A REAPPRAISAL OF RESEARCH WORK ON AN ELUSIVE PHENOMENON
The GVS is obviously not unimportant in explaining the historical development of the phonological construction(s) of present-day varieties of English. However, I shall argue throughout this chapter that, if we conceptualise the GVS as a unitary phenomenon and restrict ourselves to purely phonetic/pho- nological aspects of the vowel shift, its mythical function within the discourse of the historical development of “Standard English” will go unnoticed.
The vigorous debate over the past 15 years between Stockwell and Minkova’s work and that of Lass (1988, 1999b) has engendered a more cautious approach to the phonological/phonetic phenomena encompassed by the term “Great Vowel Shift” than was the case as late as the early 1980s. Most serious researchers in English historical linguistics since the beginning of the ’90s have become somewhat sceptical about most of the arguments put forward to explain those phenomena (see Labov 1994; Kiparsky 2003a, b), and they appear to question the “greatness” of the GVS. Stockwell and Minkova themselves tend to stop short of explaining why any vowel shift in the varieties of native-speaker English across the world would fail to merit the ascription of greatness, and it is precisely the point at which they stop that needs to be transcended if we wish to achieve a more realistic account of vowel shifting in English.
In part, this has already been attempted by meticulous researchers such as Paul Johnston Jr. (1992) with the overall result that the GVS does indeed appear to disintegrate into a number of smaller shifts whose importance is not thereby weakened, but certainly is more realistically contextualised. I argue here that we need to enter the world of sociolinguistics and discourse analysis, in addition to researching into the phonetic conditions that trigger off the phenomenon of vowel shifting, to give the research a more solid explanatory foundation.