Toward Modern English

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The Great Vowel Shift

Till now, we have been mainly concerned with changes in morphology, syntax and meaning. In understanding the shifts between Middle and Modern English, however, it's very important to turn to phonology again and see how the pronunciation of words has (probably) changed since Chaucer's time.

The most significant of these phonological changes is probably the Great Vowel Shift.

One element of the Great Vowel Shift had begun to move in Early Middle English. Recall that the vowel in stone, home, and road is, in Old English, a low back vowel: stan, ham, rad. In Middle English, this vowel had moved up to the position now present in Standard Modern caught or bought. (The words were variously spelled in Middle English: stoon, hoom, road, rod, stane, hame can all be observed.)

In Standard Modern American English, of course, the vowel in these words is /o/ --it has gone up still further since the Middle English period. That's the basis of the whole Great Vowel Shift. It is a moving-up of positions of long vowels.

So in Old and Middle English we have words like bote, fode (boot, food); nu, hus (now, house); make and take (with a "Spanish" value for "a"); me and thee (with a "Spanish" value for "e"), and like and mind (with a "Spanish" value for "i"). Along with stoon and home, these words illustrate the six major shifts of the Great Vowel Shift.

Why is this interesting? First, because it explains why the letters for the front vowels a, e, and i have such different values in Spanish, French, Italian and German than they do in English. Second, because vowel shifts are still going on. For instance, the Standard American pronunciation of stone and home is /ow/ but the Received Pronunciation reflects yet another shift in the vowel, to a much different diphthong. The American pronunciation is conservative; the RP has shifted since Early Modern English.

Many of the differences between RP and Standard American can be seen in terms of vowel shifting. The causes of such vowel shifting are mysterious. How does a shift in any cultural preference begin? In the early 19th century, British and American gentlemen stopped wearing knee breeches and hose, and began to wear trousers. In the mid-19th century, the same class of gentlemen began to wear beards, which were unknown in the 18th century among upper class men. In the early 20th century, the same class of men became clean-shaven again and have largely stayed so ever since. We don't know the reasons for these cultural shifts in largely arbitrary markers like dress and grooming, but we can chart their existence. And these cultural items come with meanings attached to them, just as "accents" do in language, despite their arbitrariness. Even today we surely attribute social meaning to the possession of a standard accent, and a different social position to RP than we do to standard American.

A course website at Creighton University has some interesting facts about other major transitions between Middle and Early Modern English. Note that many of these developments are simply the assumption of the exact modern forms. Most of them, however, explain the strange differences between the way we speak (Modern) and the way we spell words (in many instances Late Middle English).

The Bible and Shakespeare are major factors in the standardization of Early Modern English. After many competing versions of the English Bible circulated in the 1500s, the 1611 Authorized Version, done under the auspices of King James I (and hence called the King James Version) was the standard Bible in English for almost 300 years, and remains a powerful influence on 20th century English. Shakespeare, in his own day, was just another popular playwright, one of many who continued to be performed after the reopening of English theatres in 1660; but the 18th and 19th centuries made him the supreme English literary writer, and his influence on popular culture and education continues strong in the late 20th century. Some Internet and print sources will tell you that Shakespeare added innumerable phrases and words to the English language, but that's not really so; his impact comes slightly from his own very large vocabulary, which was "sticky" as well as inventive (he represents an unusually large slice of the usage of his own times), but it comes much more from the social decision to revere him as the greatest English author. Click here for fun.