[ExI] Genes and the Great Vowel Shift

Lee Corbin lcorbin at rawbw.com
Sun Feb 24 18:20:31 UTC 2008

BillK wrote

> Invasions, migrations and the printing press.
> Oh - you want more detail??

Well, you did list a lot of influences that affected the evolution of
English, but as Keith said, it really does continue to be a mystery.
Here are just two paragraphs of the wikipedia article on "Great Vowel Shift":
     The surprising speed and the exact cause of the shift are continuing mysteries in linguistics and cultural history, but some 
theories attach the cause to the mass immigration to South East England after the Black Death, where the difference in accents led 
to certain groups modifying their speech to allow for a standard pronunciation of vowel sounds. The different dialects and the rise 
of a standardised middle class in London led to changes in pronunciation, which continued to spread out from London.

     The sudden social mobility after the Black Death may have caused the shift, with people from lower levels in society moving to 
higher levels (the pandemic hit the aristocracy too). Another explanation highlights the language of the ruling class-the medieval 
aristocracy had spoken French, but by the early fifteenth century they were using English. This may have caused a change to the 
"prestige accent" of English, either by making pronunciation more French in style, or by changing it in some other way, perhaps by 
hypercorrection to something thought to be "more English" (England was at war with France for much of this period). Another 
influence may have been the great political and social upheavals of the fifteenth century, which were largely contemporaneous with 
the Great Vowel Shift.

So---theories, theories.

PJ adds:

> In New Zealand, I could easily differentiate people
> raised on the North vs. the South Island.

Oh, I love factoids like that. You wouldn't happen to
know if to people raised in China, Japanese people
look Japanese?  :-)

> Maybe the gene theory comes into play more here?
> (isolation x time) + history/influences + genetics = dialect?

But as I asked Keith, we would still need to postulate
a plausible mechanism. Okay---sure---people who
speak more fashionably can have more offspring, but
it would have to be linked to something else, otherwise
it's nothing more than meme infestation.


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