Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift was a series of changes in the pronunciation of the English language that took place primarily between 1400 and 1700, beginning in southern England and today having influenced effectively all dialects of English. Through this vowel shift, the pronunciation of all Middle English long vowels was changed. Some consonant sounds changed as well, particularly those that became silent; the term Great Vowel Shift is sometimes used to include these consonant changes.[1][2]

English spelling began to become standardized in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the Great Vowel Shift is the major reason English spellings now often considerably deviate from how they represent pronunciations.[3] The Great Vowel Shift was first studied by Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), a Danish linguist and Anglicist, who coined the term.[4]


The causes of the Great Vowel Shift have been a source of intense scholarly debate, and, as yet, there is no firm consensus. The greatest changes occurred during the 15th and 16th centuries. Some scholars have argued that the rapid migration of peoples from northern England to the southeast following the Black Death caused a mixing of accents that forced a change in the standard London vernacular. Others argue that the influx of French loanwords was a major factor in the shift.[5] Yet others assert that because of the increasing prestige of French pronunciations among the middle classes (perhaps related to the English aristocracy's switching from French to English around this time), a process of hypercorrection may have started a shift that unintentionally resulted in vowel pronunciations that are inaccurate imitations of French pronunciations.[6] An opposing theory states that the wars with France and general anti-French sentiments caused hypercorrection deliberately to make English sound less like French.[7]

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