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Written English vowels differ from other Latin-based orthographies. Consider what the written vowels in the romance languages represent. Also, for example, consider this simple comparision between a few German and English vowels:

 German    English
 a = [a]   a = [e]
 e = [e]   e = [i]
 i = [i]   i = [aj]

Has this always been so? Is the pattern regular? When and why did the shift occur?

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I'm starting to get the feeling some of these questions are linguist bait ;-) – nohat Aug 6 '10 at 19:11
A bit, but very interesting topics nonetheless. It would be hard to ignore learning English from one such language, and vice versa. These are questions I wanted answered in the community from before the beta. – Charlie Aug 6 '10 at 19:35
@itrekkie: Try as I might I don't understand the question. Could you clarify? – MikeSchinkel Sep 12 '10 at 0:49
There are plenty of oddities in other languages as well (including Romance languages). French has u = [y], e = [ə]. There are a bunch of languages with o = [u]. Portuguese has e = [i] when it is unstressed and at the end of a word. – sumelic Dec 9 '15 at 0:30
up vote 30 down vote accepted

Starting in the 1400s, English vowels began a change known as the Great Vowel Shift, resulting in the change from English vowels being pronounced similarly to how the German vowels are pronounced now to how English vowels are pronounced today.

The diagram in that article explains the shift much more clearly and completely than I could, but the gist of it is this:

(Using the International Phonetic Alphabet):

  • The vowel of time changed from [iː] to [aɪ].
  • The vowel of see changed from [eː] to [iː].
  • The vowel of east changed from [ɛː] and merged with the vowel see to become ultimately [iː].
  • The vowel of name changed from [aː] to [eɪ].
  • The vowel of day changed from [æj] and merged with the vowel of name to become ultimately [eɪ].
  • The vowel of house changed from [uː] to [aʊ].
  • The vowel of moon changed from [oː] to [uː].
  • The vowel of stone changed from [ɔː] to [oʊ].
  • the vowel of know changed from [au] and merged with the vowel of stone to become [oʊ].
  • the vowel of law changed from [ɑu] to [ɔː]
  • the vowel of new changed from [eu]/[iu] to [juː]
  • the vowel of dew changed from [ɛu] and merged with the vowel of new to become [juː]
  • the vowel of that changed from [a] to [æ]
  • the vowel of fox changed from [o] to [ɒ]
  • the vowel of cut changed from [ʊ] to [ʌ]

"Vowel spaces", that is, the system of vowels in a language and how they are arranged, are sensitive to changes in complex ways. When one vowel changes in how it is pronounced, due to normal language change, often several other vowels change at the same time, to keep the arrangement of the vowels in the vowel space "equally spaced". Such groups of changes are known as chain shifts. Keeping vowels evenly distributed in the vowel space avoids confusion as to which vowel was produced.

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Although we can find this info on other sites, I think one reason for this site in particular is to gather it all up in one place. By the way, I particularly like the note about chain shifts, i.e., why they happen. – Charlie Aug 6 '10 at 19:43
+1 You scooped me. :) Also, it might be useful to mention the northern cities chain shift as one modern example. – Alan Hogue Aug 7 '10 at 8:35
Your comment reminded me of other northern cities (in the UK) where these shifts didn't happen. Worth a mention here, I think! – Charlie Aug 7 '10 at 18:11

Other interesting references on the Great Vowel Shift:

The Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift would probably be just an historical curiosity if it weren't for the fact that the first printing press opened in London in 1476, right in the middle of the shift!

Before the printing press was invented, the words in handwritten texts had been spelled according to the dialect of the scribe who wrote them. However, book production was slow and few people could read in any case.
The early printers used the older spellings which Middle English scribes had used. They didn't understand the significance of the pronunciation changes that had just gotten well underway.
By the time the vowel shift was complete (about 100 years from start to finish), hundreds of books had been printed with the older spellings.
The new high volume of book production combined with increasing literacy proved to be powerful forces against spelling change.
As a consequence, many spellings have become "fixed" to the Middle English pronunciation, rather than the modern ones, and we still spell the word for the earth's satellite as "moon."

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just a note, but the first link is merely a copy of an old version of the Wikipedia article. – nohat Aug 6 '10 at 21:13
@nohat: right... no more fact-archive.com then. Ever. – VonC Aug 6 '10 at 21:42
awww @VonC first Grammar Girl, now fact-archive.com... You're making me feel bad for spoiling your credulity. ;-) – nohat Aug 6 '10 at 21:53
@nohat: just cleaning up my links and throwing away the garbage, under your expert guidance ;) Plus, I'm here to learn. – VonC Aug 6 '10 at 23:09
@VonC I'm curious. How do you thing that moon should be spelled? Mune? Then change Monday to Munday? But then the cow who jumped over the moon wouldn't know whether to say moo or mu ... – AnWulf Jan 9 '12 at 0:47

There may be some truth in the 'vowel shift', but if u study texts with original spellings from 1350 to 1750, it is very difficult to find much evidence for it, because between 1430 and 1650 English spelling became increasingly varied and random. Between 1525, the publication of the first English New Testament, and 1611, the year of the King James Bible, most English words acquired several spellings. This can be seen in the writings of Sir Thomas Moore and the highly educated Elizabeth I.

What the study of old texts reveals very clearly is that English spelling was repeatedly deliberately messed up, leaving the relationships between sounds letters increasingly random. The first time was over 1000 years ago, when some monastic scribes disliked having to write sequences of short strokes next to each, as u would get with a sensible spelling of 'munth'. So they substituted o for u next to n and n (month, front) and also next to v which back then spelt v and u (hence the name double u for w): love, glove, wonder.

Around 1430 Chancery Clerks were suddenly obliged to switch from French to English. They took their anger about this out on English spelling. They severely undermined Chaucer's consistent use of e and e-e (bed, bred, erly; seke, speke, reson), with irregularities which persist to this day. They not only added ea to the English alphabet but used it for several sounds as well (treat, great, threat).

Early printers messed up English spelling a bit more, by adding extra letters to earn more money, as they were paid by the line. Many of them also spoke no English and made all kind of random changes (e.g. sadnes to sadnesse, frend - friend, bild - build).

The final blow was dealt by Samuel Johnson who wanted to force English into a Latin mould. He was most responsible for undermining the English use of doubled consonants for marking short vowels (rabbit, merry, poppy) by exempting many Latinate words from the system (habit, very, copy) or using doubled letters to show defunct Latin prefixes (e.g. adplicare - apply).

For a fuller explanation of the above see http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/history-of-english-spelling.html

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You are focussing on spelling alone, but the great vowel shift is about pronunciation. Evidence for it is overwhelming unless you deliberately ignore it. – oerkelens Nov 7 '14 at 7:48
What evidence other than spellings do we have of how words were pronounced centuries ago? – user31186 Nov 9 '14 at 18:47
@user31186 poetry where rhyming is expected. – Mitch Oct 1 '15 at 14:16

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