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Changes of Stressed Vowels in Early Old English

§ 116. Sound changes, particularly vowel changes, took place in Eng­lish at every period of history.

The development of vowels in Early OE consisted of the modifica­tion of separate vowels, and also of the modification of entire sets of vowels.

It should be borne in mind that the mechanism of all phonetic changes strictly conforms with the general pattern (see § 26). The change begins with growing variation in pronunciation, which manifests itself in the appearance of numerous allophones: after the stage of increased variation, some allophones prevail over the others and a replacement lakes place. It may result in the splitting of phonemes and their numer­ical growth, which fills in the " empty boxes" of the system or introduces new distinctive features. It may also lead to the merging of old pho­nemes, as their new prevailing allophones can fall together. Most fre­quently the change will involve both types of replacement, splitting and merging, so that we have to deal both with the rise of new phonemes and with the redistribution of new allophones among the existing pho­nemes. For the sake of brevity, the description of most changes below is restricted to the initial and final stages.

Independent Changes. Development of Monophthongs

§ 117. The PG short [a] and the long [a: ], which had arisen in West and North Germanic, underwent similar alterations in Early OE: they were fronted and, in the process of fronting, they split into several sounds.

The principal regular direction of the change — [a] > [æ ] and [a: ] > [æ: ] — is often referred to as the fronting or palatalisation of [a, a: ]. The other directions can be interpreted as positional deviations or restrictions to this trend: short [a] could change to [ɔ ] or [ā ] and long [a: ] became [o: ] before a nasal; the preservation (or, perhaps, the resto­ration) of the short [a] was caused by a back vowel in the next syllable — see the examples in Table I (sometimes [a] occurs in other positions as well, e.g. OE macian, land, NE make, land).

Table 1

Splitting of [a] and [a: ] in Early Old English

Change illustrated Examples
PG OE Other OG languages OE NE
  æ Gt pata pæ t that
    O Icel dagr dæ ʒ day
a o, ā Gt mann(a) mon man
    O Icel land land land
  a Gt magan maʒ an may
    Gt dagos daʒ as days
  æ: OHG dá r pæ r there
    OHG slá fen slæ pan sleep
  o: OHG mano mō na moon
    O Icel má nað r mō nap month

Development of Diphthongs

§ 118. The PG diphthongs (or sequences of monophthongs, see § 56) — [ei, ai, iu, eu, au] — underwent regular independent changes in Early OE; they took place in all phonetic conditions irrespective of environ­ment. The diphthongs with the i-glide were monophthongised into and [a: ], respectively; the diphthongs in -u were reflected as long diphthongs [io: ], [eo: ] and [ea: ]. (The changes are shown in Table 2.)

Ifthe sounds in PG were not diphthongs but sequences of two sepa­rate phonemes, the changes should be defined as phonologisation of vowel sequences. This will mean that these changes increased the num­ber of vowel phonemes in the language. Moreover, they introduced new distinctive features into the vowel system by setting up vowels with diphthongal glides; henceforth, monophthongs were opposed to diph­thongs.

Table 2

Old English Reflexes of Proto-Germanic Diphthongs

(or Bi-Phonemic Sequences)

Change illusirated Examples
PG OE Other OG languages OE NE
a + i a: Gt stains Gt ains stā n ā n stone one
e + i i: Gt meins[11] Gt reisan min risan mine, my rise
a + u ea: O Icel austr Gt auso Gt augo (cf. G Auge) ē ast ē are ē aʒ e east ear eye
e + u eo: Gt piudans Gt kiusan pē oden   ‘king’ choose
i + u io; Gt diups dē op, diop[12] deep

§ 119. All the changes described in § 117, 118 were interconnected. Their independence has been interpreted in different ways.

The changes may have started with the fronting of [a] (that is the change of [a] to [æ ]), which caused a similar development in the long vowels; [a: ] > [æ: ], and could also bring about the fronting of [a] in the biphonemic vowel sequence [a + u], which became [æ a: ], or more precisely [æ: ə ], with the second element weakened. This weakening as well as the monophthongisation of the sequences in [-i] may have been favoured by the heavy stress on the first sound.

According to other explanations the appearance of the long [a: ] from the sequence [a+i] may have stimulated the fronting of long

[a: ], for this latter change helped to preserve the distinction between two phonemes; cf. OE rā d (NE road)and OE rǣ d (‘advice’) which had not fallen together because while [ail became [a: ] in rā d, the original

[a: ] was narrowed to [æ: ] in the word rā d. In this case the fronting of [a: ] to [æ: ] caused a similar development in the set of short vowels;

[a] > [æ ], which reinforced the symmetrical pattern of the vowel system.

Another theory connects the transformation of the Early OE vowel system with the rise of nasalised long vowels out of short vowels before nasals and fricative consonants ([a, i, u] plus [m] or [n] plus [x, f, θ or s]), and the subsequent growth of symmetrical oppositions in the sets of long and short vowels (see § 143).

Assimilative Vowel Changes:
Breaking and Diphthongisation

§ 120. The tendency to assimilative vowel- change, characteristic of later PG and of the OG languages, accounts for many modifications of vowels in Early OE. Under the influence of succeeding and preceding consonants some Early OE monophthongs developed into diph­thongs.

If a front vowel stood before a velar consonant there developed a short glide between them, as the organs of speech prepared themselves for the transition from one sound to the other. The glide, together with the original monophthong formed a diphthong.

The front vowels [i], [e] and the newly developed [æ ], changed into diphthongs with a back glide when they stood before [h], before long (doubled) [ll] or [l] plus another consonant, and before [r] plus other consonants, e.g.: [e] > [eo] in OE deorc, NE dark. The change is known as breaking or fructure. Breaking is dated in Early OE, for in OE texts we find the process already completed; yet it must have taken place later than the vowel changes described above as the new vowel [æ ], which appeared some time during the 5th c., could be subjected to breaking under the conditions described.

Breaking produced a new set of vowels in OE — the short diphthongs [ea] and [eo]; they could enter the system as counterparts of the long [ea: ], [eo: ], which had developed from PG prototypes (§ 118).

§ 121. Breaking was unevenly spread among the OE dialects: it was more characteristic of West Saxon than of the Anglian dialects (Mercian and Northumbrian); consequently, in many words, which contain a short diphthong in West Saxon, Anglian dialects have a short monophthong, cf. WS tealde, Mercian talde (NE told).

§ 122. Diphthongisation of vowels could also be caused by preceding consonants: a glide arose after a palatal consonants as a sort of transi­tion to the succeeding vowel.

Table 3

Breaking and Diphthongisation

Conditions Change illustrated Examples
Early OE OE Other OG languages and OE dialects ws NE
Breaking   before l+l or l + other consonants æ ea Gt Merc North alls all ald eall   eald all old
h h + other consonants æ: æ e ea: ea eo OHG Gt OHG nä h ahtau fehtan nē ah eahta feohtan near eight fight
r + other consonants e æ eo ea OHG OHG Gt herza arm hardus heorte earm heard heart arm hard
Diphthongisation     after sk' e ie OHG skild scield, scyld shield
æ ea OHG Gt seal skadus sceal sceadu shall shade
k' e ie loan­words cerasus (L) cieres, cyrs cherries
æ ea   castra (L) ceaster chester (‘camp’)
  j æ: e ea: ie OHG Gt jar giban ʒ ē ar ʒ iefari year give

After the palatal consonants [k'], [sk'] and [j] short and long [e] and [æ ] turned into diphthongs with a more front close vowel as their first element, e.g. Early OE *scæ mu> OE sceamu (NE shame). In the resulting diphthong the initial [i] or [e] must have been unstressed but later the stress shifted to the first element, which turned into the nucleus of the diphthong, to conform with the structure of OE diph­thongs (all of them were falling diphthongs). This process known as " diphthongisation after palatal consonants" occurred some time in the 6th c. (see Table 3).

§ 123. Breaking and diphthongisation are the main sources of short diphthongs OE. They are of special interest to the historians of English, for OE short diphthongs have no parallels in other OG languages and constitute a specifically OE feature.

The status of short diphthongs in the OE vowel system has aroused much dis­cussion and controversy. On the one hand, short diphthongs are always phoneti­cally conditioned as they are found only in certain phonetic environments and appear as positional allophones of respective monophthongs (namely, of those vowels from which they have originated). On the other hand, however, they are similar in quality to the long diphthongs, and their phonemic status is supported by the sym­metrical arrangement of the vowel system. Their very growth can be accounted for by the urge of the system to have all its empty positions filled. However, their phonemic status cannot be confirmed by the contrast of minimal pairs: [ea], [æ ], [a] as well as [eo] and [e] occur only in complementary distribution, never in identical phonetic conditions to distinguish morphemes; they also occur as variants in different dialects. On these grounds it seems likely that short diphthongs, togeth­er with other vowels, make up sets of allophones representing certain phonemes: [a, æ, ea] and [e, eo]. Perhaps the rise of short diphthongs merely reveals a tendency to a symmelrical arrangement of diphthongs in the vowel system, which was never fully realised at the phonemic level.

Palatal Mutation

§ 124. TheOE tendency to positional vowel change is most apparent in the process termed " mutation". Mutation is the change of one vowel to another through theinfluence of a vowel in the succeeding syllable.

Table 4

Palatal Mutation

Change illustrated Examples
Vowels prior to Mutated palatal vowels mutation Gt or OE (without palatal mutation) OE (palatal mutation) NE
æ   Gt mats mete meat
a e OE sala, Gt saljan sellan sale, sell
    Gt sandjan sendan send
a: æ: OE lā r, Gt laisjan lǣ ran ‘teaching’, ‘teach’
    OE ā n ǣ niʒ one, any
o e OE dohtor dehter daughter (Nom. and Dat. sg)
o: e: OE bō c bē c book, books
    OE dō m   doom
    Gt gadō mjan dē man deem
u y OE full   full
    Gt fulljan fyllan fill
u: y; OE mū s mys mouse, mice
ea ie OE eald ieldra old, elder
eo   OE feor fierra far, farther
ea: ie: OE ʒ elē afa   belief
eo:   Gt galaubjan ʒ eliefan believe
    OE pē od elplediʒ adj ‘tribe’, ‘of a tribe’

This kind of change occurred in PG when [e] was raised to [i] and [u] could alternate with [o] under the influence of succeeding sounds (see § 55).

In Early OE, mutations affected numerous vowels and brought about profound changes in the system and use of vowels.

§ 125. The most important series of vowel mutations, shared in varying degrees by all OE languages (except Gothic), is known as " i-Umlaut" or " palatal mutation". Palatal mutation is the fronting and raising of vowels through the influence of [i] or [j] (the non-syllabic [i]) in the immediately following syllable. The vowel was fronted and made narrower so as to approach the articulation of [il. Cf. OE ā n (NE one) with a back vowel in the root and OE æ niʒ (NE any)derived from the same root with the root vowel mutated to a narrower and more front sound under the influence of [i] in the suffix: [a: ] > [æ: ].

Since the sounds [i] and [j] were common in suffixes and endings, palatal mutation was of very frequent occurrence. Practically all Early OE monophthongs, as well as diphthongs except the closest front vowels [e] and [i] were palatalised in these phonetic conditions.

Due to the reduction of final syllables the conditions which caused palatal mutation, that is [i] or [j], had disappeared in most words by the age of writing; these sounds were weakened to [e] or were altogether lost (this is seen in all the examples above except ǣ nig and etpiediʒ ).

§ 126. Of all the vowel changes described, palatal mutation was certainly the most comprehensive process, as it could affect most OE vowels, both long and short, diphthongs and monophthongs. It led to the appearance of new vowels and to numerous instances of merging and splitting of phonemes.

The labialised front vowels [y] and [y: ] arose through palatal mu­tation from [u] and [u: ], respectively, and turned into new phonemes, when the conditions that caused them had disappeared. Cf. mū s and mӯ s (from the earlier *mӯ si, where [y: ] was an allophone of [u; ] before [i]). The diphthongs [ie, ie: ] (which could also appear from diphthongisation after palatal consonants) were largely due to palatal mutation and became phonemic in the same way, though soon they were confused with [y, y: ]. Other mutated vowels fell together with the existing pho­nemes, e.g. [œ ] from [o] merged with [e, æ: ], which arose through pal­atal mutation, merged with [æ: ] from splitting (see § 117).

§ 127. Palatal mutation led to the growth of new vowel interchanges and to the increased variability of the root-morphemes: owing to pala­tal mutation many related words and grammatical forms acquired new root-vowel interchanges. Cf., e.g. two related words: OE ʒ e-mō t n ‘meet­ing’ and OE mē tan (NE meet), a verb derived from the noun-stem with the help of the suffix -j- (its earlier form was *mō tjan; -j- was then lost but the root acquired two variants: mō t-/mē t-). Likewise we find variants of morphemes with an interchange of root-vowels in the grammatical forms mū s, mӯ s (NE mouse, mice), bō c, bē c (NE book, books), since the plural was originally built by adding -iz. (Traces of palatal mutation are preserved in many modern words and forms, e.g. mouse — mice, foot — feet, tale — tell, blood — bleed; despite later phonetic changes, the original cause of the inner change is i-umlaut or palatal muta­tion.)

§ 128. Another kind of change referred to umlaut in Early OE is the so-called " velar-mutation" found in some of the OE dialects. It was caused by the influence of back vowels in the succeeding sylla­bles, which transformed the accented root-vowels into diphthongs. Cf. OHG swestar, OE sweostor (NE sister); WS limu, other dialects liomu. (‘limbs’), WS cæ ru, caru, cearu (NE care).

§ 129. The dating, mechanism and causes of palatal mutation have been a matter of research and discussion over the last hundred years.

Palatal mutation in OE had already been completed by the time of the earliest written records; it must have taken place during the 7th c., though later than all the Early OE changes described above. This relative dating is confirmed by the fact that vowels resulting from other changes could be subjected to palatal mutation, e. g. OE ieldra (NE elder)had developed from *ealdira by palatal mutation, which occurred when the diphthong [ea] had already been formed from [æ ] by breaking (in its turn [æ ] was the result of the fronting of Germanic [a]). The successive stages of the change can be shown as follows: fronting breaking palatal mutation

[a] > [æ ] > [ea] > [ie]

The generally accepted phonetic explanation of palatal mutation is that the sounds [i] or [j] palatalised the preceding consonant, and that this consonant, in its turn, fronted and raised the root-vowel. This " mechanistic" theory is based on the assumed workings of the speech organs. An alternative explanation, sometimes called " psychological" or " mentalistic", is that the speaker unconsciously anticipates the [i] and [j] in pronouncing the root-syllable — and through anticipation adds an i-glide to the root-vowel. The process is thus subdivided into several stages, e.g. *dō mjan> *dō imjan> *dœ rnjari> *dē man (NE deem). It has been found that some OE spellings appear to support both these theories, e.g. OE secʒ an has a palatalised consonant [gg'] shown by the digraph cʒ, Cō inwulf, a name in BEOWULF, occurring beside another spelling Cē nwulf, shows the stage [oi: ] in the transition from PG [o: ] to OE [œ: ], and [e: ]: OE cē n ‘bold’. The diphthongoids resulting from pala­tal mutation developed in conformity with the general tendency of the vowel system: in Early OE diphthongal glides were used as relevant phonemic distinctive features. In later OE the diphthongs showed the first signs of contraction (or monophthongisation) as other distinctive features began to predominate: labialisation and vowel length. (The merging of [ie, ie: ] and [y, y: ] mentioned above, can also be regarded as an instance of monophthongisation of diphthongs.)

§ 130. The following table shows changes of stressed vowels.

Table 5

Early Old English Vowel Changes



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