Episode 143: The Great Vowel Shift (Part 3)

In this final episode about the sound changes associated with the Great Vowel Shift, we explore the vowel shifts that took place in the back of the mouth. We also explore how these changes impacted the way words are spelled in Modern English. 

26 thoughts on “Episode 143: The Great Vowel Shift (Part 3)

  1. 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 assuage 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 sans spell check. Do you have any insight, advice or recommendations for dyslexic logophiles?

    • Great question. Unfortunately, I don’t really know enough about the medical aspects of dyslexia to offer any insights. I do think that the more you learn about the history of English spelling, the more logical it becomes. Of course, there’s a lot of randomness as well, but it becomes easier to recognize certain patterns once you know how the sounds evolved and how spellings often lingered behind those pronunciation changes. I will continue to explore vowel shifts and spelling developments as the podcast continues into the Modern English period. Also, you might want to check out a book by David Crystal called ‘Spell it Out.’ He provides a good overview of the history of English spelling in that book.

    • Hi Graham,
      I’d encourage you to read Diane McGuinness’s book, Why Our Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It. It’s a fascinating read for logophiles, and it may also help guide your quest to become a better speller.

  2. Another great episode. I’ll be devastated when it finishes! I was particularly interested in the “ou” sound. I live in Lancashire in north west England and there the pronunciation would seem to be a variant of the “middle position”. A Lancastrian would say: “There’s a meause in our heause.” Other vowel sounds would seem to be much more like the Middle English pronunciation. A Lancastrian would stretch out the “oo” sound: eg “I loook at a boook.” We also shorten the “ah” sound so where a southern English person would say “bahth” or “grahss” a Lancastrian would say “bath” and “grass” to rhyme with “hath” and “ass” (which in British English means a donkey!) As one of your Scottish contributors noted these regional pronunciations are less common among younger people, particularly those who have received Higher Education.
    Incidentally Friday 27th November is Lancashire Day which commemorates when the County Palatine of Lancaster was formally incorporated into England in 1295 and allowed to send 2 representatives to Parliament.

  3. I found the mnemonic “eat aged eggs at Ollies …” very useful but somehow I missed the ending and I am still finding it difficult to pick up the last word “uber”(?). The word seems to be creeping into our vocab here in Australia but so far it seems to be limited to an alternative to the taxi services in the large cities with which I am no longer familiar. In which episode did you add to the mnemonic? The phonetics are still fascinating! Thank you!

  4. We are fascinated by archaeology especially as presented for the BBC by Dr Alice Roberts who lectures at Bristol uni. We are intrigued by her pronunciation of the “ou” dipthong.

  5. Oh my goodness, I was so glad you got to the NC coast regional accents! Thanksgiving in the time of COVID is awful – getting to hear those accents was such a warm reminder of home and family. Thank you!

  6. Another great episode, thank you.

    I was glad to learn the reason for two pronunciations of the word route. In my local Northern Virginia dialect, we pronounce it both ways depending on the context. As a boy, I had a paper ROWT. I choose a ROWT for a road trip and ROWT around problems. But I get my kicks on ROOT 66.

    I can think of a few possible reasons for this. I’m in a bit of a no-man’s land between the mid-Atlantic dialects north of the Potomac River and the southern speech south of the Rappahannock River. So maybe we’re on sort of a dividing line for this word.

    Or it could be that the standard American media dialect is to say ROOT, so hearing radio and TV news reports about traffic jams on ROOT 50 might influence our speech.

    Or could it be that we all were influenced by Nat Cole’s hit recording of Bobby Troup’s song about a highway out west? Hey, wait. Is that Bobby TROOP or Bobby TROWP?

    • I haven’t heard that episode, but I know that John McWhorter makes that connection his book, “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.” I think I mentioned that theory at some point in the podcast, but I don’t remember which episode.

  7. And, of course, there’s Groundskeeper Willie singing,
    “When yer alone and life is getting ya lonely, ye can always go
    Ach!
    Doontoon!”

  8. A couple of comments/questions.

    I don’t get ‘Ollie’ being used to represent ‘ah’. In most Englishes this is pronounced with a short ‘o’ as in ‘on’. It doesn’t seem to gel with ‘ham’ (home).

    Also, didn’t you say that the lowest of the front vowels was also pronounced ‘ah’? You described it as a ‘low central vowel’. Is there a difference between this vowel and the lowest back vowel?

    Finally, the sound you were using for U was closer to the umlauted German U, which is actually spoken closer to the front (perhaps central?). ‘Uber’ in your mnemonic has that vowel. But the native speakers were using the back U. In fact we don’t really use the back U as a long vowel in standard modern English, making me think there must have been a later shift.

    • Some of these questions are addressed in Episode 140 in which I tried to establish the framework for the subsequent discussion about the Great Vowel Shift. For example, for the reasons I noted there, the ‘short O’ sound in Modern English is essentially an ‘ah’ sound due to sound shifts. There is some variation within Modern English, however. Americans tend to pronounce that short O or ‘ah’ sound with the lips unrounded, whereas Brits tend to pronounce the sound with the lips rounded. A word like “on” can also be pronounced with a slightly higher ‘aw’ sound in American English.

      Through this series of episode about the Great Vowel Shift, I have tried to make a note in each episode that the ‘ah’ sound is really a low central vowel and not a front vowel. It can also be pronounced further back as a back vowel. Linguists would note that there are a couple of different ‘ah’ vowels – one is more central and one is further back. Again, I noted a couple of times in this series that I was disregarding that technical distinction. The difference is very small, and it can be difficult for many people to detect. In fact, some of my sources suggest that there is little to no difference between those sounds in most American English dialects. Given that this topic is so complicated, I made a decision to simplify these low ‘ah’ sounds by treating them as one, and I specifically stated that I was doing that in the episodes.

      And finally, with respect to the pronunciation of the vowel sounds, I pronounced them as clearly and accurately as I could. Most speakers don’t use the specific ‘textbook’ vowels. Due to regional accents, most of us use vowels that are ‘near’ those vowels, but not necessarily the exact same vowel. Again, that’s why I presented a formal pronunciation of each vowel sound from the IPA website in Episode 140. That way, listeners could compare my pronunciation to the official pronunciation and determine if there was any difference.

      • Either Ollie’s or Ali’s – as long as you use the ‘ah’ sound in a word like “father” (long vowel) or “what” (short vowel).

  9. OMG, I finally caught up! Took me about three years!
    Thanks Kevin for all the great work you’ve done on this podcast.
    –Zack

    • “Wound” (as in an injury) and “wound” (a past tense version of the verb “to wind”) were historically two separate words that came to be spelled the same way, but the pronunciations have been distinct at least since the late Middle English period. “Wound” as in an injury was “wund” in Old English, so the vowel sound has changed very little in that word over the centuries. “Wound” as in ‘to wind’ mirrors the pattern found in words like ‘bind/bound’ and ‘find/found.’

  10. Kevin, I am not sure if you provided the answer to my question in any of the episodes dealing with the GVS. When Caxton wrote “hows” for house: was that an indication that the pronunciation went from “U” to “O” to “Ou”? I mean I have often seen the spelling of ‘house’ as ‘hus’ or ‘huse’ and I have heard you talk about that but HOWS? Was Caxton’s OW pronounced as in KNOW or HOW or YOU? I have even seen the spelling of YOU as YOW somewhere? Are these indications of sound changes or just non-standard spelling?

    If there is the possibility of OU having ever been pronounced as O, does it mean that the pronunciation of THOUGH failed to make the final transition from U to O to OU? And got stuck at O? How about THROUGH: it is possible that it never even moved at all?

    Thank you very much.

    • Hi Felicia. Thanks for the question. First of all, it is important to keep in mind that the letter W is a just a variation of the letter U. Before the letter W emerged, the letter U was used to represent the /w/ sound. During the Middle English period, the letter U was still being used for that sound by many writers. So the spellings ‘hous’ and ‘hows’ could represent the same sound. The fact that writers like Caxton spelled the vowel sound in “house” with [ow] instead of a simple [u] suggests that the vowel sound was being pronounced differently – probably similar to the /o/ sound in “know.” But it’s important to keep in mind that pronunciations were probably quite variable during this period. And yes, sometimes the pronunciation of a particular word got ‘stuck’ and didn’t experience the subsequent vowel changes.

  11. What’s the story with the words that are spelled with a long u? Did they come into English later? If not, why weren’t they spelled with an “ou”? Or does the “yu” sound in some of these words make it special somehow? I’m thinking of words like huge, due, suit, mute, flute, rude, true, student, attitude, etc.

    • Hi Jack. Most of the words you mentioned have a unique history unrelated to the Great Vowel Shift, which is why I didn’t discuss them as part of this three episode series. Most of those words were pronounced with an /ee-oo/ sound in late Middle English that evolved into a /yoo/ sound in early Modern English. Since then, some of those words have lost the ‘y’ sound at the beginning (a process called ‘yod dropping’). The loss of that ‘y’ sound varies among words, but more importantly, it also varies among dialects. That is why Brits tend to pronounce “duty” as /dyoo-tee/ and Americans tend to say /doo-dee/. I mentioned this in the episode, but I am going to discuss this set of words in more detail in a future episode.

  12. Thank you for these!

    Your example on Route (‘r-ow-t’ vs ”r-oo-t’) made me realized that I use both but in different settings. Grew up north of Pittsburgh, PA in an area that was a German ‘colony’ from 1810s until 1890s / 1900s.

    I grew up (and still use) ‘r-oo-t’ when referring to a specific road – Route 79, Route 19 etc.

    I use ‘r-ow-t’ when directions are involved but not a specific road.

    This leads to using both pronunciations in the same sentence – R-oo-t 19 is your best r-ow-t ‘dahntahn’

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