How has the GVS traditionally been presented?

The GVS is a term used to refer to a series of phonological changes affecting the long vowel system of Middle English stretching from around the middle of the fourteenth centurv[1] to the beginning of the eighteenth. The term “Great Vowel Shift” is generally attributed to Otto Jespersen, who gave chapter 8 in the first volume of his monumental work A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (1909-1949) the title “The Great Vowel-shift”. However,

Karl Luick, in his Historische Grammatik der englischen Sprache ([1914-21] 1964), also mentions die grosse Lautverschiebung, so whether Jespersen took the term from Luick or Luick from Jespersen is a minor matter of contention. In his earlier work on English phonetics, however, it is clear that Luick was aware of the details of the vowel shift, since these had already been amply documented by both Alexander Ellis (1869) and Henry Sweet (1874).

The period during which the GVS is assumed to have taken place thus covers almost 400 years. However, Johnston’s arguments that some of the first shifts should be moved back time-wise into the thirteenth century have the effect of lengthening the period of the GVS to around 500 years. If this is the case, it is somewhat surprising to find researchers, following Jespersen and Luick, who have attempted to restrict it to the period from the beginning of the fifteenth to, at latest, the end of the seventeenth century. Those researchers have set the tone for the canonical—and essentially mythical—account of the GVS presented in standard histories of the English language to the effect that it spans the much shorter period of roughly 200 years.

Why has this interpretation of the GVS restricted it to a period of just 200 years? As I argued in section 2, it creates a convenient borderline between the Middle Ages and the period of early “modernism”. Shakespeare is “rescued” as an “early modern” playwright, and Chaucer is consigned to the late Middle Ages.

The standard explanation of the GVS presents it as a systematically nearperfect construct. However, as such it assumes an odd teleology, in which speakers within those 200 years are interpreted as striving to bring about the creation of standard English. After all, 200 years represent roughly ten generations of speakers! The counter questions might very well be: “Once the GVS was completed, why did those speakers stop? Was it because they ‘knew’, in some mythically intuitive sense, that standard English had been achieved, or was it simply because the GVS had exhausted itself?”

It is relatively easy to show how all these points are interlinked and how this tendency in the traditional, “conventional” way of teaching the history of English leads to the fiction of an English language to the complete disregard of heterogeneity in the emergent process of sociocommunicative interaction and of other varieties of English.[2] The “conventional” way of presenting the history of English is revealed at other places in Jespersen’s work, as for example in the following quotation from Essentials of English Grammar (1933: 16):

In old [sic] times, when communication between various parts of the country was not easy and when the population was, on the whole, very stationary, a great many local dialects arose which differed very considerably from one another; the divergencies naturally became greater among the uneducated than among the educated and richer classes, as the latter moved more about and had more intercourse with people from other parts of the country. In recent times the enormously increased facilities of communication have to a great extent counteracted the tendency towards the splitting up of the language into dialects—class dialects and local dialects. . . . Our chief concern will be with the normal speech of the educated class, what may be called Standard English.

The message comes through clearly enough, but it turns out to be a somewhat contradictory message when one considers Jespersen’s earlier interest in dialects. Here, as in Puttenham’s work, dialects are out-of-date (a thing of “old times”); they are spoken by the “uneducated”; they “split up” and endanger the homogeneity of the language; and they are not “normal” speech, a form of speech which is in any case attributed only to the “educated class”, as we shall see in chapters 9 and 10.

Conceptualising the GVS as “great”, as a unifying movement, as the impulse towards the inevitable development of Standard English, and as a way of somehow “overcoming” the disruptive effect of dialects on efficient communication lent philological and, later, linguistic support to the ideology of the standard, which is equivalent to what Bourdieu would call the exercise of symbolic power to legitimise the standard language. What, after all, could be better than finding as “pure” a justification of standard speech as the coherent, unitary system of phonological changes represented by the GVS?

  • [1] Johnston (1992) actually suggests that the shift had already begun on the Plain of York in the thirteenth century. The evidence he provides supports this assumption and allows us to see the GVS in a ratherdifferent light.
  • [2] The collection of contributions in Watts and Trudgill 2002 is aimed at counteracting precisely thistendency.
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