The Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift

August 6, 2012

Allan Stevo

The concepts of The Great Vowel Shift according to William Labov’s Principles of Linguistic Change:  Internal Factors (here for free)(here for purchase) were first mentioned by Otto Jespersen in 1909.  In 1949, in a book of his, Jespersen finally introduced the term “the Great Vowel Shift.”  Jespersen was a Danish linguist that specialized in English grammar.

The Great Vowel Shift is something that took place in English that caused English vowels to sound so different than Slovak vowels.

Slovak (and other continental European languages that I’ve encountered) have different vowel pronunciation than the English language.  This is a given to anyone who has studied both a continental language and English.

Not so evident is that the vowels in English once sounded the same as the vowels in other European languages.  Looking at work from Old English and Middle English that was intended to rhyme and comparing them to work in the present day, it is clear that a shift in pronunciation took place.

For example “sheep” in the English of English writer Geoffrey Chaucer would have sounded like our present-day “shape.”  While just a simple example, we can look at the way English speakers says their vowels differently than speakers of continental Europeans languages say their vowels:

Continental European Vowels (present-day):

A – say “Ahhhh!”

E  – rhymes with “say,”

I  – sounds like the vowels in “cheeeese”

O – sound like the oh in “oh my!”

U – rhymes with “two.”

English Vowels (present-day):

A – rhymes with “say”

E – say “cheese”

I  – like the vowel in “high”

O – “oh” my!

U – sounds just like “you”

More on the Great Vowel Shift can be found on this website describing the proper sound of vowels in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales for a class at Harvard. This cool page has recordings of Chaucer’s vowels. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English, can be difficult to read because of the difference between his language and our language, but reward the reader with interesting and fun cultural insight and stories from Chaucer’s period.  Chaucer is a favorite of mine.  He told stories and offered the kind of cultural insight that I try to offer in these pages through essays.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at  He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing.  You can find more of his writing at  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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