The Great Vowel Shift: How We Know Language Now

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Languages are an ever-evolving part of our cultures. As part of this evolution, consonants and vowels in a language often weaken to make way for a new language. Amidst this weakening, and sometimes disappearance, of elements of language, there is also an evolutionary change that occurs in languages to prevent them from vanishing altogether: the shifting of vowels.

Infograph portraying the different formation of different vowels and consonants in a speaker's mouth.
The way in which language changed during the Great Vowel Shift depended greatly on the way vowels are formed in our mouths. (Image: Tartila/Shutterstock)

The languages that we speak today are a result of evolution over many, many, years. Latin alone, in fact, gave rise to the big five – French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian, along with Catalan and Provencal, and many other lesser-known tongues, after its own dissolution. 

Learn More About When Language Began.

Evolution of Languages: Weakening Consonants and Vowels

As time passes by, languages often change by virtue of weakening consonants and vowels. Consonant weakening was evident in the shift of words from Latin to languages such as Spanish and French. This happened to such an extent that if one did not have any records of Latin, it would be impossible to decipher the roots of some words. 

Similarly, a lot of vowel sounds also weaken over time, creating words that we use today with the modern, weakened pronunciation, but with the old spellings. 

It is not uncommon for vowel and consonant sounds to weaken so much that they gradually get dropped off, or disappear, from the words of a language. 

For example, The Latin ‘maturus’ had its t weakened to form ‘maduros’ in old Spanish. Further, in Castilian Spanish, the “d” has further softened, and the last consonant has been lost altogether, to form ‘mathuro’. An even larger change happened when the word was adopted in French, where the consonant of [th] was dropped completely, and the vowels weakened to such an extent that over time, the word became ‘mûr’.

If this were to continue unabashed, it would be likely to result in the obsolescence of certain elements of language. But that does not happen, because the language has another evolutionary trick up its sleeve which prevents this from happening: the shifting of vowels.

One instance of this was the Great Vowel Shift. Even though it sounds like an abrupt and revolutionary change that took place in a day, the Great Vowel shift was a gradual shift that began in the late 1300s, though its revolutionary nature cannot be disputed. 

The shift is responsible for transforming English into the messy soup of pronunciations and spellings that it is today, with the spellings being as they were before the shift occurred. To understand how this happened, it is necessary to understand how vowels fit in our mouths when we speak. 

Learn More About Dialects-Subspecies of Species.

The Shape of Vowels

While we are acquainted with enunciating our vowels as ‘a, e, i, o, u’, that is not, in fact, the natural way in which they sit in our mouth. If one were to say [ē], they would notice that it gets formed at the top front of the mouth. 

Then, if one were to say [u], the movement would, in a way, start from an  [ē], and then pull back. Further, when [ă] is pronounced, it is made at the bottom of the mouth. Then, [ĕ] and [ŏ] lie between [ē] and [u] above and [ă] at the bottom.

In the same way, at the back of the mouth, [ŏ] would lie somewhere in between [u] and [ă]. If all these positions are imagined together, which itself is a difficult task without visual cues, they form an inverted triangular shape in the mouth, with i and u at the top, a at the bottom, and e and o in the middle. 

This placement of vowels in the mouth, though admittedly weird at first, is how linguists understand vowels and are very strongly related to the Great Vowel Shift. 

From ‘Fud’ to ‘Food’

The changes in language that are described as the Great Vowel Shift can be understood well by thinking about the word ‘food’. As English speakers, we now perceive the two o’s as [u], despite the fact that it would have made much more intuitive sense to spell the word as fud at the time. Then, the word would have sounded as ‘fode’. 

The reason, however, for this phenomenon is that at the time the word was spelled as f-o-o-d, it was actually a long o, as ‘fode’. 

Then with the Great Vowel Shift, sounds started to move ‘upwards’ in a sense. So, [ŏ] started to move up and turn towards [u].  As a result of this, the word that began as ‘fode’ became ‘fud’. 

A similar phenomenon is a reason why the word feed is pronounced as it is today, while before the shift, it was pronounced as ‘fade’. Therefore, the Great Vowel Shift consisted of sounds shifting ‘upwards’, in the speakers’ mouths, at least, and creating a whole new vowel system. 

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Vowel Shifts Today

While the Great Vowel Shift happened several centuries ago, that does not mean that vowels do not continue to shift around even today, even though the shift is not as stark as it was back then. 

Accents present in many regions are testimony to this fact. A common accent is a pronunciation of aw as ah. For instance, ‘raw’ would become ‘rah’, and ‘laws’ would become ‘lahs’. 

While this shift is not a major one, it is still evidence of the ever-evolving nature of language. The combination of vowel and consonant shifts is what has created language as we know it today. 

The word Water, which is aqua in Latin provides a good example of this phenomenon. An ordinary change that was seen was in Spanish, where Aqua changed to Agua, with the [k] softening into a [g]. 

On the other hand, in French, the consonant disappeared completely, and there was a vowel shift, creating eau, which is pronounced as ‘oh’. The process, therefore, created eau out of aqua. If the roots of language were unknown, it would have been next to impossible to decipher the origins of the word eau. But this is the process through which language evolves, and shifting vowels facilitate this process. 

Learn More About How Language Changes.

Commonly Asked Questions about the Great Vowel Shift.

Q: What was the Great Vowel Shift?

The Great Vowel Shift was a period in the late 1300s during which phonetic vowels shifted ‘upwards’, bringing about a change in the sound of our language.

Q: How are vowels arranged?

While we think of vowels as ‘a, e, i, o, u’, in reality they are arranged as per their formation in our mouth, such that i and u are at the top, a at the bottom, and e and o in the middle. 

Q: Why are two o‘s pronounced as [u]?

Earlier, the sound of two o‘s was not that of [u], but of ‘o’. Then, during the Great Vowel Shift, when vowels shifted upwards, the pronunciation for oo became what it is today, while the spellings remained as they were.

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