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Other changes of stressed vowels

Module 8



1. Phonetic changes of vowels

1.1. Loss of unstressed [ə]

1.2. The Great Vowel Shift

1.3. Other changes of stressed vowels

2. Consonants

3. Conclusions


Phonetic changes of vowels

1.1. Loss of unstressed[ə]

Vowels in the unstressed position already reduced in ME to the vowel of the [c] type were dropped in NE if they were found in the endings of words, e.g.:


nama name name [neim]

wrītan writen write [rait]

sunu sone son [sžn]

Loss of [ə] started in the Northern dialects. The vowel [ə] was lost when it was final and also when it was followed by a consonant, as in the plural forms of nouns, e.g. tables, hats, books, in the 3rd p. sg. present indicative, e.g. takes, sits, needs,shines, and in the past tense and participle II in –ed, e.g. walked, lived, stopped.

The vowel in the endings is sometimes preserved – mainly for phonetic reason, e.g.: wanted, dresses; without the intermediate vowel it would be very difficult to pronounce the endings of such words.

Loss of [ə] had special consequences for the spelling: the letter ewas preserved in words having a long root vowel, thus giving rise to the so-called “mute” e, which denotes length of the preceding vowel. On the analogy the letter ewas added in words which had never had any unstressed vowel, as in house, stone, wrote from ME hous, ston, wrot.

The Great Vowel Shift

The most significant phonetic change in NE was the Great Vowel Shift, beginning in the 15th c. During the period of the 15th -18th c. the long vowels became closer or were diphthongized.

The changes included in the Great Vowel Shift are shown in Table 8.1 with some intermediate stages and examples. (The development of the ME diphthong [au], which was narrowed and contracted to []:] during the same period, is added here, though it is not usually included in the Shift.)

Table 8.1

The Great Vowel Shift

Change illustrated   Examples  
ME (intermediate NE stage)   ME   NE  
i: ai   time ['ti:mc]   time  
    finden ['fi:ndcn]   find  
e: i:   kepen ['ke:pcn]   keep  
    field ['fe:ld]   field.  
e: e: i:   street [stre:t]   street  
    east [e:st]   east  
    stelen ['ste:lcn]   steal  
a: ei   maken ['ma:kcn]   make  
    table ['ta:blc]   table  
]: o: ou   stone ['st]:n]   stone  
    open [' ]:pcn]   open  
    soo [s]:]   so  
o: u:   moon [mo:n]   moon  
    goos [go:s]   goose  
u: au   mous [mu:s]   mouse  
    founden l'fu:ndcn]   found  
    now [nu:]   now  
au ]:   cause ['kauz(c)]   cause  
    drawen ['draucn]   draw  

As seen from the table all the vowels became closer and some of the vowels occupied the place of the next vowel in the column: thus [e:]>[i:], while the more open [e:] took the place of [e:], and later moved one step further in the same direction and merged with the former [e:] in [i:]. Likewise, the long [o:] was shifted one step, to become [u:], while ME [u:] changed into [au].Some long vowels – [u:], [i:] and [a:] – broke into diphthongs, the first element being contrastedto the second and more open sound: [au], [ai] and [ei], respectively.

The Great Vowel Shift was the most profound and comprehensive change in the history of English vowels: all long vowels, as well as some diphthongs, were "shifted", and the pronunciation of all the words with these sounds was altered.

It is important to note that the Great Vowel Shift (unlike most of the earlier phonetic changes) was not followed by any regular spelling changes: as seen from the examples the modification in the pronunciation of words was not reflected in their written forms. (The few graphic replacements made in the 16th c. failed to reflect the changes:the digraphs ie, ee, and the single e were kept for the close [e:],whilethe digraph ea was introduced to show the more open [e:] as in steal; the further merging of [e:] and [e:] in [i:] made the graphic distinctionunnecessary — cf. NE steal, steel. A similar distinction between the close [o:], shown as oo, and the more open []:], shown as oa since the 16th c. proved to be more useful, as these digraphs indicate differentsounds (although the gap between the spelling and the pronunciation is greater than it was: oo stands for [u:l while oa stands for [ou], cf. NE room, roam.)

During the shift even the namesof some English letters were changed for they contained long vowels. Cf. the names of some English letters before and after the shift: ME: A [a:], E [e:], O [o:], I [i:], B [be:], K [ka:]

NE: A [ei], E [i:], O [ou], I [ai], B [bi:], K [kei].

As a result of the shift no new sounds appeared in the system of long vowels, i.e. no new sounds that had not existed in ME. This will be made clear by the following table:


Sound Example Sound Example

[ei] wey [ei] make

[i:] time [i:] see

[e:] seen [e:] sea

[ai] sayde [ai] time

[ou] bowe [ou] go

[u:] hous [u:] moon

[au] drawen [au] house

However, the vowel shift is an important event in the history of the English sound system, as the distribution of long vowels was completely changed. Thus, for instance, long [i:] appears in NE in the word see, which in ME had the vowel [e:], and it does not appear in the word time, which was pronounced with an [i:] in ME.


Other changes of stressed vowels

1.3.1. The changes [a] > [æ], [u] > [ž]

Two short monophthongs changed their quality in NE (17th c.), the monophthong [a] becoming [æ] and the monophthong [u] becoming [ž], e.g.


[a] > [æ] that that

[u] > [ž] cut cut


However, these processes depended to a certain extent upon the preceding sound. When the sound [a] was preceded by [w] it changed into []]. Compare:



[a] > [æ] that that

[a] > []] was was

(but: wax [wæks]).

Where the sound [u] was preceded by the consonants [p], [b] or [f],the change of [u] into [ž] generally did not take place, hence: bull, butcher, pull, push, full, etc.

But sometimes even the preceding consonant did not prevent the change, for instance:


[u] > [ž] but [but] but [bžt]


Changes of diphthongs

Two out of the four ME diphthongs changed in NE: the diphthong [ai] became [ei] and the diphthong [au] contracted to []:], e.g.


[ai] > [ei] dai day

[au] > []:] lawe law


1.3.3. Rise of long [a:], []:], [ə:]

The vowel was lengthened when it was followed by the consonant [r]. Short vowels followed by the consonant [r] became long after the disappearance of the given consonant at the end of the word or before another consonant:


[a] > [a:] farm farm

[o] > []:] hors horse

When the consonant [r] stood after the vowels [e], [i], [u], the resulting vowel was different from the initial vowel not only in quantity but also in quality. Compare:


Fir [c:]


The sonorant [r] began to produce a certain influence upon the preceding vowels in Late ME, long before it showed any signs of vocalisation. [r] made the preceding vowel more open and retracted: the cluster [er] changed to [ar], e.g. OE deorc became Early ME derk [derk] due to the contraction of the OE diphthong [eo] to [e], and changed to dark [dark] in Late ME (NE dark); likewise OE clerec, which after the loss of the unstressed vowel became ME clerk [klerk], changed to [klark] (NE clerk); OE heorte developed into ME herte ['hertc], and Late ME [hart] (NE heart). The three examples are also interesting in that they show different reflections of one and the same change in the written form of the word: in dark the change of [er] to [ar] was shown in the spelling; in clerk the spelling points to the preceding stage, when the sequence sounded as [er]; the spelling of heart seems to bear traces of both stages or perhaps shows another attempt to record the transition of [e] to [a] with the help of the digraph ea. Although the change of [er] to [ar] was fairly common, it did not affect all the words with the given sounds: cf. ME serven ['servcn], person ['perscn].

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