The Great Vowel Shift

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This is the sixth part of Guruji’s summary of F.T. Wood’s book on the English Language.

  1. The Nature and Origin of Language
  2. The Indo-European Family
  3. The Germanic Sub-group
  4. Grimm’s Law
  5. Verner’s Law
  6. The Great Vowel Shift
  7. A Survey of Developments during the Middle English Period
  8. The Evolution of Standard English
  9. Change in Meaning
  10. Growth of Vocabulary

The Great Vowel Shift

In studying the history of English spelling and pronunciation we find that while the consonants have not undergone much changed, the vowels, and particularly the long ones, have becomes almost completely changed since the late Middle English period.  During the period from the 15th to 17th century the long vowels and some of the short ones were greatly shifted in sound.  As an example of the pronunciation of the Old English period, we can take writings belonging to the year  1000 A.D. when Aelfric, the great master of Old English prose was popularly read.  The Middle English period can be represented by Chaucer’s writing and the early Modern English period is typified by Shakespeare’s works.  By a comparative study of the pronunciation of English by Aelfric, Chaucer and Shakespeare, we come to the conclusion that between Chaucer’s time and that of Shakespeare, the pronunciation of English vowels underwent great changes, while the changes in the consonants were much less marked.  These changes in the pronunciation of English vowels during the period already referred to, are popularly known as “The Great Vowel Shift”.

i: heed

i: hid

e: head

a: had

a: hard

o: cot

o: hoard, board, caught

u: booed, boot

u: hood, book

^: bud

d: heard


Phonetic spelling (e.g.) – sit, milk, let

Ideographic Spelling – psychologic, knowledge

Mixed spelling


ei: bade, play

ai: hide

oi: toy, buoyed, boy

ou: go

au: bowed, now

io: beard, near

uo; poor

eo: hair


Old English had begun by being roughly phonetic in spelling.  The letter ‘a’ had the sound of the unrounded vowel in the pronunciation of modern ‘come’, ‘love’, etc.  The letter ‘o’ had the pronunciation of the rounded vowel in modern ‘not’, ‘lot’, etc.  The letter ‘u’ had the pronunciation of the rounded vowel in modern ‘put’.  The combination (-aw) had the pronunciation of (au) and (eaw) had the pronunciation of (eu) while (eow) was pronounced (eu) and (ei) (ez) was pronounced (ei).  The ‘i’ spelling had the pronunciation of (i) and ‘e’ had the pronunciation (e;0.  But this spelling of Old English, though retained in most words, has a different pronunciation now on account of the great vowel shift.  The series of changes involved in the great vowel shift can easily be understood by taking a few typical words in which the vowels occur, and tracing the changes in their spellings and pronunciations from Old English to the present day as shows below:


  Old English Spelling O.E. Pronun-ciation Alferic Chaucer’s Spelling Chaucer’s Pronun-ciation Shake-speare’s


Shake-speare’s Pronun-ciation Modern Spelling Modern Pronun-ciation


a, ae a a, au a: a É: a É:


a a: a a: a ∑: a Ei


a,a a: o, oo É: oa o: oa Ou


o,o o: o, oo o: oo u: oo u:


u,uu u: ou,ow u: ow ou ow au,au


u u u,o u u ^ u ^


 e,e e: e,ee e: ee i: ee i:


e,oe   e,ee   ea e: ea i:


eow eu ew iu ew iu ew ju:


eaw ∑u ew ∑u ew eu, iu ew ju:


e∑,ei ei ei,ey


∑i ay ∑i, ∑: ay ei


ei,e∑ ∑i ai,ay ∑i ay ∑,∑: ay ei


aw,ow ou ow,ou Éu ow Éu, o: ow ou


i,i i: i: i i i i i


oi, oy Éi oi Éi oi Éi

The Modern English word ‘small’ illustrates the shifting of the O.E. (a) to Modern (É:i); ‘name’ indicates the shifting of the O.E. vowel (a) to Modern English (ei).  The shifting of O.E. (a:) to Modern English ‘ou’ is illustrated by the pronunciation of ‘oak’.  Similarly, the O.E. (oo/É:) is shifted to Modern English (u:) in ‘food’.  O.E. (u:) is shifted to Modern English (au) as in ‘now’.  Again, O.E. (u) is unrounded to Modern English  (^) in the word ‘sun.  O.E. (e) is also shifted to Modern English (i:) as in ‘green’.  O.E. (e:) is also shifted in Modern English to (i:) as in ‘meat’.   Old English (eu) is shifted to (ju) n ‘new’.  At the same time, we find that O.E. (∑u) is also shifted to (ju) in Modern English as in ‘few’.  Old English (e) written as (e∑) as well as  (e,oe) did not undergo any shifting but remains as (ei) in Modern English too.  From the table showing vowel pronunciations and spellings in the times of Aelfric, Chaucer and Shakespeare as well as those of the present day, it is evident that the shiftings in sound occurred mostly in the period of Chaucer and Shakespeare, that is within the period from the 15th to the 17th century.

It is mainly on account of these vowel shiftings that the spelling of English which had started with being roughly phonetic in the time of Aelfric in 1000 A.D. has almost ceased to be so.  Modern English spelling is either ideographic or mixed, and seldom phonetic.  The importance of the Great Vowel Shift in the history of the language is that it partly accounts for the modern unphonetic spelling of English.