Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Great Vowel Shift - a paper about how we speak!

The Great Vowel Shift took place during the 14th Century in England. At that time there were many
regional accents of English, each coming from a certain part of England. Even today there are regional
accents. The variety of accents and dialects, had a direct bearing upon the development of English as it is
spoken today. The shift in the vowel structure of English can be traced to a certain time period. The 14 th
Century saw many different forces at work. This short paper will trace a few of the causes of the Great Vowel

The Great Vowel Shift took place over a long period of time. It started in Chaucer’s time, and some say
it is still going on now. The major change was in the pronunciation of the long vowels. The long vowels now
say their names, but before, they were more like the French pronunciation. This is because the ruling classes of
England had to use French in the Court. There was social prestige in being well educated, and this included
being able to speak and write French. All Court correspondence had to be written in French, so it was
the “Higher” language. The common people spoke English, Welch, Gaelic and in the north, Scottish.

The Great Vowel Shift separates Chaucer:“Middle English” from Shakespeare,:“Modern English”. In
most languages, the vowels have only one sound. The Hebrew vowels have only one sound, as well as in
French. If you see an “a” it sounds the same in each of the Romance languages. But in English the letter “a”
can take on many different sounds, a as in gate, or bat, and even in the same word it can have different
pronunciations like in the word ‘away” the first a is accented and the second one is not. We can only read
Chaucer with special training whereas Shakespeare is accessible to all fluent English speakers. See the excerpts
and media files presented in this report for more examples.

Why did the pronunciation of English change? There are a couple of explanations. One of which is the
Black Plague swept through Europe. “England lost 70% of its population, which declined from 7 million
before the plague, to 2 million in 1400. This caused the people to move away from the places that were thought
to be the source of the plague. Because of the movement of people this caused the accents to change. People
had to understand each other, and English became a Creole, borrowing words from many languages. Actually
this started when the Normans invaded England, bringing with them their language.

All social classes were affected by the Black Death although the lower classes, living together in
unhealthy places, were most vulnerable.” This created a tremendous void in the social fabric of Europe.
Many people who were left felt that the plague may have come from France, so they wanted to distance
themselves from anything that felt or sounded like French. In fact the Hundred Years War, between England
and France lasted 116 years from 1337 to 1453. The war was over the French Throne, the English having been

descended from France claimed to rule over both England and France. At the end of the war, the English
accepted the French Kings authority over France in exchange for Glascony. The common people of the time
were inducted into the army to fight this war. This put them in direct contact with the French, and the English
for their part wanted to be more “English.”

When over 70% of the population dead, there was great social mobility, and many people moved from
place to place to try to escape other outbreaks of the disease. Nobody was able to figure out why or how the
plague spread. The Church ,which was the overriding authority of the time, had promised salvation, but priests
and monks were also affected. In many cities they were the ones tended to the sick, the monks were in close
contact with the afflicted, so they contracted the sickness as well and also died. The plague would kill 4 out of
5 effected over a period of 7 to 8 days. The disease was fast acting, and almost always fatal. This state of
affairs also led to a loss of respect for the Church, as no one could do anything about the plague. One
superstition that was fostered was that the Jews were the source of the plague. As a result, many Jews were
persecuted because they were accused of poisoning the wells. The Jews were either expelled or outright killed.
As we see in the literature of England, at the time, the Jews were not well thought of anyway, with their strange
Later research shows that the real cause of the Black Plague was the the “ship” rat and its fleas. http://
This chart shows the spread of the Black Plague, which spread along with the trade routes of Europe. Along
with the migration of the rats.

At this time, Europe also underwent climate changes. Right before the Black Plague, the weather
changed, and became colder, more rainy. The northern parts of Europe didn’t have as fertile soil, so didn’t
produce as much food. Famines were common and the price of wheat and basic foods were high. People
didn’t know about balanced meals, and didn’t get a proper diet. The common people also didn’t know about
personal hygiene. Forks were only used in cooking, and people ate their food with their fingers. This might
also have help the spread of the plague. http://iq.lycos.co.uk/qa/show/195/When+was+the+fork+invented%3F/
Their immune systems were not as strong because the lack of a balanced diet, and them made them more
susceptible to the new disease.

Another theory is that one or more of the English nobility had a speech defect, and so out of deference to
the nobility, everybody adopted the accent. http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-great-vowel-shift.htm This
actually did happen in Spanish, for the pronunciation of the letter “c”. In Mexican Spanish it is a “s” sound but
in Castilian Spanish the sound is a “th” sound, because one of the Spanish Kings couldn’t say “s” but could
say “th”, so the official prounciation of “c” is now “th.” This is how Castilian Spanish is taught in University
classes in the United States, as I know from personal experience.

Although we can never really “hear” Middle English, there have been attempts to recreate the
pronunciation of accent. I have presented some excerpts of readings of Chaucer, both from British speakers,
and one from a French speaker to try to recreate what Middle English might have sounded like.

The Great Vowel shift was a process that was started by the nobles and filtered down to the common people of
England. There were many factors, such as the Black Plague, The Hundred Years War with France as well as
social factors of increased social mobility. The process of language change continues even today.

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