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History of the English Language

December 2012
The Great Vowel Shift

The purpose of my assignment is to present the main features of The Great Vowel Shift
process and the way it has affected the English pronunciation starting with the 15
century and
whose effects have been maintained up to the present. Therefore, as an example for this
development of the language, five words from the Lords Prayer: in; i; thy; thy/ heofonum;
heuenes; heuen; heaven/geld; lede; lead; lead/ure; oure; our; our/ nama; name; name; name
will be analyzed by looking at the main changes both in pronunciation and spelling.
The Great Vowel Shift represents a major linguistic process in the history of the English
language, which took place in the 15
century. It is characterized by the rising of vowels (where
possible) and diphthongization. This means that, for example the [] vowel from Middle
English raised one position and changed into [o], and in the 18
century it became the Modern
English diphthong [] (e.g coat). There have been changes suffered by all long vowels of the
Middle English as they are presented in the scheme below:


What we see in this chart represent the changes suffered by the words in terms of their long
vowels or tense vowels between the Middle English period and Modern English one. In contrast
to the previous pronunciation, the vowels are now formed in the back of the vocal tract, not using
the front of it.

(ENG:590: History of the English Language Spring 2005: MON & THU 10:30-12:00
Linguistics Section, Department of English Studies University of Cyprus, Kleanthes K. Grohmann)

Old English

Middle English

Early Modern English

Modern English
(World English Bible)
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica the Lords Prayer (also called Pater Noster) is a
prayer taught by Jesus to his disciples, and the principal prayer used by all Christians in common
worship. The Lords Prayer represented an important piece of text which was supposed to teach
the Christians how to pray. The following table provides the text of the prayer in the four different
periods of the English language.
(Lords Prayer texts taken from's_Prayer).

Looking at the changes in spelling and pronunciation, one can notice the effect of the Great Vowel
Shift undergone by the long vowels:
1. in - / in/ i - / i/ thy / / thy / a/
The word in was affected by the Great Vowel Shift from the 15th century, when the long
unrounded high front vowel /i:/ took a step higher and was replaced by the diphthong //,
which turned later in the Modern English into the diphthong /a/.
As far as the word itself is concerned, the letter corresponding to the voiced dental fricative,
the eth sound / / dies out in Modern English and is replaced by the group of consonants
th (the voiceless alveolar plosive /t/ and the voiceless glottal fricative /h/).
Nowadays thy is being used especially when addressing God e.g Holy God, we praise
Thy Name.

2. heofonum - / hovnm/ heuenes / hvns/ heuen / hvn/ heaven / hevn/
Fder ure u e eart
on heofonum;
Si in nama
to becume in rice
gewure in willa
on eoran swa swa
on heofonum.
hlaf syle us todg
and forgyf us ure
swa swa we forgyfa
urum gyltendum
and ne geld u us
on costnunge
ac alys us of yfele

Oure fadir at art in
heuenes halwid be i
i reume or kyngdom
come to be.
Be i wille don in
here as it is doun in
yeue to us today oure
eche dayes bred.
And foryeue to us oure
dettis at is oure
synnys as we foryeuen
to oure dettouris at is
to men at han synned
in us.
And lede us not into
temptacion but
delyuere us from euyl.

Our father which art in
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth
as it is in heauen.
Giue us this day our
daily bread.
And forgiue us our debts
as we forgiue our
And lead us not into
but deliuer us from euill.

Our Father in heaven, may
your name be kept holy.
Let your Kingdom come.
Let your will be done, as in
heaven, so on earth.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts, as we
also forgive our debtors.
Bring us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
For yours is the Kingdom, the
power, and the glory forever.
When looking at the length of the word we notice in the old form the inflectional suffix
um corresponding to the Genitive case, plural which disappears because of the
Scandinavian influences on the language.
Moreover, the diphthong specific to the Old English, the /o/, which does not exist in
Modern English anymore, is being monophthongised, becomes the unrounded lower mid
front vowel // and in Modern English it develops into a short unrounded upper-mid front
vowel /e/.
3. ure - /u:re/ oure /u:r/ our /r/ our /a/
As a consequence of the Great Vowel Shift from the 15th century, the long rounded high
back vowel /u:/ raises a position and is diphthongised /u:/ / /. The diphthong turned
into / a/ in Modern English.
Another change is the disappearance of the final e from the spelling of the word from Old
and Middle English to Modern English: ure and oure to our. In Modern English, however,
the final e does not appear, but the final sound schwa is pronounced.
As far as the voiced alveolar approximant r is concerned, the first three periods of the
English language are characterized by a rhotic accent, where the /r/ sound is pronounced in
any position. A non-rhotic accent is used in Modern English / a/.
4. geld - / jld/ lede - / ld/ lead - / led/ lead - / lid/
In Old English the voiced palatal approximant /j/ was used to pronounce the letter g.
Modern English uses the letter y for the sound /j/ e.g yacht - / jt/.
As far as the vowel change during The Great Vowel Shift is concerned, the sound // was
replaced by the long unrounded mid-high front vowel /e:/ and finally it developed into the
long unrounded high front vowel /i:/.
In addition to that, from the form of the Middle English to the forms of Early Modern
English and Modern English, the final e disappears and the schwa sound is not
articulated anymore.
5. nama - / nm/ name - / nm/ name - / nm/ name - / nem/
The Great Vowel Shift from the 15th century had an influence on the word name too, on
the long unrounded low back vowel /:/ which raised a position and developed into a long
unrounded mid-low front vowel //. The final form of the pronunciation of the word is
given by the replacement of the // with the diphthong /e/ through diphthongisation.

Although the reasons for the beginning of this shift have been highly controversial and
debatable, linguists agree that this process represents an essential event in the development of the
English language. There are theories which claim that The Great Vowel Shift took place because
the English ruling class would have wanted to distance themselves from the French occupation and
its language. Other theories account that the large amount of borrowings from the Romance
languages led to a change in pronunciation due to the differences encountered when articulating
loanwords with Romance origins.
The historical background could also be considered to have influenced this rising of long vowels in
English. The massive borrowings, the printing culture, the new middle class and the desire to
develop a standard, proper English, they all might have led to this phenomenon.
David Crystal, stated in his book The Stories of English (2004) that the evidence
of spellings, rhymes, and commentaries by contemporary language pundits suggest that [the Great
Vowel Shift] operated in more than one stage, affected vowels at different rates in different parts of
the country, and took over 200 years to complete. This is the reason why we could say that the
GVS represents a complex process with crucial consequences on the English language.

1. accessed on 29/11/2012;
2. - accessed on 01/12/2012;
3. - ibid 2;
4. -
ibid. 2;
5.'s_Prayer - accessed on 02/12/2012;
6. - ibid. 5.