This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What was the Great Vowel Shift in the history of the English language? How did it change the pronunciation of English vowels?
The Great Vowel Shift was a change in the pronunciation of English vowels that took place roughly between 1400 and 1600. Basically, the pronunciation of long vowels moved forward, that is, closer to the front of the mouth.
Keep reading to learn about the Great Vowel Shift.
The Great Vowel Shift and the Changing Pronunciation of English
Perhaps the most famous change in the morphology and pronunciation of a language that we can trace through the historical record is the Great Vowel Shift. This was a change in the pronunciation of English vowels that began in the late Middle Ages and continued into the early modern era, running roughly from 1400-1600 CE. The pronunciation of vowels began shifting to the front of the mouth. The word life, for example, was pronounced lafe in Shakespeare’s time, with the vowel lodged further back in the throat. The Great Vowel Shift changed it to the pronunciation we have today.
We know a great deal about how these shifts in pronunciation were occurring (even long before the days of audio recording) through our study of rhymes and poetry. Shakespeare forms rhymes using knees and grease as couplets, as well as grass and grace. Their placement in verse indicates that these words must have rhymed in his day, even though they wouldn’t in modern pronunciation.
Interestingly, this was the era in which Englishmen were beginning to colonize North America. The American descendants of English settlers in New England and Virginia were thus cut off from the great linguistic developments taking place back in the British Isles. Early American speech thus preserved many relics and vestiges of Elizabethan English that had long since died out in the mother country. One example is the er sound in a word like mercy, which was pronounced like marcy by Elizabethan Britons (with the a sound being further back in the throat). This pronunciation survived in parts of the United States well into the 19th century, hundreds of years after its virtual extinction in England.
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