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The Great Vowel Shift

Why Latin pronunciation confuses modern English speakers.


I can say to you that Latin vowels are pronounced just as they are written, but you probably still won't know how to pronounce them since you probably think that applies to English. We may not think about it much after we learned to read and spell, but English is not spelled as consistently and predictably as it might be. For example, if I say the sound of the "a" in the word "back" is different from the sound of the "a" in the word "ward", you may have to think about it. There would not be that distinction in the Latin "a". Even if you can feel that one of the a-vowels is pronounced further back in the mouth, there are still items about English that you may not be aware of unless you have studied Romance languages. Take the French alphabet. How do you pronounce the ninth letter (I)? Not like the English letter I at all, but more like the English letter E. That's because English has experienced a vowel shift so dramatic it is called the Great Vowel Shift (GVS).

Around the time we started speaking modern English -- the time of Shakespeare -- English underwent a dramatic change known as the Great Vowel Shift that was partly responsible for our odd, unintuitive English spelling.

Prior to the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, English speakers pronounced the vowels about the same as other speakers, and not too differently from the way the Romans would have pronounced Latin. That's probably how English speakers in, say, Chaucer's time, would have pronounced their vowels.

The Great Vowel Shift affected only the long (or "tense") vowels. The short vowels were not affected. This is the general process, here used to explain the pronunciation of Latin to English-speakers. It is not intended to be an adequate linguistic analysis of the GVS.

Orthographically, long vowels in English are often marked

  • by being repeated (e.g. "feet", "feel," "tooth") or
  • by having an "e" at the end of the word that, our teachers tell us, make the preceding vowel long (e.g., "like", "came", "home").

Vowels are pronounced in different areas of the mouth. If you hold your chin while going through the vowel sounds, you'll notice your chin rises and falls. When your chin is up, you're pronouncing high vowels and when you're chin is as far down as it goes in vowel pronunciation, you're pronouncing an "a", the low vowel. Vowels are often pronounced more in the front or back of your mouth.

High vowels: /i/ /u/
Mid vowels: /e/ /o/
Low vowel: /a/
Back vowels: /u/ /o/
When the Great Vowel Shift took place, the vowels rose upward, pushing the next higher vowel into the slot above. The vowels on top had no higher place to go and so became diphthongs. The front vowels were one chain pushing upwards, and the back vowels were another. What was written as an "e" was pronounced like a modern long "a" before the shift. When it moved up it came to be pronounced like a modern long "e" or a French or Roman "i". An old "i" became a diphthong [aj] as in "high". "O" became "u" as in the word "moon", which must have previously been pronounced something like our word "moan."

Front vowel chain of the Great Vowel Shift
/long a/-->/long e/-->/long i/--/aj/
Back vowel chain of the Great Vowel Shift
/long o/ -->/long u/ -->/aw/

So, if you see the letter "i" in a Latin word, remember it's not the Romans who pronounced the vowels oddly. We do -- now, and thanks to the GVS. A Latin "i" is pronounced as our "i" used to be.

Also see these articles on words and word derivations:

  • Latin Words in English I
    English has lots of words of Latin origin. Some of these words are changed to make them more like other English words -- mostly by changing the ending (e.g., 'office' from the Latin officium), but other Latin words are kept intact in English. Of these words, there are some that remain unfamiliar and are generally italicized to show that they are foreign, but there are others that are used with nothing to set them apart as imported from Latin. Here are some such words and abbreviations.
  • Latin Words in English II
    (See preceding.)
  • On Translating Latin Into English
    Whether you want to translate a short English phrase into Latin or a Latin phrase into English, you can not just plug the words into a dictionary and expect an accurate result. You can't with most modern languages, but the lack of a one-to-one correspondence is even greater for Latin and English.
  • Latin Religious Words in English
    If you want to say that the prospects are bleak, you could say "it doesn't augur well." Augur is used as a verb in this English sentence, with no particular religious connotation. In ancient Rome, an augur was a religious figure who observed natural phenomena, like the presence and location to left or right of birds, to determine whether the prospects were good or bad for a proposed venture. Find out about more such words.

Index of Quick Tips on Latin Verbs

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