The Great Vowel Shift

I wanted to write a deeply meaningful post of self discovery, but will have to put it off, in favor of a much less personal account of phonemic awareness. I’m going to assume you don’t have a very firm grasp of the international phonetic alphabet, and not bother using it.

Have you ever wondered why in English our long vowels sound so unlike longer versions of our short vowels? Neither did I, until I started to wonder why it is that the letter I always refers, in Georgian transcriptions, to the sound of a long E. That is, the the sound ee. This happens very regularly, because words in normative case must end in a vowel, and the default vowel is ი. It is, of course, strangely complicated to make a long initial E in English using the lesser e, and so they use i.  It’s also logical because there is a Georgian sound for short e as in net (ე), but not for the short i as in knit. In fact, I have upon occasion heard Georgians making that sound, as an unstressed variant of ი. But they don’t notice this, as they don’t notice that ვ (v) is pronounced softly, like w when necessary, as when თვენ (tkven) is pronounced tkwen, because even Georgians don’t want to load tkv onto the front of a one syllable word. But getting back to my main point: a short stressed i will certainly be pronounced ი, and the only way to prevent bin from sounding like bean is not stress it — so say it kind of fast and soft. But, of course, we do that too — only in reverse. An unstressed been sounds exactly like bin. Have you been to the store today?

But, as I have had to remind my students so very often, I, the letter, is not to be confused with E the letter, even if it’s easier to spell a long E with an i than it is with an e.

Thank you, Great Vowel Shift. Back when the Latin Alphabet was first being regularly applied to Middle English, a long stressed I sounded like ee, just as is intuitively obvious to ELL students. The long stressed E sounded like the a in feign, which is more like what one would expect, if one were to lengthen and stress the short e. Thus, improbable spellings like eign. (you told us that A has that sound. That’s why the letter is called by that name. why is there no A in reign!?!) Blame the Great Vowel Shift, apparently. It looks like in Middle English a long A was mostly like the a in father, only a little longer, like in Paata (Georgian for Peter), sometimes with a schwa.

What exactly shifted, and how? Linguists say that it’s the long stressed vowels that shifted, and that they shifted from a lower to a higher place in the mouth. I’m guessing only philologists, speech therapists, and Henry Higgins had declarative knowledge of where in the mouth vowels were produced before trying it out. Speaking of Henry Higgins, some of Liza’s pronunciation problems sound rather like some of the outdated dialects, as when she pronounces ai as, literally a (like in father) and i (like in xinkali). Did you just think to yourself, as you read xinkali, a short instressed i, followed by a long E? So do Georgians. Thus, the confusion of teaching E, I, A.

O and U also shifted, but for some reason are easier to figure out. Apparently back in the day the long O was said like moan, rather than moon. I don’t know where we get long O posing as short u, as in any short ook word (look, book, nook, cook, hook; even good) — neither did my co-teachers; they were surprised to learn it. Long U was apparently said like rude, and not loud. The former usages make rather more sense when compared with the short vowel sound, but is not, as I say a difficulty, except in the case of ook, which is nearly always said uke (like in nuke), even by the teachers. But I ascribe this to Georgian not having the short u sound, and so it’s always a bit difficult, regardless of whether it’s spelled logically or not. Chaucer would probably make cook rhyme with coke.

Still, as one can easily see by there being so many examples of the old spelling being the same as the old pronunciation, not all the vowels shifted — the short ones didn’t at all (well, perhaps a little; a British pronunciation will make cat sound rather like cot) — and the unstressed long vowels didn’t as well, say the linguists. Thus the reason we can still safely make a long ee with an i, so long as it’s in an unstressed position, such as the end of a word. Thus, the diversity in the English vowel spellings, which is doom to young Georgians, and usually ends in “just memorize it.”

Some linguists have apparently counted as many as 20 vowel sounds in English, along with some 24 consonant sounds. I couldn’t tell the difference between a couple of them; don’t meat and beer have the same sound? That’s 26 letters and some 44 sounds, nearly half of which are vowels. There are five vowels in Georgian, and no weird hybrids such as y, and sometimes w. Why does ou sometimes sound like ow, and sometimes not, for instance? In Georgian, what you see is pretty much what you get. there are five vowels letters, and some 26 consonants; I think there are 27, because of the v/w thing. If you want to stress the poor, under-appreciated Georgian vowel, you simply say it louder and longer. This has the unfortunate effect in English of making a short i sound like a long E, as I mentioned above, but it is at least logical.

Unfortunately, what you both see and get in Georgian are ridiculous consonant conglomerations that linguists try to pass off as “harmonic clusters.” There’s nothing harmonic about dgv, where g is some sort of “vibration at the back of the vocal chords, sort of like a French r.” წკვ is likewise hardly harmonic, being the sound of an un-aspirated ts’, followed by an un-aspirated k,’ and a v that might become w if the speaker is especially lucky. and ჭყვ? Really? An un-aspirated tch with the sound of a “postvelar glottolized stop; sometimes affrictive.” And a v.

EDIT: Someone has written an academic article (thesis? These sorts of things usually are) on “harmonic clusters.” From the abstract:

 Among the possible combinations are a series of two-member clusters which are argued to behave phonologically as single segments (Tschenkeli 1958, Vogt 1958, 1971, Aronson 1982, 1991, Deprez 1988 and others). They are known as ‘harmonic’ clusters, because the laryngeal quality is constant across the cluster. Its two members are both voiced ([dg bg dγ bγ]), both aspirated ([thkh tshkh thχ tshχ]) or both ejective ([t’k’ ts’k’ p’k’ t’q’ ts’q’]). They can occur either word-initially or in word-medial position. Harmonic clusters do not contrast with identical sequences of segments, except for sequences formed at the junction of two words. There is no evidence that across word boundaries harmonic clusters are derived by some sort of restructuring.

The purpose of the present study is to review the phonological arguments brought in the literature in favour of treating harmonic clusters as single segments, and to look for acoustic evidence that would motivate the distinction made between harmonic clusters behaving as single segments, on the one hand, and simple sequences of consonants, on the other hand.

And, according to Wikipedia, an eight consonant cluster word ɡvbrdɣvnis, meaning “he’s plucking us.” I’m only saved by the utter lack of probability that I would ever have cause to say that in English, let alone in Georgian. It would make a terriffic language assignment for more advanced students: write a story using the word ɡvbrdɣvnis, and then deliver it orally.


One thought on “The Great Vowel Shift

  1. Pingback: Language, cont. « Sticky Green Leaves

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