Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Great vowel shift

In the late-fifteenth century printers began printing books written in the form of London English which had already become a kind of standard in manuscript documents. Between 1475 and about 1630 English spelling gradually became regularized. There are noticeable differences in the look of printed English before the mid-seventeenth century, but after that date it is largely the same as modern English, the major difference being the use of the long s (∫) in all positions except finally.

Pronunciation change and the Great Vowel Shift

By the sixteenth century English spelling was becoming increasingly out of step with pronunciation owing mainly to the fact that printing was fixing it in its late Middle English form just when various sound changes were having a far-reaching effect on pronunciation.
Chief among these was the so-called ‘Great Vowel Shift’, which can be illustrated (with much simplification) from the three vowel sounds in mitemeet, and mate. In Middle English these were three long vowels with values similar to their Latin or continental counterparts [i:], [e:], and [a:] (roughly the vowel sounds of thieffete, and palm); the spelling was therefore ‘phonetic’.
 After the shift:
  • long i became a diphthong (probably in the sixteenth century pronounced [əi] with a first element like the [ə] of the first syllable in ago)
  • long e took its place with the value [i:]
  • long a became a front vowel, more like that of air to begin with, but later [e:].
A parallel change affected the back vowels of mouth and moot. Hence the mismatch of the long vowel sounds of English with their counterparts in other European languages.
Additionally, during the period a number of sets of vowel sounds that had formerly been distinct became identical, while their spelling distinction was largely maintained, resulting in a further mismatch of spelling and pronunciation.
Important examples are:
  • the long vowel a in mane and the diphthong ay or ai in maymain
  • the long mid vowel o in sloeso and the diphthong ow or ou in slowsow (= cast seed)
  • the diphthong represented by u in due and the diphthong eweu in dewneuter.