The Great Vowel Shift

Few things in my life have brought me more joy than…the Beatles. The soundtrack to Hard Day’s Night is my favorite album, and I’ve watched the movie at least a dozen times.

Today I’m going to talk about something that has always puzzled me about Hard Day’s Night: the way the Fab Four pronounce the word book. It rhymes with look and cook, right? But in Hard Day’s Night, book sounds a lot like boot.

The reason seems to be the Great Vowel Shift that started in the 14th century. All our English vowels changed. I like this explanation from Richard Watson Todd’s book Much Ado about English:

Prior to the GVS, which took place over around 200 years, Chaucer rhymed food, good and blood (sounding similar to goad). With Shakespeare, after the GVS, the three words still rhymed, although by that time all of them rhymed with food. More recently, good and blood have independently shifted their pronunciations again.

But somehow the GVS skipped Liverpool, home of the Beatles. I think the GVS deserves some attention, for three reasons. First, it helps explain why English spelling and pronunciation are so weird.

Last week my friend William Vietinghoff asked why bone and done are pronounced differently. Very likely the Great Vowel Shift was responsible. And what about done and dun? Pronunciations of many English words changed, but spelling didn’t – and that opened the door to all kinds of inconsistencies.

The Great Vowel Shift also challenges some common assumptions we make about good and bad English. Many people think that a) British English is better than American English and b) the English of bygone years was better than the version we use today.

The GVS puts the lie to those notions. First, “British English” is a vast oversimplification. The English spoken in Liverpool is different from what you’ll hear in Yorkshire, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Cornwall, and London. (American English is just as diverse: you’ll hear different versions in Boston, New York City, Chicago, and Birmingham.)

Things get even more complicated if you’re a member of the “older is better” school. The Four Lads from Liverpool are clearly using a more authentic version of English than what you’d hear in Buckingham Palace. Does anyone really want to chastise the Queen about her pronunciations?

An understanding of the GVS can also help us understand and accept changes in English today. Take the word flourish, for example. I make the first syllable sound a little like “flood.” But just this morning I heard a friend pronounce it like “floorish” – and he’s not the only one.

I know several women named Dawn – but everybody calls them Don. (I still pronounce the aw sound like “broad,” but I’m in the minority.)

We’re having our own Great Vowel Shift, right now. Three hundred years from now, linguistics scholars may be analyzing pronunciations in Roma and A Star Is Born to track changes in English during the twenty-first century. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Hands holding the vowel letters of the English alphabet



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