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Middle English e-raising: a prelude to the Great Vowel Shift.


The paper discusses the early i-/y-spellings which may indicate the narrowing of the long mid close vowel [e: > i:] even before the 15th century, a date generally considered the initial stage of the Great Vowel Shift. The change, especially round before [r], with only a few examples in other contexts, shows a pattern typical of lexical diffusion. As regards regional distribution, the early raising was in all probability initiated in the non-Western areas of England, most of the relevant evidence coming from Eastern and Northern dialects.


1. Early e-raisings in English

It is common knowledge that the raising of the long mid-front vowel [e:] to [i:], as in green, meet, tree, etc., is part of a sequence of changes known as the Great Vowel Shift. According to Jordan's (1925 [1974]) and Luick's (1940) classic studies of English phonology, e- and o-raising as well as the remaining three changes (a-raising, i-/u-diphthongisation) took place in the 15th century. However, from the very beginning such dating has been contested by historical linguists who adduced instances of spellings indicating a raised pronunciation of the vowel. Especially frequent proved to bu i-spellings for the earlier e-spellings reflecting long close [e:]. For example, in Layamon's Brut (c. 1200; MS Cott. Calig. A ix) one tan find forms like spiche (OE sp(r)eche 'speech') or sichinde (present participle of OE secan 'seek'). It is even more surprising that the spelling -hydan for -hedan 'heed' occurs as early as Old English (a metrical paraphrase of Psalm LV (LVI), v. 6 (7); cf. Malone 1930).

Quite numerous are forms with the early narrowing in Sir Ferumbras, a metrical romance representing the Southwestern dialect of Devonshire (1380; MS Ashmole 33, Bodleian Library). Among others, the text contains rhymes like me : companee, with a reverse spelling which may testify to the raising of the long close vowel le:]. On the other hand, the early rhymes adduced in Prins's (1942a, 1942b) two well-known articles cannot be treated as the evidence of early narrowing because of the writer's improper interpretation of the spelling evidence (cf. Ikegami 1997).

However, other Old English forms reflecting e-raising are quite numerous. It is sufficient to quote fyt (OE fet; Cart. Sax. II 134, 27), hir (OE her; Lindisfarne Gosp., Mark), slypton (preterite plural of slepan 'sleep'; Psalm LXXV, 6) or scip (OE scep 'sheep'; Lindisfarne Gosp., Matth. 12, 12). All these instances testify to an Old English and Early Middle English tendency to raise long close [e:]. But Malone (1930) rejects a hypothesis of the early occurrence of the Great Vowel Shift, stating that occasional early i-forms should be explained not "as anticipations of the vowel-shift of the fifteenth century, but as survivals of a pronunciation which was more or less current in OE."

Another type of e-raising tan be identified in Southeastern England, i.e. in Kent, where forms like bye[thorn] (3sg present of OE beo[thorn] 'be'), dyevel (OE deofol 'devil') were standard spellings. However, such spellings seem to have represented long close [e:] rather than long [i:], if not diphthongs, and their interpretation remains an open issue.

The author of the present study does not consider the above examples as illustrations of the initial stage of the Great Vowel Shift simply because the effects of these changes were short-lived. None of the words with spellings modified to <i/y> managed to survive into Late Middle English, and none of them participated in the 15th century diphthongization [i:] > [ii], a part of the Great Vowel Shift.

2. The study

The corpus of the present study only includes instances of long close [e:] in words where the vowel was raised to [i:] early enough to take part in the diphthongisation to [ii]. The data which come from the OED and the MED include the following items:

1) (a) acquire (OF acquerre), choir/quire (OF quer), entire (AN enter), friar (OF frere), inquire/enquire 'inquiry' (OF enquerre), quire (OF quaer), require (OF requer-), squire (OF esquier), (n)umpire (OF noumper), brier/briar (OE A brer); (b) aisle (OF ele), contrive (OF contreuve), die (Pl. dice) (OF de, Pl. des);

Because the verb tire (OE teorian) had an Old English variant with long [i:] we cannot be sure whether Middle English i-forms of the verb reflect that variant with e-raising or whether they are continuations of the original [i:]. Consequently, the verb is not included in the statistics.

The available literature devotes some, although limited, space to the description of the change. For instance, Wright and Wright (1924: 80) believe that the early e-raising in two English words (briar, tire) and in the loanwords friar, quire, umpire (ME noumpere) occurred "in the early part of the fifteenth century", while acquire, inquire, require are said to have obtained long [i:] due to the influence of the corresponding Latin source words with long [i:] in the root. In one word (ME contrive) long [i:] developed in the context of the preceding liquid [r]. But although the raising is most frequent before [r], one must agree with Dobson (1968: 655) who rejects the hypothesis of that change being combinative. The narrowed vowel may have originated in dialects where ME [[epsilon]:] "tended to be raised to e, and would then be due to an unconscious attempt to preserve the distinction" between ME [[epsilon]:] and ME [i:] even at the cost of losing the distinction between ME [e:] and ME [i:]. Finally, Luick's (1940: 557-559) dating the change in the plural dice a century earlier than the change in the remaining items is not supported by any convincing data.

The treatment of e-raising as originating in the Southeast (Flasdieck 1924) is hot fully compatible with Dobson's hypothesis of the process being an East and Northern development; cf. the poems King Alisaunder (Essex, 14c), Gamelyn (East Midland, 14c) and Paston Letters (East Midland, 15c), as well as York Plays (North, 15c). Curiously, Flasdieck (1924) claires that such raising was confined to parts of the Southeast ("in Teilen des sudostlichen England"), i.e. Kent. However, there is only scant evidence of such a process in Kent, a dialect whose impact on the remaining regional variants was negligible.

Dobson's (1968: 656) explanation of the narrowing of long close [e:] is determined sociolinguistically as he maintained that the new raised pronunciation reflected a conscious effort of the educated speakers of English to render French very tense long close [e:], the result being an i-like vowel in that set of words. Ingenious as it is, this explanation does hot make it clear why other words with French [e:] failed to become raised to approximate long [i:]. Luick's examples include rather late forms, such as contrive (York Plays) and fryers 'friars' (Paston Letters), both from the late 14th or the 15th century.

To move beyond Middle Engish, the raised vowel in the items in (1) is reflected in Shakespeare's rhymes like live : contrive (Julius Caesar 2.3.15-16), survive : contrive (The Rape of Lucrece 204-206), dice : nice (Love's Labour's Lost 5.2.232-233, 325-326). However, the failure of narrowing is still reflected in Shakespeare's spellings like umper (Henry the Sixth, 1, 4.1.51) and umpeere (Romeo and Juliet 4.1.63), where the spelling <e(e)> must have corresponded to long close [e:] (cf. Cercignani 1981: 256-257).

3. Early e-raising: The time dimension

The earliest evidence of e-raising is an isolated form of the verb tire round in the Corpus Glossary (8th century; c725); cf.:

2) c725 Corpus Gloss. (O.E.T.) 668 Desisse, tiorade [c1200 Trin. Coll. Hom. 29 Vnwreste pu best zef pu wreche ne secst.. zief mihte pe ne atiere[eth].]

For reasons presented above, the Old Mercian form of the verb tire, with <io> in the Corpus Glossary (amended c1050 to teorode in Wr.-Wulcker 385/9), and a Middle English form atiered in the Trinity College Homilies do not seem to be reliable as they may have represented a variant with [i:]. The list in (3) below contains instances of the earliest forms with e-raising, followed by the date, source, Middle English forms of the word, the county and dialect:

[tire c725/ Corpus Glossary tiorade Mercia]
 c1200 Trin. Coll. Horn. 29 atiered Huntington
squire c1290 Beket 2427 (S. Eng. squiers Gloucestershire
 Leg. 176) (wSW)
dice cl300 King Alisaunder 3297 dys Shropshire
require cl340 Gaw. & Gr. Knt. require Lancashire
 1056 (nWM)
friar cl370 Wyclif Agst. Begg. friars Oxfordshire
 Friers (1608) 30 (nSW)
inquire cl380 Wyclif Wks. enquyred Oxfordshire
 (1880) 278 (nSW)
contrive 1393 Gower Conf, III. 90 contrive London (sEM)
umpire 1424 Paston Lett. I. 14 nounpier Norfolk (eEM)
aisle 1428 R. Test. Eb. II. 665 yle Yorkshire (N)
brier c1430 Lydgate Min. Poems bryer London (sEM)
 (Percy Soc.) 114
choir/ 1480 Caxton Chron. Eng. quyre London (sEM)
quire ccli. 322
 Catholicon Angl
entire 1483 Caxton Cato I j entyrly
acquire 1483 Naval Acc. Hen. acquyre London (sEM)
 VII 128, j
quire 1497 reame & vij quires

The above listing may help reveal several interesting facts. First of all it can be shown that e-raising evidently took place in the 14th century at the latest because roughly one half of the above words exhibit the close vowel [i:] before the year 1400. Second, the distribution of spellings in time offers a characteristic pattern of lexical diffusion where words affected earlier become the input to the Great Vowel Shift more readily than others. The chronology of the change affecting particular items presented in the comprehensive statistical list (4) is split into segments corresponding to the four crucial centuries (12th-15th centuries). Words from the OED are arranged chronologically according to the date of the first occurrence of a form exhibiting raising. The first number refers to forms with raising, the second, to forms without raising (the forms of tire are disregarded):

 1101-1200 1201-1300 1301-1400 1401-1500

squire 7 : 0 11 : 1 9 : 1
dice 7 : 5 20 : 2
require 4 : 5 17 : 8
friar 0 : 4 6 : 7 4 : 7
inquire 0 : 4 0 : 4 5 : 7
contrive 3 : 14 2 : 7
umpire 0 : 2 1 : 9
aisle 0 : 2 5 : 4
brier 0 : 2 0 : 9 1 : 3
choir/quire 0 : 3 0 : 8 2 : 2
entire 0 : 1 0 : 1 0 : 1 1 : 19
acquire 4 : 2
quire 0 : 2 0 : 2 1 : 6

The above table offers satisfactory evidence concerning the emergence of forms of words with spellings indicating e-raising. It is evident from the adduced data that the process in question must have affected first of all the noun squire whose forms with non-raised le:] are practically missing, the total ratio for the whole period under investigation being 27 : 2. Also spectacular is an abrupt emergence of the numerous forms of the noun die/dice with the total ratio 27 : 7 in the period of two hundred years (1300-1500). Less rapid was the raising in the verb require, which exhibits the proportion 21 : 13. Other words, except acquire (with late raising; ratio 4 : 2), failed to produce more variants with raising than without raising, especially resistant to the change being the adjective entire with the ratio 1 : 21, which makes one wonder how the vowel in that word managed to be captured by the Great Vowel Shift diphthongization rule. It seems that such specific distribution of the change involving affected and unaffected words is yet another proof in support of the validity of the theory of lexical diffusion.

4. Early e-raising: The space dimension

The distribution of forms with e-raising in dialects offers few surprises, but some findings may be considered interesting. Apart from Kentish, which is not discussed here for the scarcity of relevant data, the change seems to have left its imprint on all other dialects. The review begins with the presentation of forms from the North. The table contains the data reflecting the presence and absence of a raised vowel in particular words; cf.:
5) squire 4 : 0
 dice 4 : 0
 require 3 : 4
 friar 0 : 3
 inquire 1 : 3
 contrive 2 : 3
 aisle 3 : 0
 brier 0 : 3
 choir/quire 0 : 1
 entire 0 : 1
 acquire 0 : 1
 quire 0 : 1

 Total 17 : 20

Considering the proportion 17 : 20 it can be stated that Northern forms with and without e-raising show a similar distribution. If the forms of tire are included (5 : 1) the balance would have been almost perfect. Curiously, all instances of squire are round in the Cursor Mundi (14c), which also contains single occurrences of enquere and brere with [e:] retained, while the forms with [i:] of aisle chiefly belong to a set of documents from Yorkshire (vie, ile, ylle in Reg. Test. Ebor of late 14th-early 16th century). The Poems of a Scottish writer Dunbar's (late 15th-early 16th century) chiefly show raised forms (5 : 1). In sure, the Northern dialect can be said to have exhibited a moderate tendency towards adopting e-raising.

The East Midland dialect shows the following distribution of forms with and without e-raising:
(6) squire 9 : 0
 dice 13 : 4
 require 10 : 7
 friar 3 : 5
 inquire 2 : 1
 contrive 1 : 4
 aisle 1 : 0
 brier 1 : 4
 choir/quire 1 : 1
 entire 0 : 10
 acquire 4 : 2
 quire 0 : 4

 Total 48 : 51

Like in the North, the total figures relevant to the raised and the non-raised forms are roughly the same. But one cannot fail to observe a characteristic pattern of the change distribution in particular words. Thus, while nine forms of squire with raising are not matched by forms without raising, the opposite tan be said about entire, whose 10 non-raised forms have no raised correspondences. Also peculiar is the distribution of e-raising in the otherwise similarly sounded verbs require, inquire and acquire, of which the first and the last exhibit slightly more numerous forms with raising than without it (10 : 7 and 4 : 2 respectively). In the noun die/dice the process of raising seems to be nearing completion.

Chaucer's forms represent both types since different manuscripts of his works show variation of raised and non-raised forms. Thus, enquyrid is matched by four spellings with <e> (requered), and so is enquyrid, matched by enquire, but squire is consistently spelt with <i/y>. The high frequency noun die/dice is spelt either <dys, dyse, dise>, with raising, or <dees, deis>, without raising.

Another eminent writer from London, Lydgate (early 15th century), seemed to have preferred forms without raising, such as owmperis, requere (3), entiere (4), quayre, the only instances with raising being single occurrences of require and bryer, while the Paston Letters reveal both spelling types. Caxton's forms need a special comment since the London writer shows a marked preference for [i:] in require (5), acquire (4; plus one form without raising), but for [e:] in inquire (2),friar (2) and entire (2). In total, his 13 forms with raising are matched by 8 forms without raising. Like Caxton's, the dialect of East Midland also shows a moderate tendency to accept raised forms.

The dialect of West Midland has the following distribution of forms:
7) squire 2 : 1
 dice 2 : 1
 friar 0 : 1
 inquire 1 : 2
 contrive 1 : 11
 umpire 0 : 2
 brier 0 : 4
 entire 0 : 3
 quire 0 : 3

 Total 6 : 28

West Midland can be definitely eliminated as a potential focal area of the change. The total low number of occurrences of i/y-spellings is a clear indication of the failure of e-raising in Western England. A striking feature of the list under (7) is the high number of forms with non-raised long close [e:] in the verb contrive (controve, contreve, etc.). The two writers who developed fondness for that verb, Robert of Brunne (5) and William Langland (4), preferred to employ forms with the non-raised vowel.

The last region to be described is the Southwest, which has the following distribution of forms with and without raising:
8) squire 6 : 1
 dice 0 : 1
 require 3 : 0
 friar 2 : 4
 inquire 1 : 7
 umpire 0 : 4
 aisle 0 : 1
 brier 0 : 3
 choir/quire 0 : 7
 entire 0 : 1

 Total 12 : 29

If we consider the total figures related to forms with raised and non-raised [e:], Southwestern emerges as a region slow in introducing the new raised value of the vowel in the set of words under discussion. Like in other dialects, only squire and perhaps require, accepted e-raising, while the verb inquire failed to adopt e-raising. Characteristically, only four of the above ten words demonstrate forms with the spelling <i/y>.

As regards particular authors and texts, Robert of Gloucester definitely prefers the non-raised forms (1 : 5), including squire, which is elsewhere spelt with <i/y>. Although the non-raised forms prevail in Wyclif (7 : 11), the number of spellings with <i/y> is relatively high in his texts, although the verb inquire, showing early rising elsewhere, exhibits a 1 : 3 ratio. It is worth noting that the raised vowel in require is recorded twice in Trevisa.

Summing up, as regards e-raising the Southwest comes close to West Midland, which allows us to state that the change originated in the non-Western areas of England.

5. Conclusions

The evidence from the OED permits to formulate the following conclusions:

1) The raising of long close [e:] in words like squire, require, dite, etc discussed above began earlier than is suggested in the standard historical grammars. There is ample evidence of the process being initiated at the end of the 13th century and gathering speed in the century to follow.

2) The change shows a pattern typical of lexical diffusion. While many words show modified spellings with <i/y> very early, many words with e-raising in the standard language exhibit non-raised values as late as the 16th century.

3) The change took place and spread first of all in the non-Western areas of England. Texts from that region show roughly the same proportion of raised and non-raised forms. Spellings from West Midland and the Southwest reflecting e-raising are strikingly less numerous than those from the East and the North.

4) As regards major writers of the epoch, the most extensive evidence of e-raising tan be round in Caxton (15th century, London).


Earliest spellings with a narrow vowel (to c. 1400)
c725 Desisse, tiorade [c1050 in Wr.-Wulcker 385/9 teorode].
 Corpus Gloss. (O.E.T.) 668.
[c1200 Vnwreste [thorn]u best zef bu wreche ne secst. zief mihte
 [thorn]e ne atiered.] Trin. Coll. Hom. 29.
c1290 For-to honouri [thorn]is holi man [thorn]er cam folk
 i-novz;..Of Eorles and of barones and manie kniztes heom
 to; Of seriaunz and of squiers. Beket 2427 in S. Eng.
 Leg. 176.
1297 R. Glouc. (Rolls) 7801 He let gadery is kniztes & is
 squiers al so.
a1300 Do we wel and make a toure Wit suire [v. rr. squire,
 squyre] and scantilon sa euen, [thorn]at may reche heghur
 ban heuen. Cursor M. 2231; King ne knight, suier ne suain,
 O [thorn]am tome neuer a fote again. 6279; be squier hight
 abysai, [thorn]at to [thorn]e tent com wit daui. 7717 Son
 [thorn]e tre was heun dun, And squir on- laid and
 scantliun, [thorn]e tre was als mete and quem, Als animan
 [thorn]ar-to cuth deme. 8809.
a1300 Ber wip [thorn]e squire and schauntillun, Also bu were a
 gud Mascun. Floris & Bl. (Cambr. MS.) 326.
13.. Knyztez & swyerez comen doun [thorn]enne. Gaw. & Gr. Knt.
 824 For-[thorn]y, sir, pis enquest I require yow here,
 [thorn]at se me telle with trawpe [etc.]. 1056.
13.. [THORN]e rybaude pleie[thorn] at be dys [ed. Weber, deys]
 Swipe selde [thorn]e fole is wys.K. Alis. (MS. Laud Misc.
 622) 3297; Theo kyngis ost..amounted fyve hundrod thousand
 Knyghtis.., withowte pages and skuyeris. 6022
c1370 Capped Friars, that beene called Maisters of Divinitie.
 Wyclif Agst. Begg. Friers (1608) 30; Fryars suffren mightie
 men, fro yeare to yeare, live in avowtrie. 31.
1377 Iakke [thorn]e iogeloure..And danyel [thorn]e dys-playere.
 Langl. P. Pl. B. vi. 73.
c1380 [THORN]e blood of just Abel shal be requyrid of Cayn.
 Wyclif Serm. Sel. Wks. I. 336; Wks [thorn]ei passen grete
 men in here gaye pellure..& tatrid squeyeres & o[thorn]ere
 meyne. (1880) 148.
1382 And Saul seyde to his squyer, Drawze out thi swerd.
1382 in Riley Mem. Lond. (1868) 456 Walter Begood, Squyer.
c1386 Whan that the cas required it, The commune profit koude she
 redresse. Chaucer Clerk's T. 374 Thou shalt me fynde as
 Iust as is a squyre. Chaucer Sompn. T. 382 Now stood the
 lordes squier at the bord, That carf his mete. Sompn. T.
 535; Next the forseide cercle of the A. b. e., vnder the
 eros-lyne, is Marked the skale, in Maner of 2 Squyres or
 elles in Manere of laddres, c1391 Astrol. i. [section]
 121388 Les..jeues appellez coytes dyces, gettre de pere.
 Act 12 Rich. II, e. 6 [section] 1.
?c1390 Take Funges [mushrooms], and pare hem clene, and dyce hem
 Forme of Cury in Warner' s Culin. Antiq.5; Take the
 noumbles of a calf, swyne, or of shepe, parboile hem, and
 skerne [? kerue] hem to dyce. 6.
1390 Al that I may enquire and seche Of such deceipte, I telle
 it al. Gower Conf I. 176 These olde philosophres wise Of
 all this worldes erthe rounde, How large, how thicke was
 the grounde Contrived in thexperience. 1393 Conf. III. 90.
a1400 A tretowre xal countyrfe his deth to fortyfye. Cov. Myst.
 (1841) 241
a1400 50 All [thorn]e zeris of oure zouthe es zare syne passid And
 we for-traualid & terid [Dubl. MS. for-tyred]. Alexander
 1009; Enquire me nozt [thorn]at question, for I queth
 [thorn]e it neuer 1110.
e1400 No cause can I kyndely contryue bat why he schulde lose
 [thorn]us his liffe York Myst. xxx. 434.
e1400 Though it were of no vounde stone Wrought with squyre and
 scantilone. Rom. Rose 7064.
c1400 [They] were gouernet by a gome,.. A fyne squier & a fuerse,
 --Eufemius he hight. Destr. Troy 6221.


Cercignani, Fausto

1981 Shakespeare's works and Elizabethan pronunciation. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Dobson, Eric J.

1968 English pronunciation 1500-1700. (2nd edition). Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Flasdieck, Hermann M.

1924 "Ein sudost-mittelenglischer Lautwandel", Englische Studien 58: 1-23.

Ikegami, Masa

1997 "Rhyme evidence of the Great Vowel Shift" in The Ashmole Sir Ferumbras (c. 1380)", North- West Germanic Language Evolution 30: 3-19.

Jordan, Richard

1925/1974 Handbook of Middle English grammar: Phonology. [Translated and revised by Eugene J. Crook]. The Hague: Mouton,

Luick, Karl

1940 Historische Grammatik der englischer Sprache. Vol. 1-2. Leipzig: Tauchnitz. Malone, Kemp

1930 "Old Engish (ge)hydan "heed'", in: Einar Munskgaard (cd.), 4:5-54.

Munskgaard, Einar (ed.)

1930 A grammatical miscellany offered to Otto Jespersen on his 70th birthday. Copenhagen: Allen & Unwin.

Prins, A. A.

1942a "A few early examples of the Great Vowel Shift", Neophilologus 27: 134-137.

1942b "The Great Vowel Shift reconsidered", English Studies 24: 161-168.

Wright, J.--E. M. Wright

1924 An elementary historical New English grammar. London: Oxford University Press.


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Title Annotation:Linguistics
Author:Welna, Jerzy
Publication:Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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