English Phonology - History of English Pronunciation

History of English Pronunciation

English consonants have been remarkably stable over time, and have undergone few changes in the last 1500 years. On the other hand, English vowels have been quite unstable. Not surprisingly, then, the main differences between modern dialects almost always involve vowels.

Around the late 14th century, English began to undergo the Great Vowel Shift, in which

  • The high long vowels and in words like price and mouth became diphthongized, first to and (where they remain today in some environments in some accents such as Canadian English) and later to their modern values and . This is not unique to English, as this also happened in Dutch (first shift only) and German (both shifts).
  • The other long vowels became higher:
    • became (for example meet).
    • became (later diphthongized to, for example name).
    • became (for example goose).
    • become (later diphthongized to, for example bone).

Later developments complicate the picture: whereas in Geoffrey Chaucer's time food, good, and blood all had the vowel and in William Shakespeare's time they all had the vowel, in modern pronunciation good has shortened its vowel to and blood has shortened and lowered its vowel to in most accents. In Shakespeare's day (late 16th-early 17th century), many rhymes were possible that no longer hold today. For example, in his play The Taming of the Shrew, shrew rhymed with woe.

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