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Linguists in the past had a bit of a knack for giving linguistic phenomena dramatic names. I think The Great Vowel Shift is a wonderful example of this.

Contrary to what the name suggests, The Great Vowel Shift did not occur over night, but over a number of decades. Linguistic changes rarely happen quickly, because people’s language tends to stabilise when they’re in their early twenties, meaning that today’s 80 year-olds use the norms of language of 60 years ago. A form needs to be around for a long time for the whole of a speech community to use it.

Apologies, I’m digressing.

In Class, Language and Style Shifting – Part 1, I spoke about the plague. I didn’t actually speak about language though. I simply described the effects the plague had on the United Kingdom (which were rather momentous). Reading medieval poetry, such as Langland or Chaucer, we sometimes see references to the plague; in particular, labour shortages and the result of these.

It took a long time for the effects of the plague on language to become apparent. In fact, the changes were still taking place two hundred years later, during the Age of Reason (another melodramatic name).

Before the plague, there was no middle class: simply the working class and the aristocratic. The death of 50% of the population changed this, with people in higher demand creating the ability to demand more pay.

Over the years, the gaps between the classes became more and more blurred; a scale of class rather than specific categories was being created. People became very self-conscious. Suddenly, they could become more respected; more prestigious.

One way of upping your prestige was to speak as if you were posher than you really were. In order to differentiate themselves from the working classes, aspiring speakers would feign a posh accent.

It happened that this massive shift in social and economic structure coincided with an anti-French vibe which seized the nation after the French left. From 1066 until 1362, French and Latin had been the language of power, while English was the vernacular. The French left, and this changed. People disliked the French, and so French words and sounds were no longer prestigious.

These factors all contributed to The Great Vowel Shift.

Reading Chaucer or Langland, medieval scholars often put on what seems to be a Scottish accent. This is actually a Middle English accent.

In the Middle Ages, the English spoke with vowel sounds similar to those used by Scottish speakers today. This means using raised vowel sounds.

For instance, try saying the word blue in a Scottish accent. Compare it to an English accent. Do the same with can’t and day; notice where these sounds are coming from. The Scottish sounds should come from the top and back of your mouth, with your tongue raised higher and further back in your mouth than it is with the English sounds. Those British readers will know that accents in the UK are not quite so binary as the explanation I’ve just given; the vowel sounds tend to become more raised the further North you go.

Sometimes, a sound could not be raised any more, and so monophthongs (words with one vowel sound) sometimes became diphthongs (word with two vowel sounds). For instance, the Scottish non-standard form of house is hoose. Where house has two vowel sounds, hoose has one.

The reason English speakers no longer speak this way is because these vowel sounds are similar to French sounds, and because raised vowels were becoming a marker of working class. People were actively removing these sounds from their speech, and replacing them with sounds which were more prestigious.

This change was much more prevalent in the South, and its effects were less and less the further North the Shift traveled. This is why Southern vowel sounds are often seen as more prestigious, or more posh, than Northern ones. Today, we still see the middle classes in the North using lower vowel sounds than their working class peers, which is an effect of the Shift.

In fact, The Great Vowel Shift’s lasting effect on the English language created a number of phenomena prevalent today… Which I shall discuss in part three.