Episode 141: The Great Vowel Shift (Part 1)

The term ‘Great Vowel Shift’ was coined in the early 1900s by the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen to describe a systematic change in the long vowel sounds of English. The changes help to mark the transition from Middle English to Modern English. In this episode, we explore the specific changes that took place in the upper front part of the mouth. We also examine the impact of those changes on Modern English spellings.


18 thoughts on “Episode 141: The Great Vowel Shift (Part 1)

  1. Super interesting episode!! I’ve never understood or appreciated the evolution of vowels with respect to English-language dialects.
    Will you be covering the dialects of some of these odd linguistically-isolated places? I have heard that Tangier Island off the coast of Virginia has retained the pronunciation of vowels from either middle or very early modern English.

    • There’s a lot to cover, but I do intend to cover many local dialects. The Tangier Island dialect is very similar to the Outer Banks dialect along the coast of NC, and I have lot of information about that dialect. So yes, a large portion of the Modern English period will address the development of local accents.

  2. Hi Kevin, great episode, as usual.
    However, as a scholar of Japanese history and a Japanese speaker (but an American of English descent), I have to take issue with your allowance for “GEESHA” as acceptable “American” pronunciation for Geisha. American laziness in pronouncing a word doesn’t make it “acceptable.” There’s no phonetic reason “EE” should be generated by the “ei” here. As you continue on in the podcast, the standard for the “EE” is “ie,” not “ei.” There’s no hidden “C” just before the “ei,” so it doesn’t meet the “we borrowed these from French 500 years ago and that’s how they were spelled” exception. For languages not written in Roman script, we assign letters based on their phonetic values to replicate the sound. This isn’t “to-may-to/to-mah-to” where the word in question is a specific object without a cultural context attached, and therefore it doesn’t really matter what it’s called. There’s a specific meaning to the word Geisha that is not separated from Japanese culture, even if used metaphorically. It also entered English usage in the last 100 years, so very different than examples from Norman or Renaissance French. Don’t let Americans off the hook for their inability to cope with phonetics! (And as always, I only point this out because everything else about the podcast is amazing!)

    • Thanks for the feedback. I really appreciate the input, especially for these vowel episodes which I consider to be a bit of an extended digression.

      With respect to the “Geisha” example in the episode, I was merely noting that both pronunciations exist in American English. I’m not a professional linguist, and the podcast is not a proper academic forum, but I try to take an academic approach by describing what happened (and is currently happening) without rendering a judgement as to whether it is correct or not. Trust me, there are lots of things about Modern English that drive me crazy, but I don’t use the podcast as a personal soapbox. I do agree that “Geisha” is a recent loanword and didn’t go through the Great Vowel Shift, but I wasn’t suggesting otherwise in the episode. I was just pointing out some modern words show a similar range of pronunciation as the words that passed through the Great Vowel Shift in earlier centuries.

    • I never heard anyone say geesha yet, but I have heard Americans pronounce geysir as geezir or geezer.
      I think there is a lot of coy pretended inability to distinguish ie and ei, in spelling and in speech, when there is no reason or justification for confusion whatsoever. Think of the names ending in -stein, which people often misspell and/or mispronounce. It cannot all be blamed on overworked Ellis Island officers.

  3. Similar to the offensive pronunciation of the loan word geisha is saying sheik as “sheek” rather than “shake”. I lived in the Middle East as a kid, and my mother demanded we say “shake.”

  4. Hi Kevin,
    Great episode, as always. One thing that wasn’t clear to me in your explanation was how the two different French diphthongs “ie” (yeh) and “ei” (ay) became a monophthong (long eh) in Middle English, before, as you explained very well, turning into the ee sound.

    • Hi Jasper. The spellings you referenced were spellings adopted specifically for the ‘ay’ (/e:/) sound in Middle English. So I don’t think they represent a diphthong that evolved into a monophthong – at least not within English. I don’t know what the historical development of those spelling were within French though, so they may have represented a diphthong at one time in French. But as I noted in an earlier episode, Norman French scribes sometimes used the letter ‘i’ to mark a long vowel sound – like in ‘raid.’ So the ‘i’ may have been introduced as a similar marker in spellings like ‘EI’ and ‘IE’. Again, I’m not sure without digging back into my research.

      • Interesting. I would have thought “ie” was a different sound (a diphthong) altogether when it entered the English language.

  5. The youtuber Simon Roper has made a couple of interesting videos about the development of the Cumbrian dialect of English, which is located in the far North-West of England. It outlines the development of the dialect from Northumbrian Old English to the modern day. It gives a really interesting insight as to what was happening in the north while all this turmoil was happening in the South and it makes it clear as to why the northern dialects were largely unaffected by the vowel shift until quite recently.
    Part 1 800-1400 : https://youtu.be/B9aILOeTYas
    Part 2 1400-2020 : https://youtu.be/-IdKScLLjVE

  6. Super interesting episode – thanks a lot. I know a fair amount about the GVS but this has filled some gaps. One query/point: you seem to often conflate [e] and [eɪ], treating them as the same sound. This is also apparent in the mnemonic ‘eat aged eggs’ (which I hadn’t heard before). The word ‘aged’ has the /eɪ/ diphthong, whereas the vowel in Middle English ‘cheese’ etc. was [e] – not a diphthong. I found this conflation made the explanation of the cockney pronunciation of /eɪ/ as moving to something like [əɪ] or [ʌɪ] rather confusing, because this was a shift from one diphthong to another, not from [e] to a diphthong. Similarly, the word ‘melee’ does not contain the [e] vowel, but the diphthong /eɪ/. I just wondered whether you could comment on this?

    • I discussed the evolution of the pure vowel /e:/ into the diphthong /ei/ in the prior episode (Episode 140). That was a relatively recent sound shift in the language.

  7. When I visited Australia, someone told me the following joke:

    Nurse: Did you come to the hospital to die?
    Patient: No, I came yesterdie.

    Notice that in standard German, ie is pronounced (more or less) like English long e while ei is pronounced like English long i. Zeit, which I believe is cognate with tide seems to have undergone a similar shift.

  8. I am a slow, but patient, learner, and while I binged on HOEP last year, by the time I reached Ep140 and saw that only two out of three episodes were on the table, I sighed and threw a six and started again. I am now partway through Episode 140 for the first time, and am pacing myself to get the full flavour of the logic. (Quick Question, if a person who savours the flavour of wine is an oenophile, does that make me an hoepophile (or a hoeophile) I hope?)

    Please, might someone, confirm my theory of the vowel-shift confusion that arises and might be explained away by :-

    (1) During the grim days in primary school, spent waiting for the summer vacation to start, we had the alphabet drilled into us, and especially the vowels (“A”, “E”, “I”, “O”, “U”), and in that sequence. All together now: “A-E-I-O-U”. Old MacDonald, remember, had a farm while we were still in kindergarten.

    (2) As Kevin points out, the natural sequence is governed by the position of the human tongue, reading from the top-front position in the mouth, and gradually retracting the tongue, the first vowel is what I would pronounce “ea” as in “Neat podcast, Kevin!”, The next vowel in sequence is what I would pronounce “ay” as in “Way to go, Kevin!”, and so on.

    And so right there, just the first TWO letters of the school-dictated alphabet sequence are in conflict with the natural order of things. In school we are taught “A-E…”, but our oral cavity delivers “E-A…”.

    Hence for those of us starting from scratch to understand the Great Vowel Shift, we wander through a state of confusion.

    I believe that Kevin has been paraphrasing this in the podcast, that the written/read form of communication (has to be learned at school) is often in conflict with the spoken form of communication (can be picked up by osmosis before your fourth birthday).

    I have a vision of twelve monks, each from a different valley in Lancashire, sitting at desks writing down what each monk THINKS is being said while a senior monk (from London) sits at the head of the room dictating a book, of which twelve copies are to be made. Twelve distinctly different copies.


    • Yes, the order of the vowels in the alphabet is based on the somewhat random history of the alphabet itself. Remember that the original form of the alphabet didn’t have vowels at all. The Greeks added them by taking letters for consonant sounds that didn’t exist in Greek, and they converted those letters to vowels. So the vowel order in the alphabet is a product of that random process and isn’t based in any way on phonetic order.

  9. Aye, reet. In Scotland and much of the north of England it’s not shifted in ‘correct’ and many other words. Speakers may spell it as right or reet but they commonly say reet.

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