The Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift (GVS) – which started in the Early Modern period (15th century) – affected all long vowels of the sound system. Each of these vowels – /i:/, /e:/, /ɜ:/, /ɑ:/, /u:/, /o:/, /ɔ:/ – moved “to a higher position in the vowel space” (Nevalainen 2006:121), but not all at the same time: it “was […] a series of local developments [which] looks like an orderly chain shift” (Nevalainen 2006:120). There are two theories concerning the starting point of this shift:

1. theory: The GVS started with the diphthongisation of the high front vowel /i:/ and the high back vowel /u:/. These vowels – because they could not move to a higher position – acquired the quality of /əi/ and /əu/ (cf. Fischer 2003:76). The diphthongisation left a gap on the top of the sound system which was then filled by the high-mid front vowel /e:/ and the high-mid back vowel /o:/; thus /e:/ raised to /i:/, and /o:/ raised to /u:/. This is called pull chain: The high vowels diphthongised first, forcing the other vowels to move to a higher position (cf. Nevalainen 2006:121).

2. theory: The shift started with the raising of the high-mid vowels /e:/ and /o:/. They forced the high vowels /i:/ and /u:/ to diphthongise, i.e. “‘pushing’ [them] out of the way” (Nevalainen 2006:121). This is why it is called push chain. Both the diphthongisation of /i:/ and /u:/ and the raising of /e:/ and /o:/ started in the 15th century, thus it is difficult to decide whether the diphthongisation or the raising was first. “The textual evidence available points to both lexical and regional variation” (Nevalainen 2006:122).

Nevertheless, the raising of /e:/ and /o:/ left the position of the high-mid vowels unoccupied, but it was later filled by the low-mid vowels /ɜ:/ and /ɔ:/ which became /e:/ and /o:/ (cf. Nevalainen 2006:122). The low front vowel /ɑ:/ – which “by 1500 […] had already become /æ/” (Barber 1976:292) – then raised to the low-mid front vowel /ɜ:/ (cf. Nevalainen 2006:122).

The following summary of the changes described above “is an oversimplification […] of a process that developed at different rates in the different dialects” (Baugh & Cable 1993:233). But we thought it the best way to help you understand the GVS.

 Summary I

Middle EnglishEarly Modern English
high font i:diphthong əi
high back u:diphthong əu
high-mid front e:high front i:
high-mid back o:high back u:
low-mid front ɜ:high-mid front e:
low-mid back ɔ:high-mid back o:
low front ɑ:/ælow-mid front ɜ:

But the (whole) shift was not yet completed although McMahon (2006) and others argue that “second-step raisings are typically regarded as later developments which took place after Great Vowel Shift ‘proper’” (McMahon 2006:157). It continued as follows:

The diphthongs /əi/ and /əu/ (from the ME high vowels /i:/ and /u:/) soon became /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ (cf. Fischer 2003:76), which is generally regarded as still belonging to the GVS. The high front vowel /i:/ and the high back vowel /u:/ (from the ME high-mid vowels /e:/ and /o:/) did not change any further. But one has to be aware of the fact that

in some words [/u:/] was shortened in the 15th century and was unrounded to the sound in blood, flood. In still other words, however, it retained its length until about 1700 but was then shortened without being unrounded, giving us the sound in good, stood, book, foot (Baugh & Cable 1993:229).

In contrast to the high vowels, the high-mid vowels /e:/ and /o:/ (from the ME low-mid vowels /ɜ:/ and /ɔ:/) raised further or diphthongised: In the 17th century (according to Fischer (2003) at the beginning of this century; according to Baugh & Cable (1993) at the end of the seventeenth century) the high-mid front vowel /e:/ continued to raise and became /i:/ “(with the exceptions of break, great and steak)” (Fischer 2003:76/77); the high-mid back vowel /o:/ became diphthongised into /əʊ/ (“Which some authorities believe arose in the nineteenth century, while others trace it back as far as the seventeenth” (Baugh & Cable 1993:230)) (cf. Fischer 2003:78). At the end of the 17th century the low-mid front vowel /ɜ:/ (from the ME low front vowel /ɑ:/ which at the end of the 15th century (cf. Barber 1976:292) became /æ/) was raised to /e:/ and at the end of the 18th century it finally diphthongised into /eɪ/ (cf. Nevalainen 2006:122).

 Summary II (cf. Jucker 2000:53):

Middle EnglishEarly Modern EnglishModern English
high font i:diphtong əidiphthong aɪ
high back u:diphthong əʊdiphthong aʊ
high-mid front e:high front i:high front i:
high-mid back o:high back u:high back u:
low-mid front ɜ:high-mid front e:high front i:
low-mid back ɔ:high-mid back o:diphthong əʊ
low front ɑ:/ælow-mid front ɜ:high-mid front e:/diphthong eɪ

Because the developments described above were local developments (cf. Nevalainen 2006:120) “with slight differences in the speed with which the results were accomplished” (Baugh & Cable 1993:233), many words of the Early Modern period did rhyme which today do no longer rhyme and vice versa:

At the end of the seventeenth century the low-mid front vowel /ɜ:/ in words like make and late raised further to /e:/, “and could coincide with /e:/ words such as meat, sea and speak, which had not yet been raised to /i:/ at the time” (Nevalainen 2006:122). Thus make and speak or late and meat were rhymes at this time; all pronounced with /e:/. But as described above, they do no longer rhyme since the /e:/ of the meat-words raised further to /i:/ and the /e:/ of the make-words diphthongized and became /eɪ/ (cf. Nevalainen 2006:122).

On the other hand, nowadays sweet and meat rhyme; but in the Early Modern period they had different vowels: the /i:/ of sweet comes from ME /e:/; the /i:/ of meat comes from ME /ɜ:/. So in the Early Modern period sweet was already pronounced with /i:/ whereas meat was still pronounced with /e:/.

Furthermore, these developments did not only create rhymes, but also led to the creation of homophones such as meet and meat. Meet comes from ME [me:t] which became [mi:t] in EModE; meat comes from ME [mɜ:t] which became [me:t] in the Early Modern period. Because /e:/ raised further to /i:/, meet and meat became homophones. “This vowel coalescence is often called the meet and meat merger” (Nevalainen 2006:122). Other homophones created by the raising of long vowels in the Early Modern period are e.g. piece and peace, see and sea, and tea and tee (cf. Nevalainen 2006:122).

Lena Jesper


Barber, Charles (1981). Early Modern English. 2nd impr. London: Deutsch.

Baugh, Albert C. & Cable, Thomas (1993). A History of the English Language. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Fischer, Roswitha (2003). Tracing the History of English: a textbook for students. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.

Jucker, Andreas H. (2000). History of English and English historical linguistics. Stuttgart: Klett.

McMahon, April (2006). Restructuring Renaissance English. In: The Oxford History of English. Edited by Lynda Mugglestone. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nevalainen, Terttu (2006). An Introduction to Early Modern English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.