The Great English Vowel Shift refers to a major change in the pronunciation of vowels in the English language. This occurred in England between 1200 and 1600. This phenomenon was first studied extensively by the great Danish linguist Otto Jespersen who created the term.
The pronunciation of English vowels shifted during this period. The two highest long vowels, "i" and "u", became diphthongs and the other vowels increased in tongue height. Other Germanic languages did not undergo the vowel changes which English did. For example, the Dutch word for "late" is "laat"; the Swedish, Norwegian and Danish word for "see" is "se"; the Dutch word for "name" is "naam"; the Swedish, Norwegian and Danish word for "house" is "hus"; the Swedish, Norwegian and Danish word for "ice" is "is"; the German and Dutch word for "thanks" is "dank".
The letters "a", "e" and "i" reflect the change in pronunciation which resulted from the Great English Vowel shift. However, the letters "o" and "u" do not. Let us examine this more closely.
In most languages, the letters "a", "e" and "i" are pronounced as in Italian and Latin. That is, the letter "a" has a pronunciation similar to that of the vowel in "calm"; the letter "e" has a pronunciation similar to that of the vowel in "red" and the letter "i" has a pronunciation similar to that of the vowel in "be". In English, though, the letters "a", "e" and "i" reflect the changes which vowels underwent in the Great English Vowel Shift. The original "a" changed to a higher vowel, the vowel which used to be represented by "e". The original "e" changed to a higher vowel, the vowel which used to be represented by "i". Since "i" was the highest front vowel, it could not change to a higher one. The result was that "i" dipthongized. It became the diphthong which we hear in the word "my". The vowel "o" changed to a higher vowel, the vowel which used to be represented by "u". Since "u" was the highest back vowel, it could not shift to a higher one. Rather, it diphthongized to the diphthong which we hear in the word "mouse".
The pronunciation of the letter "o" did not change. It remained the same. A possible reason it did not change is that the pronunciation of the letter "u" palatalized which prevented diphthongization. Palatalization often occurs with high vowels. The vowel "u" is one such vowel.
The diphthong of words such as "found", "sound" and "ground" does not appear to follow the palatal glide in English. For this reason, the vowel "u" did not diphthongize but simply changed to a sequence of a palatal glide followed by a high back vowel. This is the pronunciation which we hear in words such as "university", "union", "use" and "usual". This palatalization of the high back vowel did not occur in other Germanic languages.
Though the pronunciation of the vowel "u" changed from [uw] to [juw], diphthongization did not occur. No English word has a palatal glide followed by the dipthong [aU]. The development of the palatal glide prevented diphthongization. As a result, the vowel "o" could not shift in pronunciation to that of the higher vowel of words such as "do" and "blue". If this shift had occurred, the resulting pronunciation would have been to similar to that of "u".
If "o" had shifted in pronunciation to [u], it would have been difficult to distinguish it from "u" (pronounced [juw]). We know from vowel dispersion theory that when languages have few vowels, they tend to be vowels that are quite different from one another. For example, the three vowels of Inuktitut are "a", "i" and "u". It would be unlikely that they would be the "a" of cat, the "e" of red and the "a" of "sofa" because these vowels would not be so distinct from one another. Likewise, "o" was not motivated to shift in pronunciation to that of the higher vowel [uw] because if it had done so, it would have been difficult to distinguish it from "u".
The pronunciation of the English letters "a", "e" and "i" reflects the changes of the Great English Vowel Shift. The pronunciation of the letter "u" changed but in a different way. The vowel quality remained the same but a palatal glide was added. The letter "o", however, did not change in pronunciation. This one retained its original pronunciation.
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