When vowels change: The Great Vowel Shift
What would you do if you woke up one morning and heard the people around you speaking a familiar language, but differently? If all their utterances made sense but were spoken…wrong, somehow, it could feel disorienting at the least. That’s more or less what happened in southern England during the 15th and 16th centuries during what is now known as the Great Vowel Shift.
It didn’t happen literally overnight, but it was a rapid and dramatic shift in speech patterns. Long vowels in words took on entirely new characteristics over this period, requiring speakers to pronounce the sounds higher in the mouth. This different placement influences how a letter sounds – to test it yourself, say the words “boot” and “boat” out loud. Did you notice how your tongue and mouth changed position between the two words? Changing the tongue position and shape of the oral cavity is what creates many of the differences in human speech.
What on earth could provoke a widespread change like this? That’s an interesting question and one that leads to strong disagreements among linguists and historians. There are several theories, with the most popular being that mass migration following the Black Death led to an influx of English speakers with varying regional dialects. Other explanations attribute the shift to adoption of numerous French words, class-based distinctions between French pronunciations and English ones, and even a resistance to French pronunciations that led to hypercorrection. Basically, we don’t know why it happened but we can see many of the effects even today.
The Great Vowel Shift took place over several stages and at varying rates in different communities. As a result, some English speakers in a town or region would be using the older pronunciation (typically conservative and older residents) while the younger, more cosmopolitan and trendier neighbors adopted the newer ways of speaking. Interestingly enough, we’re seeing a similar shift in spoken language in North America today.
English speakers in the U.S. and Canada are showing a pattern of shifting vowel sounds to nontraditional places in the mouth, giving the words these vowels include a distinctively different pronunciation. And just as during the Great Vowel Shift, this systemic change is led by the young.
Linguists recognize a notable California Vowel Shift, but it’s not an isolated phenomenon. There’s also a Canadian Shift that largely mirrors the trend in California, with some exceptions. Another strong shift centers around Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee and is known as the Northern Cities Shift. The Southern Shift is yet another pattern of vowel pronunciation changes extending from the Ohio River all the way to Texas, Florida and Virginia.
With a shared online culture and national televised media, it’s likely these shifts that started out as regional dialects will eventually become standardized as the North American pronunciation. Some cities hold onto their traditional speech patterns and accents longer than others, but the trends are clear: pronunciation patterns spread, achieve formal recognition and eventually enter the broader language as a standard expectation.
So the next time you hear a teenager using that annoying, obnoxious pronunciation you hate, stop rolling your eyes and take a deep breath. This is the future of the language, and you’ll be doing it yourself in a few years – either that or proudly clinging to the old style like a soon-to-be-extinct dinosaur.