“Great” is a strange word. Originally it apparently meant something like “coarse” or “thick” but it could also mean “big.” That last meaning is preserved in terms like “The Great Apes” or “The Great American Desert.” They’re big. But somehow, along the way, it also came to mean doing big things (for good or evil), as in “Alexander the Great.” It’s an elastic word, changing its meaning with time and context.
Which brings me to “The Great Vowel Shift.” (Okay, it’s a stretch.)
If you cast your mind back to the times (1100 or so) just after William the Conqueror took over Britain, the language situation was a bit complicated. The Anglo-Saxons had pushed the Celts in the corners of the island, where they became the Welsh and the Scots. The Danish invasions had added a heavy dose of their tongue to the Anglo-Saxons. The Normans, when they came, didn’t push out the Anglo-Saxons. Instead, they had overlaid a Norman French aristocracy on the whole country. Finally, most of the literate people were clerks who were trained in the Church, and hence wrote (and spoke) a late version of Latin.
When those clerks recorded the doings of their French clients or their Anglo-Saxon peasants, they were forced to try to shoehorn French and Old English terms into Latin phonetics. For the Norman French, this wasn’t too hard a stretch, but trying to decipher the garbled transcriptions of early Latinized English in the manuscripts is a real challenge.
Part of the problem is that Latin has a small number of vowel pronunciations, with few variations allowed. They had long and short vowels, but that was about it. Any vowel sounds the clerks heard had to be recorded from the following selection:
A as in aah A as in ah
E as in they E as in pet
I as in machine I as in wit
O as in note O as in off
U as in rude U as in put
If the sounds didn’t fit that template, they simply weren’t recorded.
But along about 1350, something strange started to happen. The aristocracy and the church and the peasants all started converging towards a common language — which we call Middle English. There were lots of regional variations, but London English came to be the “standard” version, insofar as there was one.
I say “insofar as there was one” because this great amalgamation was hardly complete by the time (end of the 14th century) that Chaucer took it upon himself to write the first great work in Middle English, the Canterbury Tales. Geoffrey was shooting at a moving target. And it would keep on moving for the next 250 plus years!
Parts of it were a little like a set of wrestling matches on how to pronounce a word. An “a” sound that came from French would be challenged by a Latin version that would be challenged by an English version. One pronunciation might win in one word, another in another. The number of “legal” vowels grew and grew. Some of them even became silent.
But there was more to it than that. Phoneticists like to classify sounds by where they are shaped in the mouth. They have Front Vowels, Central Vowels, and Back Vowels. They have High Vowels and Low Vowels and Mid Vowels. And in the course of all those wrestling matches, the vowels shifted in the mouth.
It was the Great Vowel Shift.
For reasons nobody really understands, the English vowels started wandering around. Mostly, they rose in the mouth, but some of them moved into lower areas abandoned by their fellows. They went through a lot of steps along the way, but eventually:
ME house (hoos) became raised to our house,
ME time (teem) became raised to our time,
ME moon (mown) became raised to our moon,
ME east (est) became raised to our east, etc., etc.
This was the biggest revolution that English ever saw. And it affected more than just pronunciation. Spelling was hardly stabilized in Chaucer’s day, nor even by Shakespeare’s. Their spelling was largely phonetic. So all this vowel shifting also changed the spelling. For instance, ME sonne (so-neh) would find its trailing ‘e’ becoming silent and its ‘o’ becoming pronounced ‘uh,’ so we spell it sun. You know, the bright thing in the sky.
Interestingly, by the time Shakespeare rolled around, the whole thing had progressed enough that Chaucer was largely opaque to most Englishmen. But it hadn’t stopped. That is why some of Shakespeare’s rhymes, like creature with nature or play with sea, make no sense to us. The language kept moving on after his time.
By the 1700s, things had pretty much slowed, if not stopped. In England, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary stabilized the spelling which, in a nice reversal, tended to fix the pronunciation, too. Noah Webster did the same favor for us.
Now we live in a much more stable world. We are up to our metaphoric armpits in dictionaries, the online versions of which will often pronounce our words for us. So our language should be more stable now.
Well, maybe not.
Seems that not only are our young folks busy slurring their words and using impenetrable slang, they are also using their own pronunciations, pretty much as teenagers have always done. But nowadays, those changes can be captured and digitized with blinding speed. Almost before you know it, new pronunciations are being added to our web dictionaries. What the linguists call phonetic drift may be seeing a rapid increase in our own near future.
Getting into a pronunciation argument with your kid? Just wait. Their version may become “legal” about five minutes from now.