, we pronounce "cream" as "kreem" not "kraim." In these instances, the important factor was actually the combined affect of "r" and the other sounds in the word. But that's getting too technical and beyond the scope of this diary.
Please see, WIds's comments on this below. Apparently these vowels were originally short and became long later on. The "r" and "l" may even have nothing to do with exceptions to the GVS.
Finally, what’s interesting about the GVS is that it only affected long vowels. Short vowels remained the same. This is why we have this weird dichotomy in English between are long and short vowels that doesn’t exist in any other language:
ay — ih "crime – criminal"
aw — uh "abound – abundant"
i — eh "keep – kept"
u — oh "goose – gosling"
e — æ "grateful – gratitude"
So, in conclusion I will leave you with a diagram of the sound changes that I found on this nifty website that displays the stages of the GVS in the order they occurred.
Update: I would like to thank WIds and crossroads for their help in correcting what I had gotten wrong. I really appreciate it.