a-history-of-english-foto-university-of-oregonMore English History4.4.1. The Great Vowel Shift

4.4.2. English Spelling

4.4.3. Summary of English History

4.4.1. The Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift is perhaps the most significant sound change in the history of the English language. During the late Middle English period, most English vowels shifted their pronunciation. For example, in the early Middle English periodbefore the Great Vowel Shift, the vowel in the word „moon” was pronounced [o]; it sounded like our modern word „moan.” Today the vowel in „moon” is pronounced [u]. So the name of the earth’s satellite shifted it’s pronunciation from[mon] to [mun]. If we visual this shift in terms of the phonetics chart for vowels which we studied in Unit 2, we could say that English vowels shifted up the chart. The high vowels „popped off” the chart and became diphthongs. (Notice that the Great Vowel Shift did NOT involve a front / back vowel change. This means it is strikingly different from ablaut, which also affected vowels.)


The Great Vowel Shift would probably be just an historical curiosity if it weren’t for the fact that the first printing press opened in London in 1476, right in the middle of the shift!

Before the printing press was invented, the words in handwritten texts had been spelled according to the dialect of the scribe who wrote them. However, book production was slow and few people could read in any case. The early printers used the older spellings which Middle English scribes had used. They didn’t understand the significance of the pronunciation changes that had just gotten well underway. By the time the vowel shift was complete (about 100 years from start to finish), hundreds of books had been printed with the older spellings. The new high volume of book production combined with increasing literacy proved to be powerful forces against spelling change. As a consequence, many spellings have become „fixed” to the Middle English pronunciation, rather than the modern ones, and we still spell the word for the earth’s satellite as „moon.


4.4.2. English Spelling

English is often said to have an unpredictable or chaotic spelling system. Although things are probably not a bad as some claim, the high frequency words with irregular spellings does promote the impression that there is little correspondence between sound and spelling. This reasons for the irregularities are mainly historical:

  • Spelling problems began in the Old English period. English scribes borrowed the Latin alphabet, which had 23 letters, and tried to apply it to a language with nearly 40 different sounds. Their solution was often to use combinations of letters to indicate single sounds. So, the letter „t” represented the [t] sound except when it was followed by „h„.
  • After the Norman conquest, few documents were written in English. Those that were were written by scribes trained to write Latin and French. They use the symbols with the sound values that they were familiar with, not the ones that English scribes had used previously. For example, the letter „c” was used by French scribes to indicates the sound [s] (in words like mice and grace), rather than to spell the [k] sound (as English scribes had done).
  • As discussed above, the printing press was introduced to England during the Great Vowel Shift. Books were printed using old spellings, despite the fact that the pronunciation of words was changing rapidly. By the time anyone noticed, spellings were fixed at the older pronunciation.
  • English has borrowed from a variety of languages and in some cases writers have adopted the foreign spelling as well as the word itself.

Political groups have lobbied for spelling reform since at least the middle of the 16th century, so far with little success. Apparently, the benefits of a consistent spelling system are far outweighed by the high cost of retraining everyone.

SURSA -pages.uoregon.edu/l150web/weblec4.4.html 

4.4.3. English History Summary…

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