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Great Vowel Shift
Why were words
pronounced so differently in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries?
What changed between now and Chaucer's day?
The answer is
Vowel Shift, a mysterious linguistic phenomenon in which,
over the course of generations, various vowels slid upwards
and backwards in the throats of English speakers. The vowel
shift in its entirety has taken centuries (some linguists say
that it is still going on today) but between 1400 and 1450,
for unknown reasons, the rate of change accelerated. The change
was so fast that an adult in 1400 might pronounce words completely
differently from the way his grandchildren would in 1450. Chaucer
probably died in 1400; his poetry reflects the way words were
spoken before the biggest changes occurred.
To learn about
the Great Vowel Shift, we will cover several areas of linguistics.
- First, we will learn the
physiological names of various parts of the throat, mouth,
nose, and head that we use during speech. I've provided
chart to get you started.
- Second, we will look at
the linguistic symbols
used to represent sounds and letters.
- Third, we will look at
a chart that shows us where
the "shifts" took place in the mouth and throat.
- Finally, we will go through
some exercises that illustrate how modern words sounded
in Middle English.
Let us begin with
a chart and some basic terms. To understand the great vowel
shift, it is useful for us to have a common linguistic and physiological
vocabulary (so we don't have to talk about "that dangly-thing
in the back of your throat," but rather have a precise word
to describe what's what). Let's take a few minutes to see the
various body-bits that let us chat.
The chart below
labels each part of the body responsible for forming sounds.
When you are finished examining the terms for the various anatomical
features in the throat and mouth, click here for an exciting
overview the international linguistic
symbols, starting with the consonants! Please note that
the materials on this webpage are adapted from hardcopy handouts
graciously provided to me by Professor James Boren at the University
of Oregon. Any errors in the material result from my mistakes
while transcribing the information rather than a product of
the original handouts.
The chart above
is modified from a handout kindly provided to me by Professor
Boren, formerly of the University of Oregon. Got all
that information? Now,
click here for an exciting overview the international
linguistic symbols, starting with the consonants!