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What was the Great Vowel Shift?

The Great Vowel Shift was a massive but gradual change affecting the sound of long vowels of English from the 12th -18th centuries, but mainly in the 15th and 16th centuries at the very end of the Middle English period. The long vowels of Middle English shifted upwards, meaning that a vowel that used to be pronounced in one place in the mouth would be pronounced higher up in the mouth in Modern English. Originally, the long vowels were essentially the same as those found in Latin. However, during the Great Vowel Shift, the two highest long vowels became diphthongs and the other five underwent an increase in tongue height and one of them came to the front. The low- and mid-long vowels were raised, (ä) and () becoming () and (), for example, while the high long vowels () and () became the diphthongs () and (ou). The Great Vowel Shift changed the whole vowel system of British English. Diphthongization of high front /i:/ (the ee sound in meet) and high back /u:/ (as in fool) led to instability in the other five long vowels. As /i:/ and /u:/ became diphthongized to /ai/ (as in bide) and /au/ (as in house), respectively, so the next highest vowels, /e:/ (heard in the first part of the diphthong in name) and /o:/ (heard in the first part of the diphthong in home), moved up to take their places, and so on. The traditional view is that the series of changes was connected, a move in one of the vowels causing a move in another, with each vowel keeping its distance from its neighbor. There is a long-standing dispute over which vowel moved first but it is agreed that the Great Vowel Shift has had long-term implications for spelling and reading. The extensive change in the pronunciation of vowels made spelling untidy for centuries. In the 17th century, during the English Civil War, compositors adopted fixed spellings for practical reasons, and in the 18th century uniformity became more fashionable. By the time of Samuel Johnson's and Noah Webster's great dictionaries, orthography had stabilized and has remained so since.

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