The Vowels, They Are Changing

Superhero standing with cape waving in the wind. Illustration in comic style.

The Great Vowel Shift – it sounds like a superhero, but it’s actually a villain.

An illustration of a thief or burglar cartoon character with torch and sack


Have you ever wondered why the letter ‘i’ is called eye in English, but most other Indo-European languages call it ee. Why is the English letter ‘e’ said as ee, but elsewhere pronounced eh. This phenomenon is attributed to The Great Vowel Shift. It makes the pronunciation of English spelling very difficult.

The Great Vowel Shift was a process that took place over a period of time between Middle English and Modern English.  For indeterminate reasons, English speakers started to pronounce vowels differently. At the same time that the vowels were shifting, English spelling was being standardized. The overall result was that the way words are spelled today, reflects more accurately the vowel pronunciation of Middle English than Modern English.  However, as is typical of language change, not all words were affected.

Nonetheless, the majority of the vowel sounds in Modern English words did change.  The change is most noticeable in the front and central vowels, which are the ones we pronounce contracting our tongue at the front as opposed to contracting our tongue at the back.

On a chart representing the phonetic symbols, the placement of vowels is arranged according to jaw height and tongue location in front or back of the mouth. That is, vowel sounds are all produced with tongue contraction and jaw position.


A vowel diagram, which in phonetics is used to describe where vowels are pronounced in the mouth, shows the differences in the placement of the sounds. This vowel diagram shows three Modern English words and the corresponding phonetic symbol for the vowel sound they contain as we say the words today:


The phonetic symbol /i/ represents the long ‘e’ sound as in see.

The phonetic symbol /e/ represents that long ‘a’ sound as in say.

The phonetic symbol /ay/ represents the long ‘i’ sound as in sight.

diagram-2If you look closely at the spelling, and try to match it up with the phonetic symbol you can see where the shift has occurred.  The diagram shows how these words would have been pronounced in Middle English.

The arrows show how the pronunciation of the words has changed over time. Most English words with the same spelling-pronunciation patterns have also changed. Consider me-mine-may.  When spelling was standardized, it reflected how the words were pronounced.  Although the pronunciation changed, the spelling did not.  To make things even more confusing, most but not all word pronunciation with the same spelling changed, so we can’t just say this is representative of all English words.

Is teaching the phonetic alphabet and showing how the Great Vowel Shift has altered the pronunciation of certain vowels an effective pronunciation teaching strategy?   I have asked myself this question many times.  I teach the concept of the Great Vowel Shift because I notice that often ESL students will use the vowel pronunciation that reflects the phonetic symbol. I never really knew if transmitting this knowledge was helpful for students. Then recently I saw a Facebook post from one of my students. He had taken the following picture of my chicken scratch drawing on the board that I had used to try to describe The Great Vowel Shift.  His caption read: Now it all makes sense!


Whether or not we consider this vowel shift a superhero or villain, understanding the historical change in the pronunciation of English vowels has made a difference for at least one student recently.  It may not have endowed him with superhero power, but it has certainly made pronunciation a little easier for him.

Do you believe your students would benefit from this knowledge?  How might it be useful to them?


Hi, I’m Gwen Zeldenrust. After a brief absence from the profession, I realized that teaching is my passion and the path that my career should follow. Most of my practice has been focused on teaching ESL to adults in Ontario. In addition to that, I’ve been a trainer for an insurance company, a teaching assistant for several professors at university, taught English in Japan and Core-French at the local school board. While I’ve been teaching ESL I’ve also been working on a project which has developed organically among a group of teachers. Under the name of Language Foundations, we’ve produced a video that teaches strategies for interacting successfully in Canada. The video project has inspired in me a true passion for writing. I love being able to reach out with my thoughts, share ideas and discuss different perspectives. I think writing and teaching are very complementary!


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