The Great Vowel Shift, or A Brief History of English

Enormous thanks to listener Allie for providing us with the transcript she used for her courses.

X: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from

T: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Tracy V. Wilson

H: And I'm Holly Frey

T: At the end of our recent episode on the Honey War, we read a listener mail from an Egyptologist about honorary transposition in hieroglyphics and this lead us into this little digression about how hard it can be to pronounce words in languages nobody speaks anymore and I made this random aside about how I had thought way back when Holly and I first got on the podcast, I thought about doing an episode about the Great Vowel Shift. We have never gotten nearly so much response to any other random weird thing we said on the show as we have about the Great Vowel Shift. I was astonished - were you astonished?

H: I wa- Who knew? I had no idea people were like rabidly excited for this content.

T: Yeah it was this astounding number of people that asked us to talk about it, which we still we got another email over the weekend after this had already been like the outline had been written and everything. When I mentioned on twitter than an astounding number of people had asked, more people asked after that. Only one person asked that we not do that so I'm sorry that person is outvoted. I can't get over how many people have asked for it because this was really at the tail end of the show. To be candid, we know there are people who checked out by that point like we know there a lot of people who don't listen to listener mail ah but every possible way people have to talk to us they did to ask us to talk about the Great Vowel Shift. So the ayes have it - today we are going to talk about the Great Vowel Shift. But because it is, like I said, a little inside baseball, thirty entire minutes about vowels, I think, would be a little much for most people so we're going to put it in the greater context of the history of English of the English language and that comes with its own caveat which is that there are whole books about the history of the English language. My alma mater had a semester-long literature class about it and it wasn't even just like a like it wasn't a 100-level literature class

H: Right

T: There were pre-requisites. Um. And there's like there's a podcast called the history of English and that has run for 67 episodes so far so obviously we are not going to talk about every single thing there is to mention in the history of English and we're not going to get too deep into the technical linguistic terms that are used to describe a lot of it but we are going to talk about how the history of English runs alongside a greater story which is basically all about conquering people and being conquered.

H: So the history of English begins before the arrival of Germanic peoples who came to be known as the Anglo-Saxons in the British Isles. The Anglo-Saxons arrived in what is now England and Wales from the European continent. Some came peacefully, although others definitely arrived as invaders and conquerors.

T. According to Bede the Venerable, the Anglo-Saxons included three distinct groups: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. Their arrival in English started toward the middle of the fifth century and the language that developed in the wake of their arrival is now known as Old English. Its roots come from a number of Germanic languages and their dialects with the primary contributors being West Germanic, Old Frisian, Old Franconian and Old High German.

H: Before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the people of the British Isles spoke a variety of Celtic languages. It's also possible that some people spoke Latin since the Roman Empire had governed parts of Britain for about 350 years from the year 43 to the year 410. It's not completely clear though how well Latin survived after the end of the Roman rule in what the empire referred to as Britannia in 410. Nor should all these different Celtic-speaking peoples be lumped together in one cultural group. The idea that the British Isles were once inhabited by a monolithic cultural group called the Celts is really an 18th century invention

T: Yeah all these different Celtic-speaking peoples had their own unique cultures and their own unique ways of living. They were not one sort of people known as the Celts. Several of the Celtic languages that existed in the British Isles when the Anglo-Saxons arrived, which are classified as the insular Celtic languages, still exist today. Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Cornish, and Manx, which is spoken in the Isle of Man, are all examples of insular Celtic languages. Celtic language were once common on the European continent as well but apart from Breton which was really an insular Celtic language that was carried from the British Isles back to Brittany, Celtic languages didn't survive well on the continent beyond the fourth or fifth century. While several insular Celtic languages survive today, some thanks to intentional efforts to preserve them, all of the continental Celtic languages are extinct.

H: Insular Celtic languages didn't wind up adding very many words to English, though. This is one reason why, if you do speak English but don't speak a Celtic language, trying to sound out a word from a Celtic language can be (laughs) a baffling experience. It's possible that the Insular Celtic languages had an influence on grammar and pronunciation in Old English, but when it comes to the individual words and the letters and sounds used to make them, there really was not a lot of sharing going on.

T: Yeah I'm sure there is some ah like a hilarious video somewhere that's English speakers trying to pronounce Welsh (laughs)...

H: (laughs)

T: Not only does like the spelling of Welsh words doesn't follow a pattern that English speakers recognise really well, the letters themselves are pronounced differently than they are in English. The Anglo-Saxons and their languages were firmly established in England by the 6th century, and there are lots of English words in use today that came from these Germanic languages, although they generally had different spellings and pronunciations at the time. A lot of these words are really short and they describe everyday objects and things. So, baker, beer, sheep, bird, eel, book, father, world, and write are all examples of English words that exist today that were also part of these Germanic Old English words. The words for England and English also come from these Germanic roots.

H: There were plenty of longer, more complex words in Old English as well - but the shortest words, used for the most everyday things and ideas - were the most commonly used and consequently had the most staying power in the evolution of the language. More than half of the thousand most common words in Old English still exist in the English language today.

T: Conversely, about 80 percent of the thousand most common words in English today came from Old English, which to me adds a delightful layer to Randall Munroe's book Thing Explainer, which explains complicated stuff using the only... only the 1,000 most common words in English. So I like the idea of reading that book pretending that you're reading Old English instead.

H: (laughs) But in spite of the simplicity of the Old English words that remain in English today, a lot of Old English was kind of complicated (in a different way than how today's English is complicated). In Old English, verbs could change their position in the sentence for emphasis or grammatical reasons. And a number of inflections were used to change the meanings of words. Inflections still exist today - adding an -s to a noun to make it plural is an example of inflection, as is adding an -ed to a verb to make it in the past tense. But Old English had a lot more inflections for a lot more reasons than Modern English does, and applied them to a lot more parts of speech. Words in Old English were also often gendered in a way that they are not in Modern English.

T: Germanic languages also aren't the only root of Old English. In the late 6th century - so, 150 or 200 years after the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England began - Christian missionaries began arriving in the British Isles as well. And they brought with them a language that was not entirely new to the region, which was Latin.

H: Latin began to influence Old English, and the Latin alphabet was also used to write Old English, with the addition of a couple of characters to represent the TH sound — the most famous being the character thorn (Þ, þ). The first Latin-English glossaries date back to the year 700, and some scholars argue that this is really the birth of Old English as a language.

T: We still have some literature that was written in Old English around today. The most famous pieces are probably the epic poem Beowulf, which is one of my favourite things, and, for prose, the writings of King Alfred the Great.

H: The next big changes to the English language were also the result of invasions. Starting in the 8th century, Scandinavians made their way to England — all the folks we broadly classify as Vikings. And while there’re definitely English words that have Norse roots, most of this influence on the language itself didn’t come along until a little bit later, after the next big shift in the language, which we’re gonna talk about but first we are gonna have a word from a sponsor.

T: So, Old English was spoken in much of what’s now known as England and Wales from roughly the 6th to the 11th centuries. And from there, it gradually shifted into Middle English, which is one of the languages associated with the medieval period in Britain.

H: As we’ve talked about at the top of the show, Old English was the language invaders and colonists from the European continent brought to the island after the end of the Roman Empire in Britain. The shift into Middle English was the result of invasions as well. Middle English came about thanks to influences from the Normans, the Vikings, and Christian missionaries.

T: The Norman invasion was famously marked by past podcast subject the Battle of Hastings, which took place in 1066. And the Battle of Hastings was also documented in the Bayeux tapestry — which was also another past podcast subject.

H: Over the next 100 years or so following the Battle of Hastings, English went through a number of shifts and revisions — ah some scholars refer to this period as “transitional English” because so many different influences on the language were still making their way through how people really spoke and wrote.

T: A big shift was in grammar. The number of inflections dropped dramatically, particularly when it came to nouns. And a lot of the more complex, lengthy words from Old English that didn’t survive until today were replaced by words from other languages — basically, the languages being spoken by the various people who were invading England.

H: William the Conqueror, who invaded at the Battle of Hastings, spoke Norman French, and the ruling class that he brought with him did as well. Because of this French influence, for a time, much of the literature written in England was largely in Anglo-Norman. Anglo-Norman also became the language favoured by the nobility, the court system, and the schools as well. Some of the most famous works of literature from the Middle Ages were written in Anglo-Norman, including Tristan and Isolde and the Lais of Marie de France. The next most popular scholarly language in England was Latin, thanks to the influence of Christian missionaries.

T: Because of this prevalence of both French and Latin — and the fact that French and Latin have a lot in common — sometimes it’s really hard to tell whether a word that still exists in English really came from French or Latin. This is particularly true because some French words are borrowed from Latin, and then the English words were borrowed from French. Regardless, though, following the Norman Invasion, lots of words with French or Latin roots made their way into English, including peace, animal, imagination, and prison.

H: The Viking raids into England pretty much stopped after the Norman Invasion. However, by the time they did, there were a lot of people in England — particularly northern England — who spoke one of the early Scandinavian languages that would eventually grow into Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and the like.

T: None of these languages gained a long-term foothold in England, but lots of English words came from Scandinavian roots that were started during this time. As with the Old English words that are still spoken today, many of them are short, one- or two-syllable words that name everyday objects and ideas. Some of the nouns from Scandinavian origins include cow, bull, root and skin. Verbs include take, scare, flit and want. The pronoun they also has Scandinavian origins.

H: Eventually, all these influences coalesced into a language that, if you can read modern English, you can probably read as well, although it may be a bit more difficult. The words themselves tend to be familiar, even though their spellings and pronunciations are often inconsistent. By the 1300s, Middle English had become the favoured language in England, and literature was being written in it. Some of the most famous works in Middle English include the Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Book of Margery Kempe, which is the subject of a past podcast. The first complete English translation of the Bible was in Middle English as well.

T: On a brief digression about Margery Kempe, that was one of the first episodes that I researched for the podcast. Um and I had chosen to do it because it was something that I already had enough familiarity with that I felt like I could get into it and not be starting from absolute square one in one of the first podcasts I ever researched. And I went to get my college copy of The Book of Margery Kempe off of the bookshelf and I opened it up and it was in Middle English and I was like uh-oh, I,

H: (laughs)

T: I do not, I do not have time to puzzle my way through Middle English for this podcast and so I had to order a Modern English version of it. One of the reasons that I found it difficult was that Middle English was, in a lot of ways, not very standardized. Surviving manuscripts from the era vary a lot from one another … even when they are literally copies of the exact same piece of literature. In addition to lots of inconsistencies in spelling and grammar, there were specific dialects that existed all over the British Isles, and many people still spoke a Celtic language as their primary or only language during this time.

H: Toward the end of the 15th century, English had its next big shift and we are gonna talk about that after we have another pause for a sponsor break.

T: After Middle English came, perhaps not surprisingly, Early Modern English. The King James Bible and Shakespeare’s plays are both in Early Modern English and as with Middle English, if you can read modern English today (things that are written right now), you can probably read it too, but it might take your brain a little bit more work.

H: In a lot of ways, the shift from Old English to Middle English seems a lot more dramatic than from Middle English to Early Modern English. And that makes a lot of logical sense — the transition from Old English to Middle English was brought about in large part by the influence of multiple other languages on Old English. But the shift from Middle English to Early Modern English was a lot more about standardizing a language that already existed. English vocabulary continued to grow, but mostly through the inclusion of more words from languages people were already familiar with, or other Romance languages that had similar roots.

T: This was the rise of pedantry in the English language. Different scholars set about trying to set rules specifically for English and then nit-picking other writers who broke those rules. It’s a trend that continues to annoy editors today, various writers, including 17th century writer and critic John Dryden, decreed that English should follow the rules of Latin, and then effectively applied Latin structure to English … so rules like “don’t end sentences with prepositions” are made up from during this time to try to make English conform to Latin rules. Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift did a lot of writing about the need to standardize English as well and consensus among linguists today is that you can try to permanently affix a language all you want, but as long as people are actually speaking it, it will continue to evolve.

H: Beginning in the middle of the 17th century, people started proposing that there be a formal academy of English to document the language and make sure it stayed quote “pure.” This didn’t happen, but through the 16th and 17th centuries, dictionaries did flourish. English gradually became standardized.

T: Perhaps inconveniently, this exact same time that people were writing dictionaries and standardizing rules for how to speak and spell English, was happening at the same time as people were completely shifting how they pronounced things. Right at the same time that people were literally documenting how to spell, people were starting to say things differently from how they were spelled. To be clear, this shift did take hundreds of years to play out — pronunciations were shifting back in the 12th century. But just as the language was finishing that shift into the 16th century, people were writing dictionaries, based on the old spellings old spellings of words that no longer matched how we say them.

H: And a piece of this was the Great Vowel Shift. Essentially, where people pronounced long vowels moved up and back in their mouths. And the reason that ah Tracy had described this as being a little too inside baseball is because it’s really difficult to both research and describe without a working knowledge of linguistics and phonology.

T: We’re going to assume (laughs) to assume most of our listeners don’t have that and I’m so I’m going to take an extremely simple basic approach to explaining this. If you ever had to memorize the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English, you probably remember the first lines, which that start ‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote’. And in Modern English, that’s: ‘When April with his showers sweet with fruit / The drought of March has pierced to the root’.

H: So, during the Great Vowel Shift, for example, roote (/ɹəʉtə/) became pronounced as root (/ɹʉt/). Aprille (/æpɹɪɫ/) became April (/æɪpɹəɫ/).

T: Or, to look at it with some other words, the word height (like how tall you are today) would have been pronounced more like heat and feet (the things at the end of people’s legs) would have been pronounced fete (/fet/). And hate (like really disliking pedantry) would have been pronounced more like haht (/hɐ:t/).

H: And these were not the only shifts in pronunciation that went on in Early Modern English. There are whole other vowel pronunciations that used to be unique but now sound identical. People also stopped pronouncing A LOT of consonants, as you could probably hear in the Canterbury Tales example. But the Early Modern period is also when we stopped pronouncing the <k>, the <g> and the <h> in the word knight. So,

T: (laughs) That’s why we don’t say /kənɪxt/

H: That would have been a (laughs) much more complicated word. Um, we also stopped saying the <b> in lamb and the <t> in thistle. Basically, a lot, but not all, of the complete discrepancies between how we spell things and how we say them in English arose in Early Modern English.

T: Apparently, for all the listeners at home who cannot see the outline, this is where I also had discrepancies in typing (laughs).

H: (laughs)

T: There are a lot of theories for why all this happened. There are scholars blame migration that followed the Black Death. Others just say it’s just a natural drift in how we pronounce things and it’s still going on today. The general consensus, though, is basically: it’s a mystery, we don’t really know why everybody changed how they said their vowels. And there are also some nay-sayers among linguists who say that this whole thing is extremely exaggerated and it wasn’t nearly as pronounced or important as people ah position it as today. And, to be clear, people did figure out the vowel shift by examining things like verse (like what words rhymed with what other words) and misspellings in documents with the idea that if you were spelling something the way it sounded, the misspelling that you make would change over time as the vowel pronunciation shifted, so, to some extent, our very understanding of these pronunciations here is kind of an educated guess.

H: Toward the end of the Early Modern period, people continued to be very concerned with standardizing and perfecting English. In the 1800s, professionally printed materials became increasingly standard in their spelling, grammar and style. But people’s personal papers continued to be all over the place. Ah, people have made much of the fact that Jane Austen’s handwritten drafts are full of what are considered ‘errors’, but really that’s how ordinary non-pedants wrote at the time.

T: Yeah, people were much more casual in their personal correspondence that the increasingly standard professionally printed work. From the end of the Early Modern period, English progressively became more and more like the language we recognize today. It’s probably safe to say that most people find Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, who were writing in Late Modern English, easier to read than William Shakespeare or Alexander Pope, who wrote in Early Modern English, and much much easier than Margery Kempe who was writing in Middle English, and a million times easier than the epic of Beowulf as written in Old English, which I’m not sure I could make out without a dictionary.

H: I definitely could not. While the development of English into a modern language is most about who invaded England — and then an effort to standardize the result — English today is also defined by where England went after that. The most obvious is the variations in slang, pronunciation, and dialects in places that were or are still part of the British Empire. English does not sound quite the same in Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the United States, India. In each of these places, English also has its own loanwords that are unique to the languages being spoken there before English arrived.

T: But it’s not just about the nuances in what’s considered Standard English in all these different countries. There are also creoles and dialects that have involved that have evolved in tandem with English all over the world. As an example, in the Americas and the Caribbean, there are English-based Creoles that evolved as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. They draw from English, West African languages, and sometimes the language of native peoples who were living in the area. Gullah, Jamaican Patois, Cayman Creole and Bahamian Creole are all creoles that draw from English, African languages, and sometimes each other. Australian Kriol and Pitkern are examples of creoles that draw from English and native peoples’ languages in the Pacific.

H: Pretty much anywhere English speakers have colonized, there are also dialects of English that have their own rules about grammar and pronunciation. One example is African American Vernacular English, which has a lot in common with Southern English dialects.

T: So that is an extremely, extremely condensed history of the English language. Um, thanks in part to how many people wanted us to talk about the Great Vowel Shift. If you are a linguist, this was probably stuff that is way like you know way more stuff than what we just said.

H: Ah, I suddenly found myself mired in gosh, what things am I really pedantic about? There’s really only one. Um,

T: Well, what’s really funny – not funny, it’s more annoying, ah, to me – is that sometimes we’ll put like let’s say for example, we’ll put an article on our Facebook page, and the article will end the headline with a preposition, and someone will come and make a comment about how one should not end sentences with prepositions. And then I will provide numerous sources about how that’s actually fine, and then 90% of the time the person just doubles down into how that that is the right way and you should make sure that not to apply made up rules to English. And I’m like, the thing that you are complaining about…

H: All the rules are made up (laughs)

T: … is a made up rule (laughs)

H: Yeah

T: like, there is definitely great value in learning how to speak and write well – these are important skills to have in life. But then you also really should think about how the way that people talk and the language that they use and the way people speak and write also reflects where they are from and their upbringing and how much education they actually had access to, their class, their ethnicity, like there’s a whole lot that goes into how people talk and write. So, ah, pedantically nit-picking strangers on the internet about how they spell something wrong, is perhaps not the best use of anyone’s time unless you are literally that person’s English teacher and the thing you are nit-picking on the internet is literally their class assignment that they did for you.

H: (laughs) I, you know, for some people that’s their windmill that they tilt at. I don’t ah I I find and I think you probably do as well like people are surprised that I’m not that I’m one of those. They’re like ‘but you’re an editor’, and I’m like ‘yeah, but, if you edit long enough you realise that even fabulous, well-educated people make typos and mistakes when they’re putting together manuscripts. Like, it, it, did you understand what they were getting at? …

T: That is, yes.

H: …like, you can fix the other stuff if you’re doing it, you know, along the guidelines for like publication.

T: That’s that’s usually my criteria. Was the meaning understood?

H: (laughs)

T: That’s a criterion, somebody is going to write about. Anyway, I have some listener mail that’s not about pedantry

H: Fantastic!