The Great Vowel Shift

§ 383.Early NE witnessed the greatest event in the history of Eng­lish vowels — the Great Vowel Shift, — which involved the change of all ME long monophthongs, and probably some of the diphthongs.

The Great Vowel Shift is the name given to a series of changes of long vowels between the 14th and the I8th c. During this period all the long vowels became closer or were diphthongised. The changes can be defined as "independent", as they were not caused by any apparent phonetic conditions in the syllable or in the word, but affected regularly every stressed long vowel in any position.

The changes included in the Great Vowel Shift are shown in Table 5 with some intermediate stages and examples. (It seems reasonable to add to this list the development of the ME diphthong [au] which was narrowed and contracted to [ɔ:] during the same period, though it is not usually included in the Shift.)

Table 5

The Great Vowel Shift

Change illustrated Examples
ME (Intermediate NE stage) ME NE
i:   ai time ['ti:mə] time
      finden ['fi:ndən] find
e:   i: kepen ['ke:pən] keep
      field ['fe:ld] field
ɛ: e: i: street [strɛ:t] street
      east :st] east
      stelen ['stɛ:iən] steal
a:   ei maken ['ma:kən] make
      table ['ta:blə] table
ɔ: o: ou stone ['stɔ:n] stone
      open ['ɔ:pən] open
      soo [sɔ:] so
o:   u: moon [mo:n] moon
      goos [go:s] goose
u:   au mous [mu:s] mouse
      founden ['fu:ndən] found
      now [nu:] now
au   ɔ: cause ['kauz(ə)] cause
      dramen ['drauən] draw

As seen from the table all the vowels became closer and some of the vowels occupied the place of the next vowel in the column: thus [e:] > [i:], while the more open [ɛ:] took the place of [e:], and later moved one step further in the same direction and merged with the former [e:] in [i:]. Likewise, the long [o:] was shifted one step, to become fu:l, while ME [u:]changed to [au]. Some long vowels— [u:], [i:] and [a:] — broke into diphthongs, the first element being contrasted to the second as a more open sound: [au], [ai] and [ei], respectively.

§ 384. It must be noted that some of the diphthongs which arose during the Great Vowel Shift could also appear from other sources. The diphthong [ou] was preserved from ME without modification; [ei] could descend from ME [ei] and [ai] which had merged into one diphthong. Those were the diphthongs with i- and -u glides going back to Early ME vowel and consonant changes (see § 380 for explanation and examples).

§ 385. The following graphic presentation of the Great Vowel Shift shows the consistent character of the changes; it includes also the ME diphthongs [ou, ei, ai] as additional sources of the diphthongs which developed in the Shift.

Note: repetition of the symbols ([e:], [i:] and others) means that the sound which altered in the Shift was not the one that resulted from it: arrows indicate discrete steps and not a continuous process (except in the case of [ɛ: -> e: -> i:]).

It should be obvious from the chart and the table that the Great Vowel Shift did not add any new sounds to the vowel system; in fact, every vowel which developed under the Shift can be found in Late ME (see the table in § 382). And nevertheless the Great Vowel Shift was the most profound and comprehensive change in the history of English vowels: every long vowel, as well as some diphthongs, were "shifted", and the pronunciation of all the words with these sounds was altered.

§ 386. It is important to note that the Great Vowel Shift (unlike most of the earlier phonetic changes) was not followed by any regular spelling changes: as seen from the examples the modification in the pro­nunciation of words was not reflected in their written forms. (The few graphic replacements made in the 16th c. failed to reflect the changes: the digraphs ie, ee, and the single e were kept for the close [e:], while the digraph ea was introduced to show the more open [e:] as in steal; the further merging of [e:] and [ɛ:] in [i:] made the graphic distinction unnecessary — cf. NE steal, steel. A similar distinction between the close [o:], shown as oo, and the more open [ɔ:], shown as oa since the 16th c. proved to be more useful, as these digraphs indicate different sounds (although the gap between the spelling and the pronunciation is greater than it was; oo stands for [u:] while oa stands for [ou], cf. NE room, roam.)

During the shift even the names of some English letters were changed, for they contained long vowels. Cf. the names of some English letters before and after the shift:

ME: A [a:], E [e:], O [o:], I [i:], B [be:], K [ka:]

NE: A [e:], E [i:], O [ou], I [ai], B [b:], K [kei].

(By comparing the names of Mod E letters A, O, E, and I with the familiar Latin names of the same tetters one can easily form an idea of the shift (only three more changes [u:] > [au:], [o:] > [u:] and [au] > [ɔ:] have to be added). It is also easy to deduce the changes from com­paring the written and spoken forms of many modern words, e.g. time ['ti:mə] becomes [taim], make ['ma:kə] becomes [meik].)

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