Why Vowel Shifts?

[Ed. Note:  I’m on vacation till Saturday, July 30th, so I’m publishing some old posts that I drafted but never published for various reasons.  Some of these might be a little rough around the edges.  Also note that it may be difficult for me to respond to comments.  But feel to discuss!]

I frequently use the term “vowel shift” on this site. I’d like to take a moment to explain what a vowel shift is, and more importantly, why there are so many of them in the English language.

If you’re just joining us, a vowel shift happens when the vowel sounds of a particular accent (or language) move from one part of the vowel space to another. It’s best to look at an example: In Chicago and other Great Lakes cities, the vowel in pot moves toward the vowel in pat. The pat vowel, in turn, moves toward the vowel in pet. Hence these vowels “shift” from one position to another.

English has many such vowel shifts. The language you’re currently reading (Modern English) wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a shift that occured hundreds of years ago (The Great Vowel Shift). In recent centuries, we’ve seen the London Vowel Shift, the Australian/New Zealand Vowel Shift, the Northern Cities (Great Lakes) Vowel Shift, the American Southern shift, the Canadian shift, and the California shift.

So why all the shifts? What is it about English that creates this game of linguistic musical chairs?

Let’s start off by stating the obvious: English has a lot of vowels. A lot of vowels. This partially explains why English vowels might shift radically in a generation, while Spanish vowels have barely budged for hundreds of years.

To use a silly metaphor, imagine that Spanish is a train car with only five riders, while English is a car packed with thirteen people. The five people in the “Spanish” car are likely to remain put for the entire journey (there’s so much room!) The thirteen people in the “English” car, however, tend to jostle around, move to less crowded parts of the train, make room for people as the enter, etc. Simply put, they’re more likely to shift.

But how do particular vowel shifts begin in the first place? What gets the ball rolling?

There are two ways a vowel shift can be described. The first is as a “pull chain.” Extending the above metaphor, imagine that a passenger on our crowded car train notices an open space a few feet down, so he moves. A second rider moves into the empty space that the first passenger left behind, then another person moves into passenger #3’s space. And so on and so forth.

Turning again to the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, this would mean that the vowel in “pet” moves first. Next the vowel in “pat” shifts into the empty space left behind by “pet,” then “pot” moves to the empty space left by “pat.”

A “push chain,” on the other hand, means the opposite: turning again to our “train,” this means an obnoxious train rider pushes another rider out of the way, that rider stumbles and pushes a third person out of the way as well. In real terms, this means that “pot” moves toward the vowel in “pat,” pushing it toward the vowel in “pet.”

But what precipitates these shifts? That’s a far greyer area. For some vowel shifts, we don’t even know whether they’re a “push chain” or a “pull chain” to begin with, much less the cultural factors that caused them. I’ve heard any number of explanations for why vowel shifts happen. The Northern Cities Vowel Shift is often attributed to 19th-century immigrant groups; the Canadian vowel shift sometimes blamed on Scottish influence. Theories abound.

I don’t have many hypotheses myself. Such processes often occur for reasons too complex to be pinned down. But it’s fun to speculate. Heard any theories for how vowel shifts start?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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16 Responses to Why Vowel Shifts?

  1. dw says:

    Shifts start in the same way that language change always starts — when children learning a language construct a phonology that differs slightly from that of the preceding generation.

    The more interesting question is why such a change becomes a shift rather than, say, a merger. I think Wells captures it pretty well in his relatively brief discussion in “Accents of English, vol. i”: there is a conflict between the “principle of least effort” (which would tend to lead to mergers) and the “necessity to preserve intelligibility” (which tends towards to the preservation of contrasts, and thus leads to shifts).

    [comment resubmitted with HTML links removed to avoid moderation while trawicks is on vacation]

    • Tim D says:

      “Shifts start in the same way that language change always starts — when children learning a language construct a phonology that differs slightly from that of the preceding generation.”

      Okay, but why? 🙂

      “…I think Wells captures it pretty well in his relatively brief discussion in ‘Accents of English, vol. i’…”

      Are you Wells, by the way? 🙂

      • dw says:

        [why does language change?]…

        A child’s native language is built up from scratch. Contrary to popular wisdom, no one teaches children their native language; they must analyze the speech of people around them and construct their own individual grammar of the language. A grammar, in linguistic parlance, is a body of knowledge consisting of unconscious rules and principles; it may be conceived as the invisible underlying machinery used to produce and comprehend linguistic utterances in a particular language. No one has direct access to anyone else’s grammar, only to speech — the output of a grammar; because of this the new grammar that the child constructs may well turn out to be subtly different from the grammars of his or her parents and other people in the child’s environment“.

        Fortson, “Indo-European language and culture”, p. 4.

        (Bear in mind that “grammar” here includes phonology. Bolding added).

        • Tim D says:

          “(Bear in mind that “grammar” here includes phonology. Bolding added).”

          Do you mean a “mental grammar”? I think that’s what we called it when I took a linguistics course.

      • dw says:

        Are you Wells, by the way? 🙂

        No. Just an amateur.

        • Tim D says:

          Well I had to ask, because this is the 30th time you’ve mentioned a work of his and your name has a “w” in it, so…what was I supposed to think? Don’t get me wrong though, I would probably mention my works (books, essays, etc.) to people all the time and talk about how great they were if I had any works 🙂

      • AW says:

        John Wells has his own blog at http://phonetic-blog.blogspot.com/

        And no, I’m not him either.

        • Tim D says:

          Yes, I’m well aware of that. But what does that have to do with anything?

        • Ellen K. says:

          If you were aware the John Wells has his own blog, and thus precumably aware that his name first name is John, why were you wondering if DW is John Wells? John does not begin with a D.

        • Ellen K. says:

          And why oh why did I not proofread that before posting it. 🙂

        • Tim D says:

          Is there a rule against leaving comments on other people’s blogs if you have your own blog? “Precumably” there isn’t one. By the way, my name isn’t actually Tim D either. People don’t always use their real names on the Internet. *Gasps from the crowd*

        • Ellen K. says:

          Well, you did indicate that the W in “dw” is part of why you asked. I took you at your word in that. Thus my question. I don’t see why having one same initial, but not two, is any more significant than having none.

  2. Lauren says:

    I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame the children – kids are remarkably conservative when acquiring a phonological inventory (if not in their production then at least in perception).

    I haven’t heard anyone give a fulling convincing explanation of vowel shift before – although I imagine that it’s something that has different motivations in each situation. I do love the train analogy though!

  3. Matthew says:

    Language is a virus. Vowel shifts are mutant genes.

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