Chaos? Nah, just a vowel shift

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I!  Oh hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!

 

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

Finally, which rhymes with enough —
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

1

Gosh, English pronunciation can be really tricky at times, can’t it? Interested in knowing why?

Well, of course you are! Let’s dive into it together!

As the excerpt above clearly shows, English spelling is often considered a bit ’off’, poorly corresponding to the written word. That’s true, it often doesn’t. But why is that?

Well, while it is not the only reason behind this tricky correspondence between the spoken and written word, today’s topic does explain a lot: the ‘Great’ English Vowel Shift (let’s stick to calling it the GVS from now on) came along and messed things up quite a bit.

Some of you will probably have heard about the GVS before; it was a significant sound change that occurred primarily during the Middle Ages. This sound change affected the long vowels of Middle English, causing them to shift like so:

 

2

Great, so… we done here? You now know everything there is to know about the GVS, right?

Nah, not really.

First, the GVS is actually considered by a lot of linguists to be a process of at least two phases3:

The first phase is considered to have lasted up until approximately the year 1500. During this phase, the long high Middle English vowels /i:/ and /u:/, pronounced similar to the vowels in Modern English meet [mi:t] and lute [lu:t], diphthongised and eventually became the modern English diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/, the pronunciations you find in mice [maɪs] and mouse [maʊs]. The vowels immediately below them, that is /e:/ and /o:/4, raised one position, falling into the slots previously held by /i:/ and /u:/.

In the second phase, often considered to have been active between the late 16th to mid-17th centuries, the remaining vowels, that is /ᴐ:, a:, ɛ:/, raised one position in height.

What we eventually wind up with is a system of vowels completely changed from its predecessor.

Now, why would that happen?

As with a good number of things in historical linguistics, we don’t exactly know. However, there are two leading hypotheses out there.

The first is the so-called push-chain theory, which was introduced by the great German philologer Karl Luick as early as 1896. Luick argued that the GVS must have been initiated by the movement of the lower vowels /e:/ and /o:/. The two vowels, for some mysterious reason of their own, started to move toward the high vowels /i:/ and /u:/. As they drew nearer, /i:/ and /u:/ started panicking because, it is sometimes argued, they couldn’t raise any higher and remain vowels (instead becoming yucky consonants, bläch).

Well, can’t have that, can we? In pure desperation, /i:/ and /u:/ look for a way out. And they find one—move in (or out, if you will). So, that is precisely what they do, they move in: they become diphthongs, lower and, suddenly, Middle English /i:/ and /u:/ become modern English /əɪ/ and /əʊ/, eventually becoming /aɪ/ and /aʊ/. Tadaa, we have the first steps to a modern English vowel system.

Luick’s hypothesis is actually quite elegant in a way because it successfully explains the lack of diphthongisation of /u:/ in the northern dialects of British English. In these dialects, the vowel /o:/ had previously fronted, becoming /ø:/. The northern dialects therefore didn’t have a vowel /o:/ to push /u:/ out of its place, and the diphthongisation never happened there (pretty neat, huh?).

The second of our hypotheses, the drag-chain theory, was introduced by Otto Jespersen in 1909. Now, Jespersen argued that it was equally likely that the diphthongisation of the high vowels initiated the shift. Basically, Jespersen’s reasoning was like this:

The high vowels, i.e. /i:, u:/, shifted and became diphthongs. That left a ‘gap’ in the vowel system. Horrified, the lower vowels scrambled to move up the ladder to fill the gaps. All of the sudden, Middle English /a:/ became early Modern English /ɛ:/, Middle English /ɛ:/ became early Modern English /e:/ and so on (the back vowels tagged along, too), and so, harmony was restored.

Now, the (to me, at least) flaw of this hypothesis is that it doesn’t account for the non-diphthongisation of northern /u:/, but then again, Luick’s hypothesis claiming that the high vowels couldn’t raise any higher has been noted to be somewhat limited—the high vowels could have done several other things to avoid becoming consonants5. But that’s a different discussion.

Regardless of which of these hypotheses you want to consider more likely, this is the ‘Great’ English Vowel Shift: a huuuuge chain shift that took centuries to complete and affected all long vowels of Middle English. That’s a pretty big deal.

Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with spelling, right? Well, you see, the thing is that English spelling started to become standardized during the ongoing GVS. What this means is that we have a bunch of words where the written form corresponds to a pronunciation that is centuries old. So, basically, meet and meat, both pronounced [mi:t] in British English, are spelled differently because, when those high and mighty people speaking Middle English decided that there was a correct way to spell those words, they did have distinct pronunciations!

So, next time you get annoyed by having to look up how you spell something, just stop and consider that you’re actually spelling the word the way it was pronounced about 600 years ago. Pretty cool, huh?

 

 

 

 

Oh, oh! I almost forgot! Have you been asking yourself why I keep using ‘’ around ‘Great’? No? Well, I’m going to tell you anyway!

The ‘Great’ was introduced by Jespersen and, frankly, while the GVS did indeed have a huge effect on the English language, vowel shifts happen all the time. So, take the ‘Great’ with a pinch of salt and a shot of tequila and we might get on the right track of things.

 

 

 

 

Side notes

1.   There is nothing to say that either of these hypotheses is an accurate description on the initial process of the GVS. Long before I took my first bumbling steps into academia (actually, about a year before I was even born), Donka Minkova and Robert Stockwell noted that it may just be the desire to see a systematic aspect of language and discount its random quirks. So, don’t take it too seriously.

2.     If you’d like to read more about the GVS and other hypotheses, please take a look at Gjertrud Flermoen Stenbrenden’s dissertation work The Chronology and regional spread of long-vowel changes in English from 2010. It’s a really interesting read and introduces a lot more on the subject than I could possibly cover here.

Sources

1 This is an excerpt of the excellent poem The Chaos by Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité (Netherlands, 1870-1946). Translated by Pete Zakel.

2 This is one of the common ways to depict the GVS, a similar one can be found in most textbooks on the subject. See, for example, Historical Linguistics by Theodora Bynon (1977: 82)

3 See for example The Cambridge History of the English Language (2008) in which Roger Lass writes about this division into two phases. A similar explanation can be found in most textbooks on linguistics that deal, in some way, with historical linguistics (though I really recommend reading Lass’ explanation if you wish to know more about this).

4 Really, I would like to give you examples of these sounds, but I can’t. They’ve basically disappeared from modern English, though they can, most likely, be found in some dialects of English today. Examples can be found of /e:/ in some variants of Scottish English, for example in mate [me:t], but other than that, I can’t seem to find enough examples. If you do find them, though, please let us know! We would love to know more!

5 See, for example the critique by Charles Jones in A History of English Phonology (1989).

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