The Great Vowel Shift: What it means and why the shift happened (kinda)

Authors. Writers. Books. Poems. Literature History.

The Great Vowel Shift sounds like some sort of cataclysmic event where the world suddenly split open and words spilled out everywhere and now suddenly humans all talk differently, but that is not really the case at all. In fact, like most things, the shift was a gradual evolution from one thing to the next and it has a complex history. As such, today we are going to look at The Great Vowel Shift!

Then to now

In the beginning, vowels were a bit different from what we know them as today and the shift between the times of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and afterward are indicative of this change.

“The main difference between Chaucer’s language and our own is in the pronunciation of the ‘long’ vowels,” states Harvard University. “The consonants remain generally the same, though Chaucer rolled his r’s, sometimes dropped his aitches, and pronounced both elements of consonant combinations, such as ‘kn,’ that were later simplified.”

In so many words, vowels started to be pronounced closer to the front of the mouth, which meant as the shift happened some words were pronounced differently. But often, people would pronounce words a specific way based on where they lived.

An example of this occurring today is the word route. One can pronounce it root or ra-out depending on where they are and to whom they are talking.

Moreover, there were 8 steps in this change, and, as academia has suggested—this didn’t happen in a quick, orderly way, because evolving language takes time.

This short video (under 2 minutes!) might help give more context:

Why did this happen?

The Great Vowel Shift occurred during the late Middle English period (and before and after, too), and because it was a “raising of all long vowels” there are many explanations given as to why this happened (Nordquist).

Because this happened between the 15th and 18th centuries, the shift could be attributed to “rapid migration of people from northern England to the southeast part of the country to escape the Black Death that killed over 25 million people across Europe” (Omondi).

Therefore, this movement of people blended accents and the words that people use. It also saw the use of a lot more loanwords from France, which either made the English want to change the way their English words sound or the two languages naturally blended together.

There are also arguments stating that England’s rich wanted to change the way they spoke so they would sound less like the common serf.

If you are interested in this change in language (and some other important shifts), then check out this website, because it provides a brief overview of the English language in a very basic and approachable way that you may find super helpful!

Works Cited

“The Great Vowel Shift.” Web.

“The Great Vowel Shift.” Web.

Nordquist, Richard. “What was the great vowel shift?” June 4, 2020. Web.

Omondi, Sharon. “What Was the Great Vowel Shift?” World Atlas. July 18, 2019. Web.