The great vowel shift refers to a period roughly from the twelfth century to the eighteenth century in England when all of the long vowels in English were raised–with the most substantial development coming in the 15th and 16th centuries–creating a drastic shift away from the pronunciation methods found in middle English.
Origins of the Vowel Shift
Many linguists believe France”s ruling of England during the Hundred Years” War (1337-1453) inspired the English to differentiate their pronunciation from the French in an act of defiance, thus creating a modern standard. A counter theory by Matthew Giancarlo in Seth Lerner”s book Inventing English: a portable history of the language, hypothesizes this standardization came through social conditioning. Consequently, the vowel shift itself is seen as one of many possible dialects that could”ve been adopted during this period and ultimately may have been adopted to meet the needs of an increasingly print oriented society.
Articulation Points of English Words
The vowel shift did not affect short vowels; however each of the long vowels–classified as either low, mid, high or back depending on where they are pronounced in the mouth–moved up a pronunciation class. For instance low vowels became mid vowels and high vowels became diphthongs, a syllable containing two distinct vowel sounds. Back vowels were also moved forward, infringing on the pronunciation space of other vowel groupings until both front and back vowels were pronounced similarly. Latin etymologies served as a basis for the respelling of a plethora of English words. In some instances the pronunciation of a given word was modified to phonetically reflect the new spelling, while other written words retained one or more silent constants. These changes necessitated the construction of a modern alphabet which diverged from Latin.
How the Vowel Shift Impacted Spelling
Although the shift encompassed all of Britain and eventually the world, the transition to modern English occurred at varying speeds . The dialects which once defined a given area faded away as the London standard dialect gained traction with the advent of print. Modern English also spread throughout the world on account of Britain”s colonization and trade efforts and previously foreign words from Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands were integrated into English. This flexibility was not present in Old English, characterized by a lack of word endings and a dependency upon rough translations for foreign words. Printers in different areas had contradictory pronunciation guidelines, leading to many English words being spelled non-phonetically.
Are you a business professional trying to improve your communication? Do vowels cause you frustration and confusion? When you are ready to get rid of your accent, Accent Pros can help find the best accent reduction training program suitable for you and your lifestyle. Please take our Free Accent Screening to determine the severity of your foreign accent and examples of what you could do in order to speak with an American accent.