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Growth of Sibilants and Affricates

§ 403. In OE there were no affricates and no sibilants, except [s, z].

The earliest distinct sets of these sounds appeared towards the end of OE or during the Early ME period. The new type of consonants de­veloped from OE palatal plosives [k', g'] (which had split from the corresponding velar plosives [k] and [g] in Early OE (see § 141), and also from the consonant cluster [sk']. The three new phonemes which arose from these sources were [tʃ], [dʒ] and [ʃ]. In Early ME they began to be indicated by special letters and digraphs, which came into use mainly under the influence of the French scribal tradition — ch, tch, g, dg, sh, ssh, sch (see § 357, 358).

The sound changes and examples are shown in Table 9.

Table 9

Development of Sibilants and Affricates in Early Middle English

Charge illustrated Examples
k' cild child [tʃi:ld] child
    tǣcan techen ['tɛtʃən] teach
g' ecʒe edge ['edʒa] edge
    brycʒe bridge ['bridʒə] bridge
sk' ʃ fisc fish [fiʃ] fish
    scēap sheep [ʃɛ:p] sheep

It must be added that the affricates [tʃ] and [dʒ] could also come from a different source: they entered the English language in loanwords from French, e.g. ME charme ['tʃarmə], gentil [dʒen'til] from O Fr charme, gentil ([tʃ] and [dʒ] in the Anglo-Norman pronunciation)

As a result of these changes — and also as a result of the vocalisation of [γ] (§ 360) — the consonant system in Late ME was in some respects different from the OE system. The opposition of velar conso­nants to palatal — [k, k'; γ, j] — had disappeared; instead, plosive consonants were contrasted to the new affricates and in the set of affri­cates [tʃ] was opposed to [dʒ] through sonority.

§ 404. Another development accounting for the appearance of sib­ilants and affricates in the English language is dated in Early NE and is connected with the phonetic assimilation of lexical borrowings.

In the numerous loan-words of Romance origin adopted in ME and Early NE the stress fell on the ultimate or penultimate syllable, e.g. ME na'cioun, plea'saunce (NE nation, pleasance). In accordance with the phonetic tendencies the stress was moved closer to the beginning of the word (see § 363). The final syllables which thus became unstressed, or weakly stressed, underwent phonetic alterations: the vowels were reduced and sometimes dropped; the sounds making up the syllable became less distinct. As a result some sequences of consonants fused into single consonants.

In Early NE the clusters [sj, zj, tj, dj] — through reciprocal as­similation in unstressed position — regularly changed into [ʃ, ʒ, tʃ, dʒ]. Three of these sounds, [ʃ, tʃ, dʒ], merged with the phonemes already existing in the language, while the fourth, [ʒ], made a new phoneme. Now the four sounds formed a well-balanced system of two correlated pairs: [ʃ, ʒ], [tʃ, dʒ]; see Table 10 for examples.

Table 10

Development of Sibilants and Affricates In Early New English

Change illustrated Examples
Late ME NE Late ME NE
  ʃ condicioun [kondi'sju:n] condition
    commissioun [komi'sju:n] commission
  plesure [ple'zju:r(ə)] pleasure
    visioun [vi'zju:n] vision
tj nature [na'tju:r(ə)] nature
    culture [kul'tju:r(ə)] culture
dj souldier [soul'djer] soldier
    procedure [prose'dju:rə] procedure

Compare these words to NE suit, mature, duty, where the same consonant clusters were preserved in stressed syllables. (In some Mod E words, however, we still find the sequences with [j] in unstressed position as well, usually they are secondary variants in Br E, or Amer­ican variants of pronunciation, e.g. Br E issue ['iʃju:] despite the change of [s] to [ʃ] has preserved [j]; in the American variant ['isju:] no assimilative changes have taken place. Among variants of British pronunciation there are such pairs as NE associate [ə'ʃouʃieit] and [ə'sousieit], NE verdure ['və:dʒə] and ['və:djə]; they may be due to Early NE dialectal differences or else to the fact that the assimila­tion has not been completed and is still going on in Mod E.)[45]

Treatment of Fricative Consonants in Middle English and Early New English

§ 405. In order to understand the nature of the changes which af­fected the fricative consonants in ME and in Early NE we must recall some facts from their earlier history. In OE the pairs of fricative con­sonants — [f] and [v], [θ] and [ð], [s] and [z] — were treated as positional variants or allophones; sonority depended on phonetic con­ditions: in intervocal position they appeared as voiced, otherwise — as voiceless. In ME and in Early NE these allophones became independent phonemes.

Phonologisation of voiced and voiceless fricatives was a slow pro­cess which lasted several hundred years. The first pair of consonants to become phonemes were [f] and [v]. In Late ME texts they occurred in identical phonetic environment and could be used for differentiation between words, which means that they had turned into phonemes. Cf., e.g. ME veyne and feine ['veinə, 'feinə] (NE vein, feign). The two other pairs, [θ, ð] and [s, z], so far functioned as allophones.

§ 406. A new, decisive alteration took place in the 16th c. The fric­atives were once again subjected to voicing under certain phonetic conditions. Henceforth they were pronounced as voiced if they were preceded by an unstressed vowel and followed by a stressed one, e.g. Early NE possess [po'zes] — the first voiceless [s], which stood be­tween an unstressed and a stressed vowel, had become voiced, while the second [s], which was preceded by an accented vowel, remained voice­less (ME possessen [po'sesən] > NE possess). In the same way ME fishes, doores, takes ['fiʃəs, 'do:rəs, 'ta:kəs] acquired a voiced [z] in the end­ing. The last three examples show that one phonetic condition — an unaccented breeding vowel — was sufficient to transform a voiceless sibilant into a voiced one; the second condition — a succeeding stressed vowel — was less important: [s] is the last sound of the word. Probably the effect of stress extended beyond the boundaries of the word: the endings took no accent but could be followed by other words beginning with an accented syllable. This supposition is confirmed by the voicing of consonants in many form-words; articles, pronouns, auxiliaries, prepositions; they receive no stress in speech but may be surrounded by notional words which are logically accented. For instance, in the following quotation from a Late ME text (Capgrave's CHRONICLE OF ENGLAND, c. 1463), there are several unstressed form-words with voiceless fricatives and sibilants "In this yere, in the XXI day of Aprile, was that frere bore whech mad these Annotaciones" ('in this year, on the twenty-first day of April, was born the friar who made these notes') — [θis, θe:, of, was, θat, θe:zə] and the ending [əs] in annotaciones. In Early NE the consonants in all these unstressed words became voiced, even initially [θis] > [ðis], [θe:] > [ði:], etc. (the initial fricative in notional, stressed, words remained voiceless, cf. ME thin, thorn [ðin, θorn], NE thin, thorn).[46]

Sometimes a similar voicing occurred in consonant clusters contain­ing sibilants, fricatives and affricates (see Table 11).

Table 11

Voicing of Consonants In Early New English

Change illustrated Examples
s z resemblen [rə'semblən] resemble
    foxes ['foksəs] foxes
    was [was] was
    is [is] is
    his [his] his
f v pensif [pen'sif] pensive
    of [ɔf] of[47]
θ ð there ['θɛ:rə] there
    they [θei] they
    with [wiθ] with
ks gz anxietie [aŋksie'tiə] anxiety
    luxurious [luksju:r'iu:s] luxurious[48]
knowleche ['knoulətʃ] knowledge
    Greenwich ['gre:nwitʃ] Greenwich ['gri:nidʒ]

§ 407. On the whole the Early NE voicing of fricatives was rather inconsistent and irregular. Though it was a positional change occurring in certain phonetic conditions, these conditions were often contradictory. The voicing had many exceptions; for instance, in assemble, assess we find a medial voiceless [s] in precisely the same environment as the voiced [z] of resemble and possess. Therefore after these changes voiced and voiceless fricatives could appear in similar phonetic conditions and could be used for phonological purposes to distinguish between morphemes; in other words, they had turned into phonemes, cf., e.g. NE thy [ðai] and thigh [θai], ice [ais] and eyes [aiz].

Loss of Consonants

§ 408. As shown in the preceding paragraphs, the system of conso­nants underwent important changes in ME and Early NE. It acquired new phonemes and new phonemic distinctions, namely a distinction between plosives, sibilants and affricates, a phonemic distinction through sonority in the sets of fricatives, sibilants and affricates. On the other hand, some changes led to the reduction of the consonant system and also to certain restrictions in the use of consonants.

As was mentioned in the description of vowel changes, particularly the growth of new diphthongs and long monophthongs, a number of consonants disappeared: they were vocalised and gave rise to diphthong­al glides' or made the preceding short vowels long. The vocalisation of [γ] in Early ME and of [x] in Late ME eliminated the back lingual fricative consonants.

With the disappearance of [x'] the system lost one more opposition — through palatalisation, as "hard" to "soft". (The soft [k'] and [g'] turned into affricates some time earlier, see §403).

§ 409. Another important event was the loss of quantitative distinc­tions in the consonant system.

It should be recalled that in OE long consonants were opposed to short at the phonological level. This is confirmed by their occurrence in identical conditions, their phonological application and the consistent writing of double letters, especially in intervocal position (see § 147). In Late ME long consonants were shortened and the phonemic opposi­tion through quantity was lost.

The loss of long consonant phonemes has been attributed to a va­riety of reasons. Long consonants disappeared firstly because their functional load was very low (the opposition was neutralised everywhere except intervocally), and secondly, because length was becoming a prosodic feature, that is a property of the syllable rather than of the sound. In ME the length of the syllable was regulated by the lengthening and shortening of vowels; therefore the quantitative differences of the con­sonants became irrelevant.

§ 410. In addition to all these changes, which directly affected the system of phonemes, some consonants underwent positional changes which restricted their use in the language. The consonants [j] and [r] were vocalised under certain phonetic conditions — finally and before consonants — during the ME and Early NE periods, though they continued to be used in other environments, e. g. initially: ME rechen NE reach; ME yeer, NE year. Some consonants were lost in consonant clusters, which became simpler and easier to pronounce, e.g. the initial [x] survived in ME as an aspirate [h], when followed by a vowel, but was lost when followed by a sonorant; cf. OE hē,hund > ME he [he:], hound [hurnd] (NE he, hound)and OE hlǣne which became ME leene ['le:nə] (NE lean); OE hlystan and ME listen ['listən] (with further simplification of the medial cluster in NE listen, as [t] was dropped between [s] and [n]).

In Early NE the aspirate [h] was lost initially before vowels — though not in all the words, e.g. ME honour [ho'nu:r] > NE honour, ME hit or it > NE it, but ME hope ['hɔ:pə] > NE hope.

In Early NE the initial consonant sequences [kn] and [gnl were simplified to [n], as in ME knowen ['knowən], gnat [gnat], NE know, gnat. Simplification of final clusters produced words like NE dumb, climb, in which [mb] lost the final [b].

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