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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Insert Creative Vowel-Shifted Title Here When I Think of It 

What pops into YOUR mind as you read blogs? Well, in my case:

Decades ago, I remember hearing that the English language was greatly influenced by a vowel shift that occurred at some time or another. If the referenced blog is accurate, am I correct in assuming that the vowel shift occurred BEFORE Chaucer?

I remember that Beowulf is completely incomprehensible to the modern English reader, but I've forgotten exactly when "Middle English" was spoken.

How can I forget such important things, yet remember life's burning questions, such as "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?" (The answer, by the way, is 1,121. You can see how I spent my childhood.)

Inland Empress ignored my free association and gave a focused answer to my question:

The Great Vowel Shift occurred very shortly after Chaucer's death circa 1400.

Here's more:

The Great Vowel Shift was a massive sound change affecting the long vowels of English during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. Basically, the long vowels shifted upwards; that is, a vowel that used to be pronounced in one place in the mouth would be pronounced in a different place, higher up in the mouth. The Great Vowel Shift has had long-term implications for, among other things, orthography, the teaching of reading, and the understanding of any English-language text written before or during the Shift.

And more:

The main difference between Chaucer's language and our own is in the pronunciation of the "long" vowels. The consonants remain generally the same, though Chaucer rolled his r's, sometimes dropped his aitches, and pronounced both elements of consonant combinations, such as "kn," that were later simplified. And the short vowels are very similar in Middle and Modern English. But the "long" vowels are regularly and strikingly different. This is due to what is called The Great Vowel Shift.

Beginning in the twelfth century and continuing until the eighteenth century (but with its main effects in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries) the sounds of the long stressed vowels in English changed their places of articulation (i.e., how the sounds are made).

Old and Middle English were written in the Latin alphabet and the vowels were represented by the letters assigned to the sounds in Latin. For example, Middle English "long e" in Chaucer's "sheep" had the value of Latin "e" (and sounded like Modern English "shape" [/e/] in the International Phonetic Alphabet [IPA]). It had much the same value as written long e has in most modern European languages. Consequently, one can read Chaucer's long vowels with the same values as in Latin or any continental European language and come pretty close to the Middle English values.

The Great Vowels Shift changed all that; by the end of the sixteenth century the "e" in "sheep" sounded like that in Modern English "sheep" or "meet" [IPA /i/]. To many it seemed that the pronunciation of English had moved so far from its visual representation that a new alphabet was needed, and in the sixteenth century we have the first attempts to "reform" English spellings, a movement still active today. In 1569 John Hart (in his Orthographie) went so far as to devise a new phonetic alphabet to remedy what he considered a fatal flaw in our system of language. (His alphabet and the work of other language reformers provides us with our best evidence for the pronunciation of English in his time)....

Middle English ... Sounds like Modern
y,i "myne, sight" ... "meet"
e, ee "me, meet, mete" (close e) ... "mate"
e "begge, rede" (open e) ... "bag"
a, aa "mate, maat" ... "father"
u, ou "hus, hous" ... "boot"
o, oo "bote, boot" (close o) ... "oak"
o "lof, ok" (open o) ... "bought"

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)

Fascinating and very cool. I had to pronounce this stuff in college when I took Chaucer but haven't had much use for it until his blog popped up recently.

By the way, it's the "blogger formerly known as Inland Empress" now.

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