Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Lots of people have wondered why English seems to be one of very few languages with such irregular spelling, far from its pronunciation. The answers include the Norman invasion, and the Great Vowel Shift.

Ok, cool. But why did all those other languages not have the same thing happen to them?

German, Spanish, Italian, all Slavic languages, etc. They don't have a silent 'e', they don't have the day/date poke/soak treat/tree vowel dualities, etc. They still ascribe vowels the same sounds they ascribed them many centuries ago.

Is it because England had more trade contact and colonies? Or because they're on an isolated island? Or why?

share|improve this question
17  
it got so consonated it needed a vowel movement. –  Epaga Oct 26 '10 at 6:16
    
What about French and Greek? –  Mechanical snail Jul 25 '12 at 1:34
    
have a look at irish orthography –  jlovegren Jan 22 '13 at 0:03
add comment

4 Answers

You will find a lot of information about the History of English spelling and pronunciation, notably their vast differences in this article: Spelling and Standardization in English: Historical Overview

share|improve this answer
8  
This is a great link. Can you summarize some of it in your answer? –  Jared Updike Oct 25 '10 at 20:08
19  
So you refuse to even quote one or two relevant parts of the article, but chastise others and call them lazy for not reading it from top to bottom? That is delicious irony. Your answer is incomplete, simply put; if that link dies someday, then this answer dies with it. It's great to post links as references but they shouldn't be your whole answer. –  Aaronaught Oct 25 '10 at 20:23
11  
part of the goal of the StackExchange sites is to provide the definitive list of answers on a particular topic. So while it's extremely useful to provide links to other sites, it's not a substitute for at least summarising what those other sites say. –  Steve Melnikoff Oct 25 '10 at 21:52
9  
Steve and Aaron are right. The point of this site is to create content not to simply link to it. –  nohat Oct 25 '10 at 22:39
2  
@AndersonSilva Your comment might well be the most obnoxious thing I've read in my life. Just revolting. –  user18036 Nov 15 '13 at 19:31
show 1 more comment

Only Middle English underwent the Great Vowel Shift because that name specifically refers to a historical shift in English. Other languages have had shifts, either unnamed or of different names. Notable named examples are the first Germanic sound shift, the second Germanic sound shift, and the northern cities vowel shift.

The Great Vowel Shift seems to be more prominent than it really is because of the peculiarities which it introduced into spelling, but this isn't a feature of English so much as it is a historical accident of a shift occurring after the introduction of the printing press. English being one of the most-studied language in historical linguistics magnifies the apparent significant of the Great Vowel Shift too, and the grandiosity of the name can be attributed to that more than anything else.

share|improve this answer
add comment

I started off by posting a series of comments scattered all over the page, but I thought I should sum them up in a standalone answer.


Generally speaking, there have been similar shifts in many other languages. And they are even happening right now as we speak.

But first things first. Since you mentioned Slavic languages, as the most obvious example, in Old Church Slavonic, an o was an o. In contemporary Russian, it can be anything from a schwa to an ʌ to an ɔ, depending on the position relative to the stressed syllable (e.g. молоко, milk, /məɫɐˈko/ or /məlʌˈkɔ/; водоворот, swirl, /vədəvʌˈro̞t/). Also, in Old Church Slavonic, there were a number of nasal sounds, which are absent in pretty much all contemporary Slavic languages with the notable exception of Polish.

Secondly, don't get me started on German. If you don't know how to correctly pronounce Soest, Troisdorf, Huonker, Pankow, Laermann, Hueck, you will pronounce them wrong. It happens to native German speakers all the time.

Speaking of Germanic languages, the most notable vowel shifts happened in German and Dutch (Wikipedia even mentions them in the article on the Great Vowel Shift). It's just that there was at least some concerted effort to keep the spelling consistent with the (changing) pronunciation. The pronunciation shifts were accompanied by spelling shifts, if you will. Hence the popular but wrong assumption that there weren't pronunciation shifts to begin with.

In other words, what made the pronunciation stray so far from spelling in English was not the Great Vowel Shift; it was the absence of the accompanying Great Spelling Update.

Now, it's always a bit harder to explain the absence of something rather than its presence, though one of the other answers does provide an interesting link. On a more general note, I will say that spelling reforms are the domain of politicians, one of the most prominent and recent examples being the German orthography reform of 1996, kicked off by the Conference of Ministers of Culture and later monitored by the International Commission for German Orthography. English, however, traditionally lacks such regulatory bodies.

Anyhow, vowel shifts happen all the time, especially on the dialect level. Now that I have zeroed in on German, I'll just take Bavarian as an example. In Bavarian, viel is not pronounced as /fiːl/ and ein Haufen is not pronounced /aɪ̯n ˈhaʊ̯fm̩/. But again, there is some effort to keep the spelling consistent with the pronunciation, so if you came up with the crazy idea to write a Wikipedia in Bavarian, you would spell viel as vui, vei, vii or fui, and ein Haufen as a Haufa, to reflect the actual pronunciation. And there are also Wikipedias in Ripuarian, Plattdeutsch, Alemannic... It's hard to imagine, say, standalone Australian, Canadian or Texan Wikipedias where the spelling mirrors the local dialect in such a manner.

I guess I can sum these ramblings up as follows: vowel shifts happen all the time. Spelling conventions are a question of politics and culture.

share|improve this answer
    
Native German speakers regularly mispronounce certain German words? Sounds a little bit presrciptivist there. Surely however they regularly pronounce them is the right pronounciation? –  Seamus Dec 7 '11 at 16:07
    
"Regularly mispronounce" could simply mean that the words are pronounced disparately. –  Charles Mar 2 '12 at 16:05
1  
@Seamus, not really—place names are exempt from the ‘majority wins’ rule. When a small English village is locally pronounced as ‘chumly’ despite its name being spelt ‘Cholmondeley’, then that is its correct pronunciation: what the people who live there and use the name on a daily basis say. When an American or Australian comes by, sees the name for the first time, and pronounces it as it’s written, they are mispronouncing it, even if they are native English speakers. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 17 '13 at 18:58
    
@Seamus: Worcester, Bowdoin, and Woburn, places in the Boston area, are constantly mispronounced by native English speakers from other places (even people from Woburn, England). –  Peter Shor Sep 17 '13 at 19:56
3  
I now live in Munich. I take it all back: Bavarians are so wrong about German pronunciation. –  Seamus Sep 17 '13 at 23:58
add comment

Well, there was something that might have been called 'vowel shift' in Polish. A long, long time ago probably about 400 years back, We had a long-short vowel distinction in Polish, also one nasal vowel had a different timbre. 'Ą' wasn't a nasal 'o' [õ] like in contemporary Polish, but more like a nasal 'an' [ã] found in French. As for consonants, ć, ś, ź, dź were half-palatalized; more like the Russian [sʲ, zʲ, tsʲ,dʲ]. The letter 'ł' sounded like the English consonant called 'dark L' [ɫ] but it got vocalized to [w]. And last but not least, the 'y' that represents the IPA [''I] was closer to the Australian English Kit vowel [ +I] (very front).

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.