The Great Vowel Shift
English is a language spoken by millions of people world wide. In many countries in the world you can make yourself understood by speaking in English. English has not always been as it is today, not only did the writing change, but also the pronunciation has been through major changes. In this essay I will argue how pronunciation has changed in Britain from Old English, to Modern English.
Old English is the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. The roots of Old English can be traced back to the Germanic languages. The Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Frisians came to Britain around the fifth century. The new immigrants became the new power in Britain, and with the new Anglo-Saxon power the Celtic language was replaced by what we now call Old English. The first manuscript written in Old English dates back to 700. But the problem with Old English is that it was not known how the words were pronounced exactly. There are no native speakers left to tell how Old English was pronounced. Much research has gone into trying to figure out how the language was pronounced. There are four main types of evidence of how Old English was spoken. The first type of evidence is alphabetical logic. Much is known about the pronunciation of the Roman alphabet, and it is very likely that the missionaries that came to Britain adapted their Roman alphabet to Old English. The second type of evidence is comparative reconstruction. With working back from later stages of English the sounds of Old English can be somewhat reconstructed. The third type of evidence is sound changes, there is much known about sound changes that happen progressively in a language. With the knowledge of language change explanations for pronunciation can be given. The last type of evidence is poetic evidence, the use of alliteration and word rhyme can provide clues of how Old English words were pronounced. Because of all the research the pronunciation of Old English is quite certain. Old English had six vowels a, æ, I, o, u and y. A was pronounced as ah, as in father, æ was pronounced as in cat, e as in fate, I as in feet, o as in boat, u as in tool, and y is pronounced like the German ü.
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After the Norman Invasion of 1066, the English language went through a big change. The rulers of England were no longer Anglo-Saxon Kings; all the high positions were taken over by the French. This had great influence on the language, because the Normans started to write Old English with the alphabet they knew. For example the Old English sc was replaced by sh or sch. The changes in writing had influence on the writing of English, but the pronunciation also changed, Different sounds altered, some disappeared completely. The Old English a sound changed to an o sound, ban became bon, what today is pronounced as bone, and swa became so. The h was a letter that was at the beginning of many Old English words such as hring ‘ring’ and hnecca ‘neck’. Because French was such an important factor in English life, new contrasts emerged. French loan words came into the language and therefore new contrasts were needed. For example the v sound became much more important in Middle English to make a distinction between for example feel and veal. The different sounds for f and v were also found in Old English, but the sounds were not used to differentiate between words. The sounds of Middle English during the time of Chaucer were very different from the sounds of today.
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A is pronounced as ah as in Ah! There you are, e is ay as in say, I is ee as in Gee, o is oh, and u is mostly oo as in who. The pronunciation of the vowels a, e, I, o, and u were pronounced as ah, ay, ee, oh, and oo. How Middle English sounded during the time of Chaucer is very different from the pronunciation of late Middle English. The big difference is because of the Great Vowel Shift. The Great Vowel Shift was an important change in the English language; the changes in the sounds of the vowels took place at the end of the Middle English period. The changes did not happen overnight, it took two hundred years for some vowels to change. An example of the Great Vowel Shift is with I, it was first pronounced as ee, and later shifted to ai. E was first pronounced as ay, and later shifted to ee. These examples are only a couple of the changes that occurred with the Great Vowel Shift.
English pronunciation continued to change during the Early Modern English period. The effects of the Great Vowel Shift that started in the Middle English period continued in the Early Modern English period. There were many changes and the changes were complex. One of the best examples of how pronunciation changed during the Early Modern English period is the use of the sound u. The sound of u has many variations, the distinction between cut and put happened during the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century English was not far from how it is today. The Early Modern English period ended, and the Modern English period began. One of the big influences on the language in the Modern English period is the development of world English. After the War of Independence, America developed its own English, American English. America was not the only country in the world where the people started to develop their own kind of English. We now distinguish between many different sorts of English, American English, Australian English, Canadian English, and so on. English had developed to a world language that was spoken by millions of people world wide.
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The changes in English pronunciation have not stopped yet; a language is always on the move. The changes from English spoken by the Anglo-Saxons to Modern English that is spoken by millions of people worldwide have been massive. Because of foreign influences and the Great Vowel Shift, English gradually changed in how we speak the language today.
Baker, Peter S. Introduction to Old English. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003.
Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Facweb, What is the Great Vowel Shift. http://facweb.furman.edu/~mmenzer/gvs/what.htm (Accessed September 20, 2010).
Gardner, John. The Pronunciation of Chaucer’s Middle English.
 David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. (Cambridge University Press: 2003), 10.
 Ibid, 18.
 Ibid, 19
 Peter S. Baker, Introduction to Old English. (Blackwell Publishing Ltd: 2003), 13.
 David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. (Cambridge University Press: 2003), 42
 Ibid, page 42
 Peter S. Baker, Introduction to Old English. (Blackwell Publishing Ltd: 2003)
 David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. (Cambridge University Press: 2003), 43
 John Gardner, The Pronunciation of Chaucer’s Middle English
 Facweb, What is the Great Vowel Shift. http://facweb.furman.edu/~mmenzer/gvs/what.htm (Accessed March 4, 2009)
 David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. (Cambridge University Press: 2003), 69.