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Main Trends in the Changes of Stressed Vowels

§ 368. No other part of the English sound system has undergone such sweeping changes as the vowels in stressed syllables. They changed both in quality and quantity, under the influence of the environment and independently, alone and together with the surrounding sounds As a matter of fact, not a single OE long monophthong or diphthong has remained unaltered in the course of history; only a few short vowels were not changed, unless they were lengthened and then shared the fate of long vowels (for instance, short [i] and [o] have not suffered any changes in is and of — OE is, of, but the same sounds have developed into diphthongs if they became long: OE blind > ME blind [bli:nd] > NE blind, OE hopa > ME hope [hɔ:pə] > NE hope).

§ 389. The system of vowel phonemes has undergone drastic changes in the course of English linguistic history. Though the total number of phonemes has practically remained the same, their distinctive fea­tures and the principles of their opposition in the system, have altered.

Strictly speaking we can observe all kinds of vowel changes in all historical periods. And yet some prevailing trends of evolution can be singled out for certain groups of vowels at certain periods.

Long vowels were the most changeable and historically unstable group of English sounds. At all times they displayed a strong tendency to become narrower and to diphthongise, whereas short vowels displayed a reverse trend — towards greater openness, though this trend was less obvious and less consistent. Qualitative and quantitative changes were intertwined and often proceeded together.

It may be recalled here that in Early OE the prevalent type of vowel changes were assimilative changes mainly affecting the quality of the vowels. Towards the end of OE quantitative vowel changes gained mo­mentum. Early ME is mainly characterised by positional quantitative changes of monophthongs; at the same time profound independent changes affected the system of diphthongs: OE diphthongs were mono­phthongised and lost, and new types of diphthongs developed from vowels and consonants.

Late ME saw the beginnings of a new series of sweeping changes: independent qualitative changes of all long vowels known as the "Great Vowel Shift"; it lasted from the 14th till the 17th or even 18th c. Numer­ous positional vowel changes of this period — together with vocalisa­tion of consonants — gave rise to a number of new long monophthongs and diphthongs.


§ 370. At the end of OE and in the immediately succeeding centu­ries accented vowels underwent a number of quantitative changes which affected the employment and the phonological status of short and long vowels in the language. It should be recalled that in OE quantity was the main basis of correlation in the vowel system; short vowels were phonemically opposed to long ones, roughly identical in quality. At that time vowel length was for the most part an inherited feature: OE short vowels had developed from PG short vowels, while long ones went back to long vowels or bi-phonemic vowel sequences (except for a few lengthenings, mainly due to the loss of consonants, see § 143, 144).

In later OE and in Early ME vowel length began to depend on pho­netic conditions.

§371. The earliest of positional quantitative changes was the read­justment of quantity before some consonant clusters; it occurred in Early ME or perhaps even in Late OE.

(1) Short vowels were lengthened before two homorganic consonants, a sonorant and a plosive; consequently, all vowels occurring in this position remained or became long, e.g. OE wild > ME wild [wi:ld] (NE wild);

(2)All other groups of two or more consonants produced the reverse effect: they made the preceding long vowels short, and henceforth all vowels in this position became or remained short, e.g. OE cēpte > ME kepte ['keptə] (NE kept); OE bewildrian > ME bewildren [be'wildrən] (NE bewilder). (Cf. the latter example with wild given above; the third consonant [r] in ME bewildren prevented the lengthening.)

§ 372. Another decisive alteration in the treatment of vowel quan­tity took place some time later: in the 12th or 13th c.

(3) Short vowels became long in open syllables. This lengthening mainly affected the more open of the short vowels [e], [a] and [o], but sometimes, though very seldom, it is also found in the close vowels, [i]and [u]. In the process of lengthening close vowels acquired a more open quality, e.g..

OE open > ME open ['ɔ:pən] (NE open)
  wike >   weke ['we:kə] (NE week)
  nama >   name ['na:mə] (NE name)

In spite of some restrictions (e.g. no lengthening occurred in poly­syllabic words and before some suffixes, OE bodiʒ > ME body ['bodi] (NE body), the alteration affected many words (see Table 1 on p. 194).

§ 373. The changes of vowel quantity reduced the number of posi­tions in which the opposition of long vowels to short ones could be used for phonemic contrast. Before a consonant cluster vowel quantity was now predetermined by the nature of the cluster; and in open syllables three vowels — [ɔ], [a:] and [ɛ:] were always long. Consequently, opposition through quantity could be used for distinction, as a phono­logical feature, only in the absence of those phonetic conditions, namely: in closed syllables, in polysyllabic words, or with the vowels [i] and [u] in open syllables. Such is the contrast, e.g. in ME risen ['ri:zən] inf. and risen ['rizən] Part. II (NE rise, risen). The limitations in the application of vowel length as a distinctive feature undermined the role of vowel quantity in the language.

§ 374. Quantitative vowel changes in Early ME have given rise to a number of explanations and hypotheses.

AH the changes in vowel quantity have been interpreted as manifestations of a sort of rhythmic tendency. In order to achieve an average uniformity in the length of the syllable, and also to use an average amount of energy for its pronunciation, the vowel was shortened before a group of consonants and was made longer if there were no consonants following, that is, in "open" syllables. Lengthening of vowels before homorganic groups looks as an exception or a contradiction; to account for this lengthening it was suggested that -nd, -ld and the like were virtually equivalent to single consonants, therefore a long vowel would not make the syllable too heavy.

Table 1

Quantitative Vowel Changes in Late Old English and Early Middle English

Phonetic condi­tions Change illustrated Examples
OE ME NE[35]
Before homor­ganic conso­nant sequenc­es: sonorant plus plosive (ld, nd, mb) Vowels be­come long cild findan climban cold feld fundon gold child [tʃi:ld] finden [fi:ndən] climben ['kli:mbən] cold ['ko:ld] field [fe:ld] founden ['fu:ndən] gold [go:ld] child find climb cold field found (Past of find) gold
Before other consonant sequences Vowels be­come short fiftiʒ fēdde mētte wisdōm fifty [fifti] fedde ['feddə][36] mette ['mettə] wisdom ['wizdəm] fifty fed met wisdom
In open sylla­bles Vowels be­come long and more open mete stelan macian talu nosu stolen yfel duru mete ['mɛ:tə] stelen ['stɛ:lən] maken ['ma:kən] tale ['ta:lə] nose ['nɔ:zə] stolen ['stɔ:lən] yvel, evel [i:], [e:] doore ['do:rə] meat steal make tale nose stolen evil[37] door

This theory was criticised for attributing all the quantitative changes to one general cause — the effort to maintain a uniform syllable length — though in reali­ty the changes were not simultaneous. Lengthening in open syllables occurred at a later period — some time in the 13th c. — and may have been caused by other factors. To cope with this difficulty, it was suggested that lengthening in open syllables was tied up with the weakening of final vowels; when the second, unaccented, syllable was weakened, the first syllable became more prominent and the vowel was made longer. Cf. OE talu and ME tale ['ta:lə] — the average amount of energy required for the pronunciation of the word is the same but its distribu­tion is different.


Development of Monophthongs

§ 375. As compared with quantitative changes, qualitative vowel changes in Early ME were less important. They affected several mono­phthongs and displayed considerable dialectal diversity. On the whole they were independent of phonetic environment.

The OE close labialised vowels [y] and [y:] disappeared in Early ME, merging with various sounds in different dialectal areas. The treat­ment of [y] and [y:] in ME can be regarded as evidence of growing dialectal divergence. At the same time it is a relatively rare instance of similar alterations of a short and a long vowel.

The vowels [y] and [y:] existed in OE dialects up to the 10th c, when they were replaced by [e], [e:] in Kentish and confused with [ie] and [ie:] or [i], [i:] in WS. In Early ME the dialectal differences grew. In some areas OE [y], [y:] developed into [e], [e:], in others they changed to [i], [i:]; in the South-West and in the West Midlands the two vowels were for some time pre­served as [y], [y:] but later were moved backward and merged with [u], [u:]. (The existence of [y] as a sepa­rate vowel may have been prolonged by the borrowing of French words with this sound, e.g. ME vertu, nature were at first pronounced as [ver'ty:], [na'ty:r], la­ter as [ver'tju:], [na'tju:r] (NE virtue, nature).

Development of Old English [y] and [y:] in Middle English dialects

The map[38] and the examples show the treatment of OE [y], [y:] in ME dialects:


fyllan Kentish fellen ['fellən] fill
  West Midland and South Western fallen ['fyliən, 'fullən]  
  East Midland and Northern fillen ['fillən] fill
mӯs Kentish mees [me:s]  
  West Midland and South Western mus, muis [my:s, mu:s]  
Northern and East Midland mis, mice [mi:s] mice[39]

ME pronunciations illustrate the variation stage; the NE words given in the last column show the final stage of the change: selection of one of co-existing variants in Standard English. For the most part NE forms descend from the East Midland dialect, which made the basis of the literary language; this is also true of the word hill shown in the map and of the words fire, king, kiss, kin, little and many others. Some mod­ern words, however, have preserved traces of other dialects: e.g. NE sleeve going back to OE slӯfe entered Standard English from the South-Eastern regions with the sound [e:] (which later regularly changed to [i:], see the Great Vowel Shift § 383 ff). Sometimes we can find traces of several dialects in one word; thus NE busy (OE bysiʒ)comes from an East Midland form with til as far as sounds go, but has re­tained a trace of the West­ern form in the spelling: the letter u points to the Western reflex of [y]; likewise the letter u in NE bury (OE byrian)is a trace of the Western forms, while the sound [e] comes from the South-East (Kent).

Development of Old English [a:] in Middle Eng­lish dialects

§ 376. In Early ME the long OE [a:] was narrowed to [ɔ:]. This was an early instance of the growing tendency of all long monophthongs to become closer; the tendency was intensified in Late ME when all Jong vowels changed in that direction. [a:] became [ɔ:] in all the dia­lects except the Northern group (see the map above).

e. g. OE ME   NE
stān Northern stan(e)['sta:nə] stone
  other dialects stoon, stone ['stɔ:n(ə)]  
ald1 Northern ald [a:ld][40] old
other dialects old [ə:ld]  

The resulting ME [ɔ:]must have been a more open vowel than the long [o:] inherited from OE, e.g. OE fōt, ME foot [fo:t] (NE foot). Judging by their earlier and later history the two phonemes [ɔ:] and [o:] were well distinguished in ME, though no distinction was made in spelling: o, and double o were used for both sounds. (The open [o:] also developed from the short [o] due to lengthening in open syllables, see § 372).[41]

§ 377. The short OE [æ] was replaced in ME by the back vowel [a]. In OE [æ] was either a separate phoneme or one of a group of allo­phones distinguished in writing [æ, a, ā, ea] (see § 123). All these sounds were reflected in ME as [a], except the nasalised [ā] which became [o] in the West Midlands (and thus merged with a different phoneme [o] or [ɔ].[42]

OE pǣt > ME that [θat] (NE that)
  earm >   arm [arm] (NE arm)
  blacu >   blak [blak] (NE black)[43]

See the map on p. 198 and the examples showing the splitting of [ā] in different dialects:

e. g. OE   ME NE
  lond, land West Midland lond [lɔnd] land
other dialects land [land]  
  lonʒ, lanʒ West Midland long [lɔŋ] long
  other dialects lang [laŋ]  

Most of the modern words going back to the OE prototypes with the vowel [ā] have [a], e.g. NE man, sand, and, which means that they came from any dialect except West Midland; some words, however, especially those ending in [ŋ], should be traced to the West Midlands, e.g. long, song, strong, from, bond (but also sand, rang and band, to be distinguished from bond).

Development of Diphthongs

§ 378. One of the most important sound changes of the Early ME period was the loss of OE diph­thongs and the growth of new diphthongs, with new qualitative and quantitative distinctions.

OE possessed a well de­veloped system of diph­thongs: falling diphthongs with a closer nucleus and more open glide arranged in two symmetrical sets — long and short: [ea:, eo:, ie:] and [ea, eo, ie] (see § 133). Towards the end of the OE period some of the diphthongs merged with monophthongs: all diph­thongs were monophthon­gised before [xt, x't] and after [sk']; the diphthongs [ie:, ie] in Late WS fused with [y:, y] or [i:, i]. Their further development does not differ from the development of corresponding monophthongs.

Development of Old English [ā] in Middle English dialects

§ 379. In Early ME the remaining diphthongs were also contracted to monophthongs: the long [ea:] coalesced with the reflex of OE [æ;] — ME [ɛ:]; the short [ea]ceased to be distinguished from OE [æ] and became [a] in ME; the diphthongs [eo:, eo] — as well as their dialectal variants [io:, io] — fell together with the monophthongs [e:, e, i:, i]. Later they shared in the development of respective monophthongs. The changes of OE diphthongs are shown in Table 2 together with the changes of corresponding monophthongs.

§ 380. As a result of these changes the vowel system lost two sets of diphthongs, long and short. In the meantime a new set of diphthongs developed from some sequences of vowels and consonants due to the vocalisation of OE [j] and [γ], that is to their change into vowels,

In Early ME the sounds [j] and [γ] between and after vowels changed into [i] and [u] and formed diphthongs together with the preceding vowels, e.g. OE dæʒ > ME day [dai]. These changes gave rise to two sets of diphthongs: with i-glides and u-glides. The same types of diph­thongs appeared also from other sources: the glide -u developed from OE [w] as in OE snāw, which became ME snow [snou], and before [x] and [l] as in Late ME smaul (alongside smal)and taughte (NE snow, small, taught). In the two latter cases the consonants were not vocalised and the glide arose between the back consonant and the pre­ceding vowel. See more examples in Table 3. (If the preceding vowels were [i] or [u] the results of the vocalisation were long monophthongs, e.g. OE niʒon > ME nyne [ni:n(ə)], OE fuʒol > ME fowl [fu:l] (NE nine, fowl).

Table 2

Development of Old English Diphthongs in Early Middle English

Change illustrated Examples
  ea: ɛ: east eest [ɛ:st] east
      read reed [rɛ:d] red
Cf. æ: ɛ: strǣt street [strɛ:t] street
  eo: e: dēop deep [de:pl deep
      cēosan chesen ['tʃe:zən] choose
Cf. e: e: he (he:) he
  ie: i: liehtan lighten ['li:x'tən] tighten
    e: hieran heren ['he:rən] hear
Cf. i: i: risan risen ['ri:zən] rise
  e: e: cēpan kepen ['ke:pən] keep
  ea a earm arm [mm] arm
Cf. æ a bæc back [bak] back
  eo e heorte herte ['hertə] heart
Cf. e e bedd bed [bed] bed
  ie i nieht, niht night [nix't] night
    e hierde, hyrde herd [herd] 'shepherd'
Cf. i i hit it lit] it
  e e (see bedd above)    

Table 3

Growth of New Diphthongs in Middle English

Change illustrated Examples
e + j ej weʒ wey [wei] way
  ei ʒrēʒ grey [grei] grey
  ai mæʒ may [mai] may
a + γ au laʒu lawe ['lauə] law
o + γ ou boʒa bowe ['bouə] bow
a: + w ou cnāwan knowen ['knouən] know
a:+x au + x brāhte braughte ['brauxtə] brought

In addition to the diphthongs which developed from native sources, similar diphthongs — with i- and u-glides — are found in same ME loan-words, e.g. [ɔi] in ME boy, joy, [au] in ME pause, cause ['pauzə, 'kauzə]. (The diphthong [au] occurred also in French borrowings be­fore a nasal, in imitation of Anglo-Norman pronunciation, e.g. ME straunge.)

§381. The formation of new diphthongs in ME was an important event in the history of the language. By that time the OE diphthongs had been contracted into monophthongs; the newly formed ME diph­thongs differed from the OE in structure: they had an open nucleus and a closer glide; they were arranged in a system consisting of two sets (with i-glirtes and u-glides) but were not contrasted through quantity as long to short.

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