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English "long e" in "met" had the value of Latin "e" (and
sounded like Modern English "mate" [/e/] in the International Phonetic Alphabet,
IPA]). It had much the same value as written long e has in most modern European languages.
To many it seemed that the pronunciation of English had moved so far from its visual
representation that a new alphabet was needed, and in the early sixteenth century we had
the first attempts to "reform" English spellings, a movement still active today.
Thomas Hart went so far as to devise a new phonetic alphabet to remedy what he considered
a fatal flaw in our system of language. (His alphabet and the work of other language
reformers provides us with our best evidence for pronunciation of English in his time). To
understand how English changed (not why; no one knows) one must first note that vowels are
articulated in particular parts of the mouth; we make the sound in Modern English
"deep" [/dip/] with our tongue forward and high in the mouth and the sound in
Modern Enlish "boat" [/bot/] with our tongue lowered and drawn toward the back
of the mouth. Say "ee" (or "beet") and "o" (or
"boat") in succession and you may be able to feel the movement of your tongue
from front to back.
This chart roughly represents the places where the "long vowels" are
|HIGH||/i:/ [Modern "big"]||.||/u:/ [Modern "boot"]|
|MID||/e:/ [Modern "beg"||.||/o:/ [Modern "boat"]|
|LOW||/©¡:/ [Modern "bag"]||/a:/ [Modern "father"]||"au" [Modern "bought"]|
[The "au" representing the low back vowel above is there because I cannot
find a way to print a backward c, the usual means of representing this sound.]
The Great Vowel shift invloved a regular movement of the places of articulation: The
front vowels each moved up a notch, except for /i:/, which formed a dipthong. Likewise the
back vowels moved up, except for /u:/, which formed another dipthong:
|Position||.||Middle English||Modern English|
|FRONT VOWELS||HIGH||/i:/||---> /ai/|
|.||MID (CLOSED)||/e:/||---> /i:/|
|.||LOW (OPEN)||/©¡:/||---> /e:/ (later --> /i:/)|
|CENTRAL VOWEL||LOW||/a:/||---> /e:/|
|BACK VOWELS||HIGH||/u:/||---> /au/|
|.||MID (CLOSED)||/o:/||---> /u:/|
|.||LOW (OPEN)||"ou"||---> /o:/|
Note that the change affects only long, stressed vowels. The "y" in Middle
Enghlish "my" was affected because it has primary stress, and we say /mai/; the
"y" in a word like "only" was not affected (the primary stress is on
thge first syllable and -ly lacks stress, so we say /li:/, making the -ly of
"only" rime with "see."
The change is not as neat as is shown; /©¡:/ ("open e," as it is called in
most discussions) did not complete the movement from /©¡:/ to /e:/ to /i:/ (contrast Mod.
Eng. "break" and "beak"). Moreover, knowing when Middle English
"e" represents /©¡:/ and when "ou" (spelled o) is the open vowel
depends on knowing the eymology of the words. Modern spellings offer a clue: as a general
rule, where modern English uses "ea" (as in "read") or "oa"
(as in loaf), the Middle English equivalent was the open sound.
There are other, more exact but more complex, ways of representing the change.
Nevertheless the following chart will provide a guide to the pronunciation of Chaucer's
|Middle English||Sounds like Modern|
|y,i "myne, sight"||"meet"|
|e, ee "me, meet, mete" (close e)||"beg"|
|e "begge, rede" (open e)||"bag"|
|a, aa "mate, maat"||"father"|
|u, ou "hus, hous"||"boot"|
|o, oo "bote, boot" (close o)||"boat"|
|o "lof" /o (open o)||"bought"|
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