Episode 142: The Great Vowel Shift (Part 2)

In this second part of our look at the Great Vowel Shift, we explore the movement of the vowel sounds located in the bottom front part of the mouth. We also examine how these sounds were traditionally spelled and how the merger of those sounds produced many homonyms within Modern English.


26 thoughts on “Episode 142: The Great Vowel Shift (Part 2)

  1. Hi Kevin,
    I enjoy your podcast and find the history of the development of English fascinating. Thank you so much for your scholarly approach.

    I have just finished listening to the latest episode (142 – Vowel Shift part 2). I was interested to find that you pronounce ‘father’ ‘waffle’ and ‘what’ with the same ‘a’ sound. I am English and I pronounce ‘father’ with an ‘ah’ sound but ‘waffle’ and ‘what’ with a short ‘o’ sound.

    I also noticed that you used the term homonym to mean two words which sound the same but are spelled differently. I think you used ‘meet’ and ‘meat’ as an example. I always thought these were homophones because they sound the same, whereas homonyms are words which are spelled the same but have potentially different pronunciations and meanings. For example ‘lead’ can be pronounced two different ways e.g to lead a team; or lead piping.

    Thank you again for this excellent podcast.

    • As an Australian-American, I echo Daniel’s comment about father-waffle-what. I find it very difficult to spell some American names after hearing them because the vowel sounds are indistinct. Listen to how NPR’s Guy R*z pronounces his name and guess the vowel.

      Where do the pronunciations of the ah-sounding words in English colonial countries like pass and grass fit into the timeline of the great vowel shift?

      I learned in school that a doubled consonant after a vowel indicated the vowel sound was short – e.g. pill, bell, nanny, funny, trotter. You mentioned that scribes doubled vowels to indicate a long sound, but I don’t recall you mentioning this rule about doubled consonants.

      Why does New Zealand have such different vowel sounds from Australia? (Listen any recent clips of Jacinda Ardern for examples.)

      Thanks as always for a great podcast.

      • Thanks for the feedback. To answer your questions:

        (1) The ‘ah’ sound in British pronunciations of “pass” and “grass” emerged in the 1700s and 1800s (after the Great Vowel Shift).

        (2) The use of double consonants to indicate a short vowel is discussed in the episodes about the Ormulum which is the first English manuscript to regularly use that spellings technique. Those are Episodes 87 and 88.

        (3) New Zealand English has experienced its own chain shift which has affected several front vowel sounds. Interestingly, the same series of changes can generally be found in South African English as well. I’ll discuss those developments when I get deeper into the Modern English period.

    • Thanks for the feedback. With respect to “homonyms” versus “homophones,” I agree that “homophones” would have been a better choice because it has a very clear and specific meaning. Unfortunately, “homonym” is actually a vague term that has multiple definitions. The broad definition of “homonym” actually includes homophones, so I think my use is technically correct under that broad definition, but I agree that the terminology is confusing.

  2. I’ve often wondered if the post-Great-Vowel-Shift generations of educated English speakers understood that a momentous change had taken place in the pronunciation of English vowels. My college Chaucer teacher told me that continental Europeans made fun of the way the English pronounced Latin. (I’m not sure where he got this information.) Speaking of Chaucer, I’ve also wondered if his reputation as a poet in a technical sense suffered in the aftermath of the Great Vowel Shift. That is, did his poetry seem not to rhyme or not to scan properly sometimes because of the changes in the pronunciation of the vowels?

    • The short answer to your question is yes. There were later writers who criticized some of Chaucer’s rhymes and word uses because they didn’t fully understand how the vowels had changed since he wrote. By the way, the same thing is true for many modern critics of Shakespeare. Thanks to the work of people like David Crystal who have recreated Shakespeare’s ‘Original Pronunciation,’ it is now apparent that many of his lines that don’t appear to rhyme today did in fact rhyme when he wrote them. He also used a lot of puns and word play that are completely lost on modern readers due to the changes in pronunciation.

  3. This is for me the most exciting episode. You were into the seventies as episodes when my daughter drew my attention to your podcast with the laconic comment that I might find it interesting. That was such an understatement that I had devoured more than seventy episodes in less than a month and then I found myself waiting impatiently for your next contribution, but I have not commented for some time – not that I have ever been disappointed in any episode be it linguist or historical. I was in Buncrana Donegal from Late Nov 1999 to Sep 2000 and sometimes had problems on the phone and often asked people to spell a name. I soon learned that there is no letter in the alphabet that I pronounce “A”
    I still cannot pronounce the name of the broadcaster RTE. My mother used boast that BOTH her parents were born in Australia. That is something her children could not claim. My father turned one the week after he arrived in Brisbane in Oct 1883. All of my known ancestors were born in Ireland or Australia

  4. You have inspired me to make another attempt to understand the IPA. Your mnemonic “eat aged eggs at Olly’s” was agreat start but I failed to find the symbol for the a in aged, then I realised that I should be looking for an English PA. The first vowel in the mnemonic is long, the second uses two symbols as does the fourth. Maybe I will finally understand the phonetics after some 70 years of confusion. Thank you. I am indebted

    • The IPA symbols for the mnemonic should be as follows: Eat (/i:/) aged (/e:/ if monophthong or /ei/ is diphthong), eggs (/ɛ/) at (/æ/) Ollie’s (/a:/).

        • Having looked again at the link I shared, I see that the phoneme for the ea in eat is the same as the y in many, or the i in glorious. I fail to see how it differs from the i in pit. In fact further comparison of phonetic alphabets leaves me quite frustrated at age 87 more than 70 years since I first struggled to pronounce the French “u”

          • Hi Denis. This is an interesting question: one that puzzled me for years. I am a Ghanaian, so I learned English as a second language. Most of us struggle with the distinction between the phonemes /ı/ as in “hill” /hıl/ and /i/ in ‘heel’ /hil/. You would sometimes hear people pronounce “pin” as /pin/ rhyming it with “teen”.

            And then I started studying English phonology and the phonological representation of words like ‘Many’, ‘pity, ‘glory’ and the rest made no sense to me. I started studying English phonotactics to under that the short vowel phonemes like /a/, and /ı/ do not end English words. Only long vowel phonemes and the neutral vowel called ‘schwa’ /ə/ occur in word final positions. So, since the letter “y” stands in for “i” in word final positions (because native English words cannot end in “i”), it could assume both ‘long’ pronunciations of “i”: /aı/ and /i/.

            I think the word final pronunciation of “y” as /i/ is a relic of the past when the letter ‘i’ was commonly pronounced as /i/ before the GVS. Since the “y” in “glory” is actually standing in for “i” in that final position and being pronounced as /i/, when the suffix “-ous” is added to glory, the “i” is substituted for “y” because it is no longer in the final position.

  5. Thank you Kevin for your wonderful podcast! I love it. It’s a joy to listen to. I’ve recently discovered it and binged my way through the first 50, but I listened to the Great Vowel Shift ones as soon as they came out.

    Why is it that the /ɛ:/ vowel ( the long vowel spelt ) moved to position 2 in words like steak, but to position 1 in words like speak? Is it just unpredictable? I love the way you’ve shown that most of it actually *is* predictable, even if it appears chaotic at first sight.

    Do you know why represents a short /ɛ/ sound in a word like head? Normally we spell it , for example in bed.

    Do you think the first phase of the GVS could have started before English diverged from High German? If you think of words like Haus and beiß, they have the same vowel in modern German as they do in modern English. I believe in proto-west-Germanic you had something like /hu:s/ and /bi:t/, and in modern west Germanic languages you have something like /haus/ and /bait/ or /bais/ (with the later shift from t to s in German). So phase one of the GVS seems to have happened in both German and English.

  6. I believe the long monophthong /e:/ (cardinal vowel 2) does not exist in modern English. Was is always the case? In other words, when the cardinal 3 and 4 vowels shifted upward, did they shift into monophthong /e:/ or current diphthong /eɪ/? If the latter, wasn’t that space already occupied by the vowel sound in words like “weight”?

  7. Thank you for your amazing teaching and oral history Kevin. I have learned so much from your podcast and I am especially relieved to hear your explination of the GVS. These recent episodes about the GVS have helped to assusge my suffering while always failing to spell words correctly throughout my academic career! With your podcast I can now appreciate the rich history of spelling and pronunciation in English instead of feeling doltish. Furthermore, I am currently undergoing adult assessments for dyslexia and this may help to further explain my abiding mystification when trying to write without spell check. Do you have any insight, advice or recommendations for dyslexic logophiles?

  8. Just listening to part 2 now and heard you discuss the change for Armada.
    There is a town in Michigan called Armada (pronounced är-MĀ-də) that was founded in 1832.
    Seems to show demonstrate the change and how sometimes things get stuck in time.

  9. Were these vowel shifts really discrete as you suggest, or were they continuous? And whether continuous or discrete, is there something special about those four sounds which cause them to act as ‘islands’ or ‘attractors’ when vowels change?

    • I don’t think vowel shifts – especially chain shifts – are ever discrete and orderly. As I’ve noted in the podcast, there was probably an extended period when people pronounced many words differently with different vowel sounds. Modern linguists have to discern the changes based on things like random spellings, and the logical process by which the Middle English vowels could have evolved into the Modern English vowels. So I think there is a lot of guesswork involved. The process as I describe it in these episodes is certainly a simplification of the overall process, but it helps to explain how the vowels changed over time. And as far as I know, there is nothing special about these particular vowels that cause them to act as ‘attractors.’

  10. I am re-listening to the four episodes (#140-#143) on the Great Vowel Shift (GVS). As a lover of history, but as someone with zero background in linguistics, phonetics, or academic English, almost everything in this podcast is new and fascinating. Thank you or your efforts.

    I am glancing at the IPA chart as I listen, and I just realized there is one thing I do not understand. For the first sound discussed in this episode (the “e” sound in “eat,” indicated as an “i” on the IPA chart), you explain that it changed during the GVS, albeit in a couple of steps, to an “I” sound, as in “eye” or “irate.” Where on the IPA chart is this “I” sound? Perhaps you explained this. Perhaps this is a diphthong (which I do not have a very solid grasp on). Any help for this science major will be appreciated.

    • The ‘i’ sound (as in “eye”) is a diphthong (a combination of vowels), so it isn’t represented on the chart. It is typically represented as /ai/ since it combines those two sounds as represented on the chart.

  11. I must admit Kevin that I took my first long break from listening almost daily when we finally hit the long awaited vowel shift- or if you like, when the shift hit this fan. But curiosity and perseverance reaped their reward. Your presentation was clear and interesting. While listening it occurred to me that I may have experienced an upward shift in my own lifetime without being aware of it with the word “egg” which once rhymed nicely with “leg” and “peg” but which now sounds a lot more like aygg. Any comments?

    • Vowels are inherently unstable. It’s possible that your pronunciation has changed over time, but whether it’s a personal development or part of a larger vowel shift depends on where you live. The vowel in “egg” has definitely shifted in large parts of the northern US. In some places, it has shifted backward towards the ‘schwa’ sound. But in other places, it seems to have shifted upward. I once knew a girl from Michigan who pronounced “egg” as /igg/.

  12. With a respectful smile, I know of a very common word which, today, uses the long e sound (the long version of the vowel in the word egg): “air”.

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