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Velar Consonants in Early Old English. Growth of New Phonemes

§ 141. In Early OE velar consonants split into two distinct sets of sounds, which eventually led to the growth of new phonemes.

The velar consonants [k,g,x,γ] were palatalised before a front vow­el, and sometimes also after a front vowel, unless followed by a back vowel. Thus in OE cild (NE child)the velar consonant [k] was softened to [k'] as it stood before the front vowel [i]: [*kild] > [k'ild]; similar­ly [k] became [k'] in OE sprǣc (NE speech)after a front vowel but not in OE sprecan (NE speak)where [k] was followed by the back vow­el [a]. In the absence of these phonetic conditions the consonants did not change, with the result that lingual consonants split into two sets, palatal and velar. The difference between them became phonemic when, a short time later, velar and palatal consonants began to occur in simi­lar phonetic conditions; cf. OE cild [k'ild], ciest [k'iest] (NE child, chest)with palatal [k'] and ceald, cēpan (NE cold, keep)with hard, velar [k] — both before front vowels.

Though the difference between velar and palatal consonants was not shown in the spellings of the OE period, the two sets were undoubtedly differentiated since a very early date. In the course of time the phonetic difference between them grew and towards the end of the period the pal­atal consonants developed into sibilants and affricates: [k'] > [ʧ], [g] > [dʒ]; in ME texts they were indicated by means of special digraphs and letter sequences (see the Mod E descendants of the OE examples in Table 8)

Table 8

Palatalisation and Splitting of Velar Consonants

Change illustrated Examp1es
Before and after front vowels In other positions OE NE
k k'   cinn, birce, tǣcan (from *tākjan) chin, birch, teach
    k can, macian (from *makōjan) can, make
g g'   senʒan (from *sangjan) singe
g: g':   ecʒ, brycʒ edge, bridge
    g ʒān, ʒrētan go, greet
X x'   neaht, niht night
    x, h hors, hlāf horse, loaf
Y i   dæʒ, ʒeard day, yard
γ daʒas days

§ 142. The date of the palatalisation can be fixed with considerable precision in relation to other Early OE sound changes. It must have taken place after the appearance of [æ, æ:] (referred to the 5th c.) but prior to palatal mutation (late 6th or 7th c); for [æ, æ:] could bring about the palatalisation of consonants (recall OE sprǣc, NE speech), while the front vowels which arose by palatal mutation could not. In OE cēpan (from *kōpjan)and OE cyninʒ(with [e:] and [y] through palatal mutation) the consonant [k] was not softened, which is confirmed by their modern descendants, keep and king. The front vowels [y] and [e:] in these and similar words must have appeared only when the splitting of velar consonants was well under way. Yet it is their appear­ance that transformed the two sets of positional allophones into phonemes, for a velar and a palatal consonant could now occur before a front vowel, that is, in identical phonetic conditions: cf. OE cyninʒand cӯse (NE king, cheese).

Loss of Consonants in Some Positions

§ 143. Comparison with other OG languages, especially Gothic and O Icel, has revealed certain instances of the loss of consonants in WG and Early OE.

Nasal sonorants were regularly lost before fricative consonants; in the process the preceding vowel was probably nasalised and length­ened. Cf.:

Gt fimf, O Icel fim, OHG fimf —OE fif (NE five)

Gt uns, OHG uns — OE ūs (NE us)

§ 144. Fricative consonants could be dropped between vowels and before some plosive consonants; these losses were accompanied by a compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel or the fusion of the preceding and succeeding vowel into a diphthong, cf. OE sēon, which corresponds to Gt saihwan, OE slēan (NE slay), Gt slahan, G. schlagen, OE sæʒde and sǣde (NE said).

§ 145. We should also mention the loss of semi-vowels and conso­nants in unstressed final syllables. [j] was regularly dropped in suffix­es after producing various changes in the root: palatal mutation of vow­els, lengthening of consonants after short vowels. The loss of [w] is seen in some case forms of nouns: Nom, trēo, Dat. trēowe (NE tree); Norn, sǣ, Dat. sǣwe (NE sea), cf. Gt triwa, saiws.

Old English Consonant System

§ 146. Table 9 shows the system of OE consonants in the 9thand 10th c.

The system consisted of several correlated sets of consonants. All the consonants fell into noise consonants and sonorants. The noise con­sonants were subdivided into plosives and fricatives; plosives were further differentiated as voiced and voiceless, the difference being pho­nemic. The fricative consonants were also subdivided into voiced and voiceless; in this set, however, sonority was merely a phonetic difference between allophones. Cf. OE pin — bin, where the difference in sonority is phonemically relevant (NE pin, bin)and OE hlāf [f] — hlāford [v] where the difference is positional: the consonant is voiced intervocally and voiceless finally (incidentally, voiced and voiceless fricatives were not distinguished in OE spelling). The opposition of palatal and velar lingual consonants [k] — [k'], [g] — [g'] had probably become pho­nemic by the time of the earliest written records (see § 141). (Some schol­ars include in the system one more palatal consonant: [sk], spelt as sc, e. g. OE scip (NE ship); others treat it as a sequence of two sounds [s'] and [k'] until Early ME when they fused into a single sibilant [ʃ].) It is noteworthy that among the OE consonants there were few sibi­lants and no affricates.

Table 9

Old English Consonants

Place of articulation Manner of articulation Labial, labiodental Fore lingual (dental) Mediolingual (palatal) Back lingual (velar)
Noise consonants plosive voiceless p p: t t: k' k': k k:
voiced b b: d d: g': g g:
frica­tive voiceless f f: θ θ: s s: x' x': x x: (h)
voiced v ð z γ' (j) γ
Sonorants m m: n n:   (ŋ)
w r l i  

§ 147.The most universal distinctive feature in the consonant sys­tem was the difference in length. During the entire OE period long con­sonants are believed to have been opposed to short ones on a phonem­ic level; they were mostly distinguished in intervocal position. Sin­gle and geminated (long) consonants are found in identical phonetic conditions. Cf. OE lǣde — 1st p. sg Pres. of lǣdan (NE lead)and lǣdde (Past); OE sticca (NE stick) — stica (Gen. case pl of OE stice, NE stitch). In final position the quantitative opposition was irrelevant and the second letter, which would indicate length, was often lacking, e. g. OE man and eal are identical to mann, eall (NE man, all).


1.Did word stress in OE always fall on the first syllable? Recall some regular shifts of stress in word-building and give similar examples from present-day English.

2. Comment on the phonemic status of OE short diphthongs (give your reasons why they should be treated as phonemes or as allophones). Account for the difference between the vowels in OE pæt, eat and monn, all going back to PG words with [a] (cf Gt pata, manna, alls).

4. Account for the interchange of vowels in OE dæʒe, daʒas (NE day — Dat. sg and Nom. pl); bæð, baðian (NE bath, bathe).

5. Say which word in each pair of parallels is OE and which is Gt. Pay attention to the difference in the vowels;

raups — rēad (NE red); hām — haims (NE home); beald — balpei (NE bold); barms — bearm (‘chest’); dēaf — daufs (NE deaf); triu — trēo (NE tree); lēof — liufs (‘dear’, rel. to NE love); qiþan — cweðan (NE quoth ‘say’).

In the same way classify the following words into OE and O Scand: bēaʒ — baugr (‘ring’); fár — fǣr (NE fear); man or mon — maðr (Gt manna); daupr — dēap (NE death); eall —allr (NE all); earm — armr (NE arm); harpa — hearpe (NE harp); faðir — fæder (NE father); fæst — fastr (NE fast).

6. Account for the difference between the root-vowels in OE and in parallels from other OG languages:

Gt langiza, OE lenʒra (NE longer); Gt marei, OHG meri, OE mere (NE obs. mere ‘lake’); Gt sandian, OE sendan (NE send); Gt ubils, OE yfel (NE evil); Gt be-laibian, OE lǣfan (NE leave); Gt. baugian, OE bӯʒan, bieʒan (‘bend’); Gt fulljan, OE fyllan (NE fill); Gt laisjan — OE iǣran ‘teach’.

7. Explain the term "mutation" and innumerate the changes re­ferred to mutations in Late PG and in Early OE. What do they all have in common?

8. Which word in each pair could go back to an OE prototype with palatal mutation and which is more likely to have descended from the OE word retaining the original non-mutated vowel? Mind that the spell­ing may often point to the earlier pronunciation of the word: old — elder; strong — strength; goose — geese; man — men; full — fill; food — feed; brother — brethren; far — further.

9. Was the OE vowel system symmetrical? State your arguments in favour and against its interpretation as a completely balanced sys­tem (See also question 2).

10. Define the sound values of the letters f, ð, s and comment on the system of OE consonant phonemes:

OE heofon, faran, ʒe-faran, hæfde, offrung, ofer (NE heaven, fare, had, offering, over); oððe, oðer, Norð, ðanne (‘or’, NE other, North, then); sǣ, wisse, cēosan, cēas (NE sea, ‘knew’, choose, chose).

11. What consonant and vowel changes are illustrated by the follow­ing pairs of words?

Gt maiza — OE māra (NE more); Gt kunþian, OE cӯðan (‘inform’); Gt daups — OE dēad (NE dead).Gt saljan — OE sellan (NE sell);OE pyncan — pūhte (NE think — thought);OE mæʒden, mǣden (NE maid­en);Gt kinnus, OE cinn (NE chin); OHG isarn — OE iren (NE iron).

Gt hausjan — OE hieren (NE hear); O Scand skaft — OE sceaft (NE shaft).

12. Why can the voicing of fricative consonants in Early OE be regarded as a sort of continuation of Verner's Law? Describe the similar­ities and the differences between the two processes.

13. What peculiarities of OE consonants can account for the differ­ence in the sound values of the italicised letters in the following modern words?

sand; rise (OE risan); house — houses (OE hūs); hose (OE hosa); horse (OE hors); think, bathe, path (OE pyncan, bāðian, pæð).



Chapter IX

Preliminary Remarks. Form-Building.
Parts of Speech and Grammatical Categories

§ 148.OE was a synthetic, or inflected type of language; it showed the relations between words and expressed other grammatical meanings mainly with the help of simple (synthetic) grammatical forms. In build­ing grammatical forms OE employed grammatical endings, sound interchanges in the root, grammatical prefixes, and suppletive forma­tion.

Grammatical endings, or inflections, were certainly the principal form-building means used: they were found in all the parts of speech that could change their form; they were usually used alone but could also occur in combination with other means.

Sound interchanges were employed on a more limited scale and were often combined with other form-building means, especially endings. Vowel interchanges were more common than interchanges of consonants.

The use of prefixes in grammatical forms was rare and was confined to verbs. Suppletive forms were restricted to several pronouns, a few adjectives and a couple of verbs.

§ 149. The parts of speech to be distinguished in OE are as follows: the noun, the adjective, the pronoun, the numeral (all referred to as nominal parts of speech or nomina), the verb, the adverb, the preposition, the conjunction, and the interjection. Inflected parts of speech pos­sessed certain grammatical categories displayed in formal and semantic correlations and oppositions of grammatical forms. Grammatical cate­gories are usually subdivided into nominal categories, found in nominal parts of speech and verbal categories found chiefly in the finite verb.

We shall assume that there were five nominal grammatical cate­gories in OE: number, case, gender, degrees of comparison, and the category of definiteness/indefiniteness (see § 185). Each part of speech had its own peculiarities in the inventory of categories and the number of members within the category (categorial forms). The noun had only two grammatical categories proper: number and case (for the distinction of gender see § 160 below). The adjective had the maximum number of categories — five. The number of members in the same grammatical categories in different parts ofspeech did not necessarily coincide: thus the noun had four cases. Nominative, Genitive, Dative, and Accusative, whereas the adjective had five (the same four cases plus the Instrumen­tal case)[13]. The personal pronouns of the 1st and 2nd p., unlike other parts of speech, distinguished three numbers — Singular, Plural and Dual. Cf.

sg OE ic (NE I), dual wit ‘we two’, pl wē (NE we)

OE stān n (NE stone) — stānas (stones).

Verbal grammatical categories were not numerous: tense and mood — verbal categories proper — and number and person, showing agreement between the verb-predicate and the subject of the sentence.

The distinction of categorial forms by the noun and the verb was to a large extent determined by their division into morphological classes: declensions and conjugations.

§ 150.The following survey of OE grammar deals with the main parts of speech: the noun, the adjective, the pronoun, and the verb. Many features of the OE syntactic structure will be self-evident from the study of morphology; therefore the description of syntax is confined to the main peculiarities which may help to trace the trends of develop­ment in later periods.

The OE grammatical system is described synchronically as appear­ing in the texts of the 9th and 10th c. (mainly WS); facts of earlier, pre­written, history will sometimes be mentioned toaccount for the fea­tures of written OE and to explain their origin.


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