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 Web Lecture 4.4
More English History

4.4.1. The Great Vowel Shift

4.4.2. English Spelling

4.4.3. Summary of English History

4.4.1. The Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift is perhaps the most significant sound change in the history of the English language. During the late Middle English period, most English vowels shifted their pronunciation. For example, in the early Middle English period before the Great Vowel Shift, the vowel in the word "moon" was pronounced [o]; it sounded like our modern word "moan." Today the vowel in "moon" is pronounced [u]. So the name of the earth's satellite shifted it's pronunciation from [mon] to [mun]. If we visual this shift in terms of the phonetics chart for vowels which we studied in Unit 2, we could say that English vowels shifted up the chart. The high vowels "popped off" the chart and became diphthongs. (Notice that the Great Vowel Shift did NOT involve a front / back vowel change. This means it is strikingly different from ablaut, which also affected vowels.)


The Great Vowel Shift would probably be just an historical curiosity if it weren't for the fact that the first printing press opened in London in 1476, right in the middle of the shift!

Before the printing press was invented, the words in handwritten texts had been spelled according to the dialect of the scribe who wrote them. However, book production was slow and few people could read in any case. The early printers used the older spellings which Middle English scribes had used. They didn't understand the significance of the pronunciation changes that had just gotten well underway. By the time the vowel shift was complete (about 100 years from start to finish), hundreds of books had been printed with the older spellings. The new high volume of book production combined with increasing literacy proved to be powerful forces against spelling change. As a consequence, many spellings have become "fixed" to the Middle English pronunciation, rather than the modern ones, and we still spell the word for the earth's satellite as "moon."


4.4.2. English Spelling

English is often said to have an unpredictable or chaotic spelling system. Although things are probably not a bad as some claim, the high frequency words with irregular spellings does promote the impression that there is little correspondence between sound and spelling. This reasons for the irregularities are mainly historical:

Political groups have lobbied for spelling reform since at least the middle of the 16th century, so far with little success. Apparently, the benefits of a consistent spelling system are far outweighed by the high cost of retraining everyone.


4.4.3. English History Summary

A Chronological Table of English History



Language Influence

Before 500 A.D.


~4000 B.C.



~2000 B.C. - 500 A.D.

Continental Germanic

Grimm's Law

Latin borrowings

500 - 1100 A.D.

Old English


Angles and Saxons invade England

Celtic borrowings


Christianity introduced to England

Latin borrowings

800 - 1000

Viking Invasions

Scandinavian borrowings

1100 A.D. - 1500 A.D.

Middle English


Norman Conquest

French borrowings

1500 A.D. - Present

Present Day English

1400 - 1500

Great Vowel Shift


First printing press in London

13th - 16th century

Renaissance and Scientific innovation

Greek borrowings

Latin borrowings

16th - 19th C

English colonialism

borrowings from many languages

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Copyright 1998 by the Department of Linguistics, University of Oregon.