English Literature and the GVS

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As literary scholars, we cannot remind ourselves too often that literature is made of language; our understanding of texts is limited by our understanding of the language in which the author wrote. As linguists studying the history of the English language, we are always mindful that we are dependent on written evidence to help us understand past forms of the language. 

The GVS is a particularly important linguistic change for students of literature to understand because not only did it effect a massive change in the language, it did so at a time when people were increasingly interested in standardizing English. Once upon a time, people spelled words the way they sounded; those written manifestations of the language are very helpful to the historical linguist. But once people started standardizing the spelling of words, the written language no longer kept up with the natural and inevitable changes in pronunciation. Standardization is a problem for the linguist trying to understand phonology, because she can no longer look to spelling as evidence for phonological change.

Fortunately, there are ways of getting around this problem: one of them is to look at rhymes and wordplay to figure out how an author would pronounce a word. In this way, literature can be particularly useful to the linguist. Conversely, the things that linguists can tell us about the language can illuminate passages that don't make sense or "sound funny" to the modern reader. 

Copyleft © Melinda J. Menzer 2000