Some Interpretations of the Great Vowel Shift

§ 387. The Great Vowel Shift has attracted the attention of many linguists (K. Luick. O. Jespersen, F. Mosse, A. Martinet, B. Trnka, V, Plotkin and others).

There are certainly many remarkable aspects in the shift. As we have seen it left no long vowel unaltered. All the vowels were changed in a single direction. The changes formed a sort of series or chain, as many vowels took the place of the adjoining closer vowels. The distances between the vowels were on the whole carefully preserved, the only exception being the merging of [ɛ:] and [e:] into [i:]in the 18th c.

The changes have been interpreted as starting at one end of each set of vow­els — front and back, — the initial change stimulating the movement of the other sounds. If the changes started at the more open vowels, [a:] and [o:], every step "pushed" the adjoining vowel away to avoid coincidence, so that finally the closest vowels, which could not possibly become narrower were "pushed" out of the set of monophthongs into diphthongs: [i] > [ai] and [u:] > [au]. This interpretation of the shift is known as the "push-chain" (K. Luick).

The opposite view is held by the exponents of the theory of "drag-chain" (O. Jespersen); according to this theory the changes started at the two closest vow­els, [i:] and [u:]; these close vowels became diphthongs, "dragging" after them­selves their neighbours, |e:] and [o:], which occupied the vacant positions; every vowel made one step in this direction, except [ɛ:] which made two: [ɛ:] became [e:]and then [i:].

§ 388. It springs to the eye that all these changes went on in conformity with the general tendency of long vowels to become closer and to diphthongise, which was determined by their physical properties: the relatively high pitch and tension. This tendency, as well as the necessity of filling all empty boxes in the vowel system, may account for the general direction of the shift and for the unin­terrupted chain of changes. However, it falls to explain why at that particular period of history — Early NE — the changes became particularly intensive, and what was the initial impetus that started the process.

In some recently advanced theories the beginning of the Great Vowel Shift is tied up with some properties of the ME phonological system. As was shown in the preceding paragraphs the Early ME redistribution of vowel quantity according to position restricted the use of vowel quantity as a phonological distinctive fea­ture, differentiating between morphemes and words. It has been suggested that the Great Vowel Shift was an aftereffect of these restrictions: it introduced new qual­itative differences between vowels formerly distinguished through length alone. Thus the short [ɔ] and the long [ɔ:], which, prior to the shift, diifered mainly in quantity, began to be contrasted primarily through quality, as [ɔ]and [ou]. Simi­larly the difference between [a] and [a:] was emphasised when [a:] was narrowed and was followed by a dichthoneal Elide.

Cf. ME fat [a] and fate [a:] which became [fæt] and [feit]
rod [ɔ] and rood [ɔ] which became [rod] and [roud]

The new qualitative differences between the vowel phonemes in a way made up for the loss of differences in quantity which had been largely de-phonologised.

Proceeding from these general considerations some authors point out the more immediate causes of the shift within or outside the phonological system. It has been suggested (A. Martinet, B. Trnka) that the Great Vowel Shift began as early as the 12th or 13th c., when two short vowels [i] and [u] became more open and began to be contrasted to the long [e:l and [o:], thus leaving their former counterparts [i] and [u:] isolated in the system of phonemes. The isolation of [i:] and [u:] in the otherwise balanced system of correlated pairs may have stimulated their modi­fication into diphthongs, — which was the initial impetus that started the shift. (The drawback of this theory is the assumption that every system of phonemes in the language must be absolutely symmetrical.)

§ 389. Another theory attributes the intensification of changes in Late ME not only to phonological but also to morphological factors (V. Plotkin), The shift may have been stimulated by the loss of the final [ə] in the 15th c., which trans­formed disyllabic words into monosyllables. The difference between such monosyl­labic words as ME fat [fat] and fate ['fa:tə, 'fa:t] or ME bit and bite [bit, 'bi:tə, bi:t] was not sufficient. The Great Vowel Shift emphasised this difference by changing the quality of the long vowels and by adding new distinctive features in order to maintain the essential contrasts.

§ 390. It must be concluded that the problem of the Great Vowel Shift remains unresolved. If we take into account not only the development of vowels in Standard English, but also the vowel changes in the local British dialects, it will appear that the consistency of the changes has been somewhat exaggerated. In many dialects some vowels were not subjected to the Great Vowel Shift or were modi­fied differently. Since the system of Standard English has absorbed various dialec­tal features at all levels, we may surmise that the Great Vowel Shift, which chronologically coincides with the formation of the nation-wide Standard, was to a certain extent merely a final choice from dialectal variants in pronunciation accepted in literary English and recognised as correct by grammarians and phone­ticians. This choice was conditioned not only by intralinguistic systemic factors but also by the linguistic situation, especially the relationship between the co­existing varieties of the language, which they represented.






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