What was the "Great Vowel Shift"?

Before we consider the mythical nature of the GVS, we need to know in more detail what it consisted of. Conventional wisdom—which is by no means an accurate account of what actually happened—maintains that the GVS was a series of phonological changes affecting the long vowel system of Middle English, in which the high front vowel [i:] was shifted (eventually, of course) to the modern diphthong [ai] and the high back vowel [u:] was shifted to the modern diphthong [au].[1] This is represented diagrammatically in figure 6.1 without my suggesting which shift followed which but with the two principle theories of drag-chain and push-chain movement indicated. The mid-high long vowels [e:] and [o:] were shifted to [i:] and [u:]. The low front long vowel [a:] then moved higher towards [ж:], and the mid-low long vowels [e:] and [э:] shifted first to [e:] and [o:] and were then diphthongised to [ei] and [ou] at a later stage of the shift. The half-low long vowel [ж:] was shifted to [e:] and

Two conventional explanations of the GVS, drag-chain and push-chain, both of which were probably involved in the shifts

figure 6.1. Two conventional explanations of the GVS, drag-chain and push-chain, both of which were probably involved in the shifts

then moved along with [e:] to [e:] and then to [ei]. The final shifts were from [e:] to [ei] and [o:] to [ou], although it is a moot point which of the shifts preceded the others.

There are, of course, several irregularities that can be observed even in “Standard British English”,[2] and the stages that these shifts went through before they reached their modern positions in the vowel trapezoid are a matter of continual dispute. in addition, the conventional account represents only the result of the GVS in the standard, and it completely leaves out all other varieties of English, in which either the shift did not occur, or, if it did, the end product is varied. It is thus a product of the funnel vision of English. For example, the end point of the shift from [i:] results in a range of possibilities, for example, [ai], [oi], [rn]. This would then give us variable shifting as in figure 6.2 for [i:].

The variable shifting of [i:]

figure 6.2. The variable shifting of [i:]

Disregarding these irregularities and disputes, however, the GVS, when seen in this light, does indeed give all the appearances of being a unified phonetic movement producing homogenised “modern Standard English” from “late Middle English”. As a heuristic principle, it has served its purpose in teaching “the history of English”, but, in doing so, it has also helped to mythologise this putative historical development as “awe-inspiring”, “remarkable”, “influential”, and so on and has contributed towards the aura of “superiority” and homogeneity constructed for “modern Standard English” (see the “true” statements derived from the conceptual metaphors for language presented in fig. 5.1, chap. 5).

in several chapters, i have challenged the very legitimacy of talking about “a language” as a unique system, since that presupposes the ability to distinguish between different homogeneous language systems and denies the validity of heterogeneity and variability in human language as a sociocognitive phenomenon. Clyne (1992) talks of “pluricentric languages”—those that are not restricted to one central geographical area—and even if we were to remain on the level of standard languages, there are by now a number of different “standard Englishes” (Standard British English, Standard American English, possibly also Standard Australian English), and there are plenty of candidates waiting in the wings to receive the accolade of “standardness” (e.g. Standard Scottish English, which is not the same thing as Scots; Standard irish English; and even Standard indian English).

For argument’s sake, let us now assume that the unifying factor that has, along with other powerful arguments, allowed this particular kind of symbolic power to be constructed can be shown to be, if not a chimera, then at the very least a much more complicated set of vowel shifts that is always potentially part and parcel of varieties of English. Let us also assume that this more complicated set of vowel shifts is as active today as it always has been. In that case, would we not then lose the beauty, the simplicity of that heuristic principle? Would we not lose the ability to present the history of English as a series of coherent developmental steps towards a homogeneous English language? My argument will be that this is precisely what it does imply.

  • [1] The interesting point about these movements is that they were breakings of the long vowels into diphthongs that shifted through the area of the associated short vowels [i] and [u], picking these up as the secondhalf of the diphthong as they moved through this area of the vowel trapezoid (cf. fig. 6.2). The closer theymoved to the central schwa vowel [э] they temporarily picked up this vowel as the first half of the diphthong.At a later stage they moved further down the trapezoid, the [э] becoming [a] as they moved into the area of thatshort low front vowel.
  • [2] However, like Trudgill (1999), I am extremely unwilling to use this term at this particular juncture.I have thus chosen to place it between quotation marks.
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