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Middle English and its Great Vowel Shift

1      Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

2      The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

3      And bathed every veyne in swich licour

4      Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Folio from the Canterbury Tales from www.medievalists.net

These are the first four lines of the Canterbury Tales, a collection of poems by English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, written from 1387-1400. Generally recognized as his magnum opus, it is a staple of Middle English literature. It is additionally a wonderful example of how English has changed throughout time because although one may be able to comprehend the general idea, one is also able to see the glaring differences. Middle English was born out of the Norman Conquest of 1066, a military invasion and occupation of England by numerous French and Norman forces led by William the Conqueror. These forces began to integrate both themselves and the usage of Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Old French, into England. Steadily, this transformed Old English into Middle English and this change was met with great changes pertaining to its grammar, structure, and orthography.

www.cambridge.org

Although there were several changes made to the language, one of the most influential of them was the Great Vowel Shift. The term was first coined by Anglicist Otto Jespersen and although why the change occurred is of much speculation, it is known that it refers to the event from the 15th to 18th centuries in which the phonology of the long vowels was changed such that they were pronounced higher in the mouth (facweb.furman.edu). This changed the orthography of the language and led to a grand change in pronunciation of such vowels. 

Effectively, language is a tool meant for people to communicate rather than one to institutionalize. Whether it be foreign or native, the learning of a language’s history does not have to be seen as purely for educational reasons. Understanding how the world’s most common lingua-franca has evolved over centuries and learning about what Modern English lacks in comparison to its prior forms can teach us more about linguistics than we could imagine and how our language alters and sometimes even hinders how we perceive our world. To all the language enthusiasts at ACP, remember to strive for the impossible and be extraordinary! Go Knights!

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