The chart below shows a chain of sound changes that happened to the English language, from 1400 onwards. Although the chart was intended to describe the Great Vowel Shift, it is not accurate*, since it describes not only the GVS, but also other changes, that happened later, and also affected the English vowels, such as [oʊ̯] > [əʊ̯].

As I understand, only the changes that affected the long vowels are considered part of the GVS. What is the reason for not including the other changes in this particular shift? In general, how do linguists determine when a certain chain shift is complete?

Wikipedia's Great Vowel Shift chart

* Thank you, Aaron.

  • 2
    Wikipedia's description of the GVS is not accurate. The description at eweb.furman.edu/~mmenzer/gvs/what.htm is better -- the GVS is a chain shift affecting the long vowels. The change from [oʊ̯] to [əʊ̯] is not a part of this change.
    – Aaron
    Jun 11, 2012 at 18:33
  • Thanks, Aaron! I didn't know that. But that only shifts the problem (no pun intended). So, I completely rephrased the question to address this new understanding. Jun 11, 2012 at 23:53

1 Answer 1


We can't. In five hundred years' time maybe they'll say it's going on now, and maybe they won't.

The concept of a sound-change being "complete" makes sense only if you have in some way identified the end-point with respect to which you're defining completion.

  • Hi, Colin. I saw your answer only after I had edited the question. Maybe you could expand it so as to address the notion of "completion", how do linguists usually define it and so on. Jun 12, 2012 at 11:23
  • I agree with this version of the answer, I'm waiting to see how you edit it! :D
    – Alenanno
    Jun 12, 2012 at 13:57
  • @Otavio: I don't think linguists do define "completion". I don't think it's a technical term. If you were talking about the sounds (or any other aspect) of 17th century English, and how they got that way, then for that purpose, the point at which they reached their 17th century state would be a point of completion; but if you are talking about 21st century English it wouldn't be necessarily (though if it happened that the feature in question hadn't changed since 1700 then it would, be chance).
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 12, 2012 at 22:48
  • So, you're saying that there was no such thing as a Great Vowel Shift? Because that's precisely what I'm asking. If there was a GVS, i.e., a delimited process with beginning and end, how do linguists determine where are the boundaries? How do you identify the beginning and the end of it? Jun 13, 2012 at 13:47
  • No, I'm not saying any such thing. Just because there is no non-arbitrary start and end point doesn't mean a process hasn't happened, any more than the existence of dialect continuums means that their end-points must be the same language. Yes there was a GVS, and no it was not a delimited process with objectively determinable beginning and end. We can talk about the beginning and end points for convenience, but they are to some degree arbitrary.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 13, 2012 at 22:54

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