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The 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 the Great 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 a helpful 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 James 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!

 

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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2016. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated August 15th, 2016. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.