Old English phonology

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Anglian smoothing)
Jump to: navigation, search
For assistance with IPA transcriptions of Old English for Wikipedia articles, see Help:IPA for Old English.

Old English phonology is necessarily somewhat speculative since Old English is preserved only as a written language. Nevertheless, there is a very large corpus of the language, and the orthography apparently indicates phonological alternations quite faithfully, so it is not difficult to draw certain conclusions about the nature of Old English phonology.

Sound inventory[edit]

The inventory of surface sounds (whether allophones or phonemes) of Old English is as shown below. Allophones are enclosed in parentheses.


Consonant phones
Labial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m () n (ŋ)
Stop p b t d k ɡ
Affricate ()
Fricative f (v) θ (ð) s (z) ʃ (ç) (x ɣ) h
Approximant () l j (ʍ) w
Trill () r

Dorsal consonants[edit]

[dʒ] is an allophone of /j/ occurring after /n/ or when geminated

  • senġan "to singe" /ˈsenjan/ > [ˈsendʒɑn]
from *sangijan
  • bryċġ "bridge" /bryjj/ > [bryddʒ]
from *bruggjō < *bruɣjō

[ç, x] are allophones of /h/ occurring in coda position after front and back vowels respectively.

  • cniht "boy" /kniht/ > [kniçt]
  • ġeþōht "thought" /jeˈθoːht/ > [jeˈθoːxt]

The evidence for the allophone [ç] after front vowels is indirect, as it is not indicated in the orthography. Nevertheless, the fact that there was historically a fronting of *k to /tʃ/ and of to /j/ after front vowels makes it very likely. Moreover, in late Middle English, /x/ sometimes became /f/ (e.g. tough, cough), but only after back vowels, never after front vowels. This is explained if we assume that the allophone [x] sometimes became [f] but the allophone [ç] never did.

[ɣ] is an allophone of /ɡ/ occurring after a vowel or liquid. Historically, [ɣ] is older, and originally appeared in word-initial position as well.

  • dagas "days" /ˈdagas/ > [ˈdɑɣɑs]
  • burgum "castles (dative)" /ˈburgum/ > [ˈburɣum]

In Proto-Germanic (PGmc) and probably the earliest Old English it makes more sense to say that [ɡ] is an allophone of /ɣ/ after a nasal or when geminated. But after [ɣ] became [ɡ] word-initially, it makes more sense to treat the stop as the basic form and the fricative as the allophonic variant.


[ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ occurring before /k/ and /ɡ/. [ŋ] did not occur alone word-finally in Old English as it does in Standard Modern English. Words that have final [ŋ] in Modern English have the cluster [ŋɡ] in Old English. (Some dialects in Northern England retain the Old English pattern.)

  • sincan "sink" /ˈsinkɑn/ > [ˈsiŋkɑn]
  • hring "ring" /hring/ > [r̥iŋɡ]

Intervocalic voicing[edit]

The fricatives /f θ s/ had voiced allophones [v ð z] between vowels or voiced consonants.

  • stæf "letter" /ˈstæf/: [ˈstæf]
stafas "letters" /ˈstɑfɑs/ > [ˈstɑvɑs]
  • smiþ "blacksmith" /smiθ/: [ˈsmiθ]
smiþas "blacksmiths" /ˈsmiθɑs/ > [ˈsmiðɑs]
  • hūs "house" (noun) /ˈhuːs/: [ˈhuːs]
hūsian "house" (verb) /ˈhuːsiɑn/ > [ˈhuːziɑn]
  • forþ "forth" /ˈforθ/: /ˈforθ/
compare eorðe "earth" /ˈeorθe/ > [ˈeorðe]
  • fæþm "fathom" /ˈfæθm/ > [ˈfæðm]


The exact nature of Old English /r/ is not known. It may have been an alveolar approximant [ɹ], as in most Modern English accents, an alveolar flap [ɾ], or an alveolar trill [r].

/l r/ apparently had velarized allophones [ɫ] and [rˠ], or similar, when followed by another consonant. This is suggested by the vowel shifts of breaking and retraction before /l r/, which could be cases of assimilation to a following velar consonant.

  • *lirnian > leornian [ˈleorˠnian] "learn"
  • *erþe > eorþe [ˈeorˠðe]
  • *fællan > feallan [ˈfæɑɫɫɑn] "fall"

The sequences /hw, hl, hn, hr/ were pronounced as voiceless sonorants [ʍ, l̥ or ɬ, n̥, r̥]. They developed from the clusters *xw, *xl, *xn, *xr in Proto-Germanic.

  • hwæt [ˈʍæt] "what"
  • hlāf [ˈl̥ɑːf] "bread" (Modern English loaf)
  • hnutu [ˈn̥utu] "nut"
  • hring [ˈr̥iŋg] "ring"


Old English had a moderately large vowel system. Both monophthongs and diphthongs had short and long versions, which were clearly distinguished in pronunciation.


Most dialects of Old English had 7 vowels, each with a short and long version, for a total of 14 monophthongs. Certain dialects add an eighth vowel, for a total of 16.

Front Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Close i iː y yː u uː
Mid e eː (ø øː) o oː
Open æ æː ɑ ɑː

An example of a pair of words distinguished by vowel length is God [ɡod] "God" and gōd [goːd] "good". There is also historical evidence[further explanation needed] suggesting that short /e/ and /o/ were phonetically lower and/or more centralized (perhaps [ɛ] and [ɔ]) than the corresponding long ones; likewise /ø/ may have been pronounced [œ]. Short close vowels also may have been lower than their long counterparts, i.e. [ɪ, ʏ, ʊ].

The front mid rounded vowels /ø øː/ occur in some dialects of Old English, but not in the best attested Late West Saxon dialect.

This latter dialect also contained the monophthongization of the ie/īe diphthong (of disputed pronunciation), which was normally written y (e.g. gelȳfan "to believe" from earlier ġelīefan), although sometimes written with an i known as an unstable i (note variant spelling ġelīfan). Next to c, g and h, unstable i is the normal outcome (e.g. ġifan "to give" from earlier ġiefan). This produced additional instances of y, alongside those that developed from i-mutation and from sporadic rounding of i in certain circumstances (e.g. myċel "much" from earlier miċel, with rounding perhaps triggered by the rounded /m/).


Old English in the late West Saxon dialect had three diphthongs, each with short and long versions, for a total of 6.

First element is close iy/ie2 iːy/iːe
Both elements are mid eo eːo
Both elements are open æɑ æːɑ

2. ^ It is uncertain whether the diphthongs spelt ie/īe were pronounced [i(ː)y] or [i(ː)e]. The fact that this diphthong was merged with /y(ː)/ in many dialects could be interpreted to suggest the former, although even the monophthong i was often spelt as y in latter Old English writings.

Distribution of velars and palatals[edit]

The postalveolar and palatal consonants /tʃ dʒ j ʃ/ developed by palatalization from /k g sk/.

The pairs /k/~/tʃ/ and /ɡ/~/j/ are almost certainly distinct phonemes synchronically in late West Saxon, the dialect in which the majority of Old English documents are written. This is suggested by such near-minimal pairs as:

  • drincan [driŋkɑn] "to drink" vs. drenċan [drentʃɑn] "to drench"
  • gēs [ɡeːs] "geese" vs. ġē [jeː] "you"

Nevertheless there are few true minimal pairs, and velars and palatals often alternate with each other in ways reminiscent of allophones, for example:

  • ċēosan [tʃeːozan] "to choose" vs. curon [kuron] "chose (pl.)"
  • ġēotan [jeːotan] "to pour" vs. guton [ɡuton] "poured (pl.)"

Standard Old English spelling used the same letter c for both /k/ and /tʃ/, and g for both /ɡ/ and /j/. In the standardized orthography used on this page, the velar and palatal variants are distinguished with a diacritic: c stands for /k/, ċ for /tʃ/, g for /ɡ/ and [ɣ], and ġ for /j/ and [dʒ]. The geminates of these are spelled cc, ċċ, cg, ċġ. This diacritic was not written in the original sources.

The PGmc ancestor of both c and ċ is *k. The ancestor of both g and ġ is *g, which had two allophones: [g] when following /n/ or when geminated, and [ɣ] everywhere else. (In the following text, we note both allophones, for easier understanding of the sound changes; likewise for the allophones [d] and [ð] of *d, and [b] and [β] of *b.) Palatalization of *k to ċ and of *g to ġ were generally triggered by a nearby *i, *ī or *j and sometimes by other front vowels, with [ɣ] palatalized in more environments than [k] or [g]. Palatalization happened in the following environments:

  • before PGmc high vowels (*i, *ī) as well as PGmc *j
    • Examples: ġifþ "(he) gives" < *ɣiβiði, ċīdan "to chide" < *kīðaną; non-initially bēċ "books" < *bōkiz, sēċan "seek" < *sōkijaną, bryċġ "bridge" < West Germanic *bruggjō < PGmc *bruɣjō
  • before PGmc nonlow front vowels (*e, *ē, *eu), only when word-initial for [k] but in all environments for [ɣ]
    • Examples: ċeorl "churl" < *kerlaz, ċēoce "cheek" < *keukōN
  • before OE /æ, æː, æːɑ, æɑ/ < PGmc *a, ā, *au by Anglo-Frisian brightening and breaking (but not before OE /ɑ, ɑː/ < PGmc *a, ǣ by a-restoration): only when word-initial for [k] but in all environments for [ɣ]
    • Examples:
      • Before /æ, æː/: ġeaf /jæf/ "gave" < *ɣaβ
      • Before /æːɑ/ From PGmc *au: ċēas "chose (sg.)" < *kaus, ġēat "poured (sg.)" < *ɣaut, ċēace /tʃæːɑke/ "cheek" < *kaukōN
      • Before /æɑ/: ċeald "cold" < *kaldaz, ġeard "yard" < *ɣarðaz
  • after OE /i, iː/, unless a back vowel followed
    • Examples: "I" < PGmc *ik, dīċ "ditch, dike" < PGmc *dīkaz (but wicu "weak")
  • For [ɣ] only, after OE /e, eː/ and /æ, æː/, unless a back vowel followed
    • Examples: weġ "way" < PGmc *weɣaz, næġl "nail" < PGmc *naɣlaz, mǣġ "relative" < PGmc *mēɣaz (but wegas [weɣɑs] "ways")

Palatalization happened before i-mutation (umlaut); hence it was not triggered by front vowels that resulted from i-mutation:

  • cyning "king" < *kuningaz
  • gēs "geese" < *ɣōsi < *ɣansiz
  • cemban "to comb" < *kambijaną

Palatalization was undone before consonants in OE:

  • sēcþ "he seeks" < *sēċþ < *sōkīþi
  • sengþ "he singes" < *senġþ < *sangīþi

The palatalization of PGmc *sk to OE /ʃ/ (spelt ) is much less restricted: word-initially it is found before back vowels and r as well as in the environments where ċ and ġ are found.[1]

  • sċuldor "shoulder" < *skuldrō
  • sċort "short" < *skurtaz
  • sċrūd (mod. "shroud") "dress" < *skrūðą

Non-initially palatalization to is found before PGmc front vowels and j, and after front vowels in OE, but not before an OE back vowel

  • fisċ "fish" < *fiskaz
  • āscian "ask" < *aiskōną

In addition to /j/ from the palatalization of PGmc , Old English also has /j/ from PGmc *j, which could stand before back vowels:

  • ġeong /junɡ/ "young" < PGmc *jungaz
  • ġeoc /jok/ "yoke" < PGmc *juką

Many instances where a ċ/c, ġ/g, or sċ/sc alternation would be expected within a paradigm, it was levelled out by analogy at some point in the history of the language. For example, the velar of sēcþ "he seeks" has replaced the palatal of sēċan "to seek" in Modern English; on the other hand, the palatalised forms of besēċan have replaced the velar forms, giving modern beseech.

Phonological processes[edit]

A number of phonological processes affected Old English in the period before the earliest documentation. These processes especially affected vowels, and are the reason why many Old English words look significantly different from related words in languages such as Old High German, which is much closer to the common West Germanic ancestor of both languages. The processes took place chronologically in the order described below (with uncertainty in ordering as noted).

Various conventions are used below for describing Old English words, reconstructed parent forms of various sorts, and reconstructed Proto-West-Germanic (PWG), Proto-Germanic (PG) and Proto-Indo-European (PIE) forms:

  • Forms in italics denote either Old English words as they appear in spelling, or reconstructed forms of various sorts. Where phonemic ambiguity occurs in Old English spelling, extra diacritics are used (ċ, ġ, ā, ǣ, ē, ī, ō, ū, ȳ).
  • Forms between /slashes/ or [brackets] indicate, respectively, broad (phonemic) or narrow (allophonic) pronunciation. Sounds are indicated using standard IPA notation.

The following table indicates the correspondence between spelling and IPA pronunciation:

Sound Spelling Pronunciation
Short vowels o e etc. /o e/ etc.
Short nasal vowels ǫ ę etc. /õ ẽ/ etc.
Long vowels ō ē etc. /oː eː/ etc.
Long nasal vowels ǭ ę̄ etc. /õː ẽː/ etc.
Overlong vowels ô ê /oːː eːː/
Overlong nasal vowels ǫ̂ ę̂ /õːː ẽːː/
"Long" diphthongs ēa ēo īo īe /æːɑ eːo iːu iːy/
"Short" diphthongs ea eo io ie /æɑ eo iu iy/
Unpalatalized velars in Old English1 c sc g ng gg /k sk/ [ɣ ng gg]
Palatalized velars in Old English1 ċ sċ ġ nġ ċġ /tʃ ʃ/ [j ndʒ ddʒ]
Proto-Germanic velars2 k sk g sometimes also ɣ /k sk/ [g,ɣ]
Proto-Germanic voiced stops/fricatives2 b d g sometimes also β ð ɣ [b,β] [d,ð] [g,ɣ]

1See the section on consonant allophones for a description of the allophones of g and ġ and when they occurred.

2Proto-Germanic /b d g/ had two allophones each: stops [b d g] and fricatives [β ð ɣ]. The stops occurred:

  1. following a nasal;
  2. when geminated;
  3. word-initially, for /b/ and /d/ only;
  4. following /l/, for /d/ only.

(By West Germanic times, /d/ was pronounced as a stop [d] in all positions.) The fricative allophones are sometimes indicated in reconstructed forms, to make it easier to understand the development of Old English consonants.

A-fronting part 1: ā > ǣ[edit]

The Anglo-Frisian languages underwent a sound change in their development from Proto-West Germanic by which ā [ɑː], unless followed by /n, m/ or nasalized, was fronted to ǣ [æː].[2] This similar to the later process known in the literature as Anglo-Frisian brightening or First Fronting (see below). Note that nasalized ą̄ was unaffected, and was later raised to ǭ (see below). Similarly, the sequences ān, ām were unaffected and later raised to ōn, ōm. (It can be assumed, therefore, that a nasal consonant n, m caused a preceding long vowel to nasalize.)

Monophthongization of /ai/[edit]

Proto-Germanic /ai/ was monophthongized to /aː/ ([ɑː]).[3] This occurred after the fronting of West Germanic [ɑː] to [æː] by Anglo-Frisian brightening. Examples are numerous, e.g. stān "stone" ← Proto-Germanic *stainaz (cf. Old Frisian stēn vs. Gothic stáin, Old High German stein). In many cases the resulting [ɑː] was later fronted to [æː] by i-mutation, e.g. dǣlan "to divide" (cf. Old Frisian dēla vs. Gothic dáiljan, Old High German teilen).

A-fronting part 2 ("Anglo-Frisian brightening"): a > æ[edit]

Part two of a-fronting (or "Anglo-Frisian brightening" or "First Fronting") is very similar to part one except that it affects short a [ɑ] instead of long ā [ɑː]. a [ɑ] is fronted to æ [æ] unless followed by /n, m/ or nasalized — the same conditions as applied in part one.[4]

See a-restoration below for examples.

Importantly, a-fronting was blocked by n, m only in stressed syllables, not unstressed syllables. This accounts for forms like ġefen (archaic ġefæn) "given" from Proto-Germanic *gebanaz. However, the infinitive ġefan retains its back vowel because it was followed by a nasal vowel in Proto-Germanic, which blocked the fronting: *gebaną. This provides evidence that the fronting occurred before the loss of final , which occurred before the earliest written records of any West Germanic language.

Diphthong height harmonization[edit]

Diphthongs in most languages are of the "closing" type, where the second segment is higher (if possible) than the first, e.g. Modern English /ai, au, oi, ei, ou/. Proto-Germanic likewise had /ai, au, eu/ and [iu] ([iu] was an allophone of /eu/ when an /i/ or /j/ followed in the next syllable). Old English, however, had unusual "harmonic" diphthongs, where both segments were of the same height: ea /æɑ/, eo /eo/, io /iu/, ie /iy/. Note that all of these diphthongs could occur both short (monomoraic), i.e. /æa, eo, iu, iy/, and long (bimoraic), i.e. /æːa, eːo, iːu, iːy/. Note also that the spelling of the diphthongs differs somewhat from their assumed pronunciation. The interpretations ea /æa/ and eo /eo/ are generally accepted (evidence for the former comes from various sources, e.g. the behavior of breaking and back mutation [see below]) and the Middle English development of ea into the short low-central vowel /a/). However, the interpretations io /iu/ and especially ie /iy/ are controversial, with many (especially more traditional) sources assuming that the pronunciation matched the spelling, i.e. io /io/ and ie /ie/ — that is, these diphthongs were of the "opening" rather than harmonic type.

The process that produced harmonic diphthongs from earlier closing diphthongs is called diphthong height harmonization. Specifically, the second segment of a diphthong was changed to be the same height as the first segment. Proto-Germanic diphthongs were affected as follows:

  • /ai/ [ɑi] had earlier been monophthongized to /ɑː/.
  • /au/ [ɑu] was fronted by a-fronting (aka Anglo-Frisian brightening) to /æu/, and then harmonized to /æɑ/, spelled ea
  • /eu/ [eu] was harmonized to eo /eo/
  • [iu] was already harmonic; it became phonemic, and remained as io /iu/ (this interpretation is somewhat controversial; see above)

Note that the remaining Old English diphthongs were due to other processes, such as breaking, back mutation and i-mutation.

Late in the development of the standard West Saxon dialect, io (both long and short) became eo, merging with existing eo. This is in fact one of the most noticeable differences between early Old English (c. 900 AD) and late Old English (c. 1000 AD).

Breaking and retraction[edit]

Breaking in Old English is the diphthongization of the short front vowels /i, e, æ/ to short (monomoraic) /iu, eo, æɑ/ when followed by /h/, /w/ or by /r/ or /l/ plus another consonant.[5] Long /iː, æː/ similarly broke to /iːu, eːa/, but only when followed by /h/. Note that /l/ in coda position has a velar quality (the "dark l" allophone in present-day English all, cold), and is therefore indicated as [ɫ]. The geminates rr and ll usually count as r or l plus another consonant, although ll produced by West Germanic gemination doesn't count. (More correctly, /i/ or /j/ in the following syllable prevents breaking from occurring.)

Note that /iu, iːu/ were lowered to /eo, eːo/ in late Old English (see above).

The exact conditions for breaking vary somewhat depending on the sound being broken:

  • Short /æ/ breaks before h, rC, lC, where C is any consonant.
  • Short /e/ breaks before h, rC, lh, lc, w, i.e. compared to /æ/ it's also broken before w, but is broken before l only in the combination lh and sometimes lc.
  • Short /i/ breaks before h, rC, w. However, breaking before wi does not happen, and in the Anglian dialect breaking before rCi happens only in the combination *rzi (e.g. Anglian iorre "anger" from *irziją but afirran from *a+firrijaną).
  • Long ī and ǣ break only before h.


  • weorpan [weorpɑn] "to throw" < */werpan/
  • wearp [wæɑrp] "threw (sing.)" < */wærp/
  • feoh [feox] "money" < */feh/
  • feaht [fæaxt] "fought (sing.)" < */fæht/
  • healp [hæaɫp] "helped (sing.)" < */hælp/ (but no breaking in helpan "to help" because the consonant after /l/ is not /h/)
  • feorr [feorr] "far" < */ferr/
  • feallan [fæɑllɑn] "to fall" < */fællan/ (but tellan < earlier */tælljan/ is not broken because of the following /j/)
  • eolh [eoɫx] "elk" < */elh/
  • liornian, leornian [liurniɑn], [leorniɑn] "to learn" < earlier */lirnoːjan/
  • nēah "near" [næːɑx] (cf. "nigh") < */næːh/
  • lēon "to lend" [leːon] < */liun/ < */liuhan/ < */liːhan/

The i-mutation of broken /iu, eo, æa/ (whether long or short) is spelled ie (possibly /iy/, see above).


  • hwierfþ "turns" (intr.) < /hwiurfiθ/ + i-mutation < /hwirfiθ/ + breaking < Proto-Germanic *hwirbiþi < early Proto-Germanic *hwerbiþi
  • hwierfan "to turn" (tr.) < /hwæarfijan/ + i-mutation < /hwærfijan/ + breaking < /hwarfijan/ + a-fronting < Proto-Germanic *hwarbijaną
  • nīehst "nearest" (cf. "next") < /næːahist/ + i-mutation < /næːhist/ + breaking < /naːhist/ + a-fronting < Proto-Germanic *nēhist
  • līehtan "to lighten" < /liːuhtijan/ + i-mutation < /liːhtijan/ + breaking < Proto-Germanic *līhtijaną

Note that in some dialects /æ/ was backed (retracted) to /a/ (/ɑ/) rather than broken, when occurring in the circumstances described above that would normally trigger breaking. This happened in the dialect of Anglia that partially underlies Modern English, and explains why Old English ceald appears as Modern English "cold" (actually from Anglian Old English cald) rather than "*cheald" (the expected result of ceald).

Both breaking and retraction are fundamentally phenomena of assimilation to a following velar consonant. Note that /w/ is in fact a velar consonant, while /h/, /l/, and /r/ are less obviously so. It is therefore assumed that, at least at the time of the occurrence of breaking and retraction, /h/ was pronounced [x] or similar — at least when following a vowel — and /l/ and /r/ before a consonant had a velar or retroflex quality and were pronounced [ɫ] and [ɹ], or similar. Breaking and retraction occurred several hundred years before recorded Old English. However, based on evidence from Middle and Modern English, it is assumed that /l/ and /r/ maintained the same velar/retroflex allophones in the same contexts into recorded Old English. As for /h/, the later changes of h-loss and palatalization indicate that some changes occurred in the allophones of /h/; see above.


After breaking occurred, short /æ/ (and in some dialects long /æː/ as well), was backed to /a/ (/ɑ/) when there was a back vowel in the following syllable.[6] This is called "a-restoration" because it partly restored original /a/, which had earlier been fronted to /æ/ (see above). (Note: The situation is complicated by a later change in some dialects called "Second Fronting" that fronted short restored /a/ to /æ/ for the second time, while raising /æ/ to /e/. This did not affect the standard West Saxon dialect of Old English.)

Because strong masculine and neuter nouns have back vowels in the plural, alternations like /æ/ in the singular vs. /a/ in the plural are common in this noun class:

/æ/~/a/ alternation in masculine and neuter strong nouns
Case Masculine Neuter
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative dæġ dagas fæt fatu
Accusative dæġ dagas fæt fatu
Genitive dæġes daga fætes fata
Dative dæġe dagum fæte fatum

A-restoration occurred before the *ō of the weak verb suffix *-ōj-, although this surfaces in Old English as the front vowel i, as in macian "to make" < *makōjan-.

Breaking (see above) occurred between a-fronting and a-restoration. This order is necessary to account for words like slēan "to slay" (actually pronounced /slæɑn/) from original *slahan: /slahan/ > /slæhan/ (a-fronting) > /slæɑhɑn/ (breaking; inhibits a-restoration) > /slæɑɑn/ (h-loss) > /slæːɑn/ (vowel coalescence, compensatory lengthening).

A-restoration interacted in a tricky fashion with a-fronting (Anglo-Frisian brightening) to produce e.g. brecan "to break" from Proto-Germanic *brekaną but brecen "broken" from Proto-Germanic *brekanaz. Basically:

Step "to break" "broken" Reason
1 /brekaną/ /brekanaz/ original form
2 /brekaną/ /brekana/ loss of final z
3 /brekæną/ /brekænæ/ Anglo-Frisian brightening
4 /brekaną/ /brekænæ/ a-restoration
5 /brekan/ /brekæn/ loss of final short vowels
6 /brekan/ /breken/ collapse of unstressed short front vowels to /e/
7 brecan brecen spelled normally

Note that the key difference is in steps 3 and 4, where nasalized ą is unaffected by a-fronting even though the sequence an is in fact affected, since it occurs in an unstressed syllable. This leads to a final-syllable difference between a and æ, which is transferred to the preceding syllable in step 4.


Palatalization of velars occurred before, and sometimes after, front vowels. This occurred after a-restoration and before i-mutation, but it is unclear whether it occurred before or after h-loss. Thus, it did not occur in galan "to sing" (cf. modern English "regale"), with the first /a/ backed from /æ/ due to a-restoration. Similarly, palatalization occurred in dæġ "day" but not in a-restored dagas "days" (cf. dialectal English dawes "days") or in OE dagung "dawn", where the w is the modern reflex of unpalatalized /ɣ/. Nor did it occur in cyning "king", with front /y/ developed from /u/ due to i-mutation.

The exact circumstances in which palatalization occurred are complicated; see the above section on the distribution of velars and palatals for more information. However, the following summary is largely accurate:

  • When palatalized, /k/, /ɡ/, /ɣ/, /sk/ became /tʃ/, /dʒ/, /ʝ/, /ʃ/. /ʝ/ later becomes /j/, but not before the loss of older /j/ below.
  • Generally, the velar stops /k/, /ɡ/ were palatalized by a following /i(ː)/ or /j/; by a preceding /i(ː)/ (possibly with an intervening /n/), unless the velar stop was followed by a back vowel; and by other front vowels following a specifically word-initial /k/. (At this point, there was no word-initial /ɡ/.)
  • /ɣ/ was palatalized in somewhat broader circumstances: By any following front vowel, as well as by a preceding front vowel when a vowel did not immediately follow the /ɣ/.
  • /sk/ is palatalized in almost all circumstances. PG *skipaz > NE ship (cf. skipper < Dutch schipper, where no such change happened), but West Frisian skip. PG *skurtijaz > OE scyrte > NE shirt, but > ON skyrt > NE skirt.[1] An example of retained /sk/ is PG *aiskōną > OE ascian > NE ask.
  • Palatal sounds reverted to their non-palatal equivalents when they came to stand immediately before a consonant, even if this occurred at a significantly later period (e.g. sēcþ "(he) seeks" < *sēċiþ). The resulting alternation between e.g. sēċan "to seek" and sēcþ "(he) seeks", followed by the differing operation of analogy, is why we have "to seek" but "to beseech" in modern English, which both originally had the same verb root.

Second fronting[edit]

Second fronting fronted /a/ to /æ/, and /æ/ to /e/, later than related processes of a-fronting and a-restoration.[7] Second fronting did not affect the standard West Saxon dialect. In fact, it took place only in a relatively small section of the area (English Midlands) where the Mercian dialect was spoken. Mercian itself was a subdialect of the Anglian dialect (which includes all of Central and Northern England).

Palatal diphthongization[edit]

The front vowels e, ē, æ, and ǣ usually become the diphthongs ie, īe, ea, and ēa after ċ, ġ, and :[8]

  • sċieran "to cut", sċear "cut (past sing.)", sċēaron "cut (past pl.)", which belongs to the same conjugation class (IV) as beran "to carry", bær "carried (sing.)", bǣron "carried (pl.)"
  • ġiefan "to give", ġeaf "gave (sing.)", ġēafon "gave (pl.)", ġiefen "given", which belongs to the same conjugation class (V) as tredan "to tread", træd "trod (sing.)", trǣdon "trod (pl.)", treden "trodden"

In a similar way, the back vowels u, o, and a were spelled as eo and ea after ċ, ġ, and :

  • *ġung > ġeong "young" (cf. German jung)
  • *sċolde > sċeolde "should" (cf. German sollte)
  • *sċadu > sċeadu "shadow" (cf. Dutch schaduw)

Most likely, the second process was simply a spelling convention, and a, o, u actually did not change in pronunciation: the vowel u continued to be pronounced in ġeong, o in sċeolde, and a in sċeadu. This is suggested by their developments in Middle and Modern English. If ġeong and sċeolde had the diphthong eo, they would develop into Modern English *yeng and *shield instead of young and should.

There is less agreement about the first process. The traditional view is that e, ē, æ, and ǣ actually became diphthongs,[9][10] but a minority view is that they remained as monophthongs:[11]

  • sċieran [ʃerɑn]
  • sċear [ʃær]
  • sċēaron [ʃæːron]
  • ġiefan [jevɑn]
  • ġeaf [jæf]
  • ġēafon [jæːvon]
  • ġiefen [jeven]

The main arguments in favor of this view are the fact that the corresponding process involving back vowels is indeed purely orthographic, and that diphthongizations like /æ/[æɑ] and /e/[iy] (if this is the correct interpretation of orthographic ie) are phonetically unmotivated in the context of a preceding palatal or postalveolar consonant.

Metathesis of r[edit]

Original sequences of an r followed by a short vowel metathesized, with the vowel and r switching places. This normally only occurred when the next following consonant was s or n, and sometimes d.

  • Before s: berstan "to burst" (Icelandic bresta), gærs "grass" (Gothic gras), þerscan "to thresh"(Gothic þriskan)
  • Before n: byrnan ~ beornan "to burn (intrans)" (Gothic brinnan), irnan "to run" (Gothic rinnan), īren "iron" (< *īsren < īsern; Gothic eisarn), wærna "wren" (Icelandic rindill), ærn "house" (Gothic razn)
  • Before d: þirda "third" (Gothic þridja), Northumbrian bird "chick, nestling" (standard bryd)

Not all potential words to which metathesis can apply are actually affected, and many of the above words also appear in their unmetathesized form (e.g. græs "grass", rinnan "to run", wrenna "wren", rare forms brustæn "burst (past part.)", þrescenne "to thresh", onbran "set fire to (past)", īsern "iron", ren- "house", þridda "third"; briddes "birds" in Chaucer). Note also that many of the words have come down to Modern English in their unmetathesized forms.

Metathesis in the other direction occasionally occurs before ht, e.g. wrohte "worked" (cf. obsolescent wrought; Gothic wurhta), Northumbrian breht ~ bryht "bright" (Gothic baírhts), fryhto "fright" (Gothic faúrhtei), wryhta "maker" (cf. wright; Old Saxon wurhtio). Unmetathesized forms of all of these words also occur in Old English. The phenomenon occurred in most Germanic languages.

I-mutation (i-umlaut)[edit]

See i-mutation in Old English.

Final a-loss[edit]

Absolutely final unstressed low vowels ( from Proto-Germanic -a(z) by Anglo-Frisian brightening, and ) were lost. Note that final -z was lost already in West Germanic times. Preceding -j-, -ij-, and -w- were vocalized to -i, and -u, respectively. This occurred after breaking, since PG *barwaz was affected, becoming OE bearu, while words in PG *-uz were not. (Apparent instances of such breaking are due to the later process of back umlaut, which did not apply across all consonants, c.f. unbroken West Saxon OE teru "tear" < PG *teruz but broken smeoru "grease" < PG *smerwą, where back umlaut did not apply across -r- in West Saxon.) It also probably occurred after a-restoration; see that section for examples showing this. It apparently occurred before high-vowel loss, because the preceding vocalized semivowels were affected by this process; e.g. gād "lack" < *gādu (by high-vowel loss) < PG *gaidwą (cf. Gothic gaidw). It's unclear if it occurred before or after i-mutation.

Medial syncopation[edit]

In medial syllables, short low and mid vowels (/a,æ,e/) are deleted in all open syllables.[12]

Short high vowels (/i,u/) are deleted in open syllables following a long syllable, but usually remain following a short syllable; this is part of the process of high-vowel loss.

Syncopation of low/mid vowels happens after i-mutation and before high-vowel loss.

An example of why it occurs after i-mutation is mæġden "maiden":

Stage Process Result
Proto-Germanic Original form *magadīną
Anglo-Frisian Anglo-Frisian brightening *mægædīną
palatalization *mæġædīną
i-mutation *mæġedīną
final a-loss *mæġedīn
medial syncopation *mæġdīn
Old English unstressed vowel reduction mæġden

If medial syncopation of short low/mid vowels occurred before i-mutation, the result in Old English would be **meġden.

An example of why syncopation occurs before high-vowel loss is sāw(o)l "soul":

  • PG *saiwalō > *sāwalu > *sāwlu (medial syncopation) > sāwl "soul". (By-form sāwol is due to vowel epenthesis.)

If it occurred after high-vowel loss, the result in Old English would be **sāwlu.

High-vowel loss[edit]

In an unstressed open syllable, /i/ and /u/ (including final /-u/ from earlier /-oː/) were lost when following a long syllable (i.e. one with a long vowel or diphthong, or followed by two consonants), but not when following a short syllable (i.e. one with a short vowel followed by a single consonant). This took place in two types of contexts:

  1. Absolutely word-final
  2. In a medial open syllable

High-vowel loss caused many paradigms to split depending on the length of the root syllable, with -u or -e (from *-i) appearing after short but not long syllables. For example,

  • feminine ō-stem nouns in the nom. sg.: PG *gebō > OE ġiefu "gift" but PG *laizō > OE lār "teaching";
  • neuter a-stem nouns in the nom./acc. pl.: PG *skipō > OE scipu "ships" but PG *wurdō > OE word "words";
  • masculine i-stem nouns in the nom./acc. sg.: PG *winiz > OE wine "friend" but PG *gastiz > OE ġiest "guest";
  • u-stem nouns in the nom./acc. sg.: PG *sunuz > OE sunu "son" but PG *handuz > OE hand "hand";
  • strong adjectives in the feminine nom. sg. and neuter nom./acc. pl.: PG *tilō > OE tilu "good (fem. nom. sg., neut. nom./acc. pl.)" but PG *gōdō > OE gōd "good (fem. nom. sg., neut. nom./acc. pl.)";
  • weak class 1 imperatives: OE freme "perform!" vs. hīer "hear!" (PG stems *frami- and *hauzi-, respectively; it's unclear if the imperatives ended in *-i or *).

This loss affected the plural of root nouns, e.g. PrePG *pōdes > PG *fōtiz > *fø̄ti > OE fēt "feet (nom.)". All such nouns had long-syllable stems, and so all were without ending in the plural, with the plural marked only by i-mutation.

Note that two-syllable nouns consisting of two short syllables were treated as if they had a single long syllable — a type of equivalence found elsewhere in the early Germanic languages, e.g. in the handling of Sievers' law in Proto-Norse, as well as in the metric rules of Germanic alliterative poetry. Hence, final high vowels are dropped. However, in a two-syllable noun consisting of a long first syllable, the length of the second syllable determines whether the high vowel is dropped. Examples (all are neuter nouns):[13]

  • Short-short: werod "troop", pl. werod (treated as equivalent to a single long syllable, or more correctly as a single long foot)
  • Short-long: færeld "journey", pl. færeld
  • Long-short: hēafod "head", pl. hēafdu (from *hēafodu)
  • Long-long: īsern "iron", pl. īsern

Note also the following apparent exceptions:

  • OE wītu "punishments" (pl. of wīte) < PG *wītijō;
  • OE rīc̣(i)u "kingdoms" (pl. of rīc̣e) < PG *rīkijō;
  • OE wildu "wild" (fem. of wilde) < PG *wildijō;
  • OE strengþu "strength" < PG *strangiþō.

In reality, these aren't exceptions because at the time of high-vowel loss the words had the same two-syllable long-short root structure as hēafod (see above).

As a result, high-vowel loss must have occurred after i-mutation but before the loss of internal -(i)j-, which occurred shortly after i-mutation.


Paradigm split also occurred medially as a result of high-vowel loss, e.g. in the past tense forms of Class I weak forms:

  • PG *dōmidē > OE dēmde "(he) judged"
  • PG *framidē > OE fremede "(he) did, performed (a duty)"

Normally, syncopation (i.e. vowel loss) does not occur in closed syllables, e.g. Englisċe "English", ǣresta "earliest", sċēawunge "a showing, inspection" (each word with an inflected ending following it). However, syncopation passes its usual limits in certain West Saxon verbal and adjectival forms, e.g. the present tense of strong verbs (birst "(you) carry" < PG *beris-tu, birþ "(he) carries" < PG *beriþ, similarly dēmst, dēmþ "(you) judge, (he) judges") and comparative adjectives (ġinġsta "youngest" < PG *jungistô, similarly strenġsta "strongest", lǣsta "least" < *lǣsesta < PG *laisistô).

When both medial and final high-vowel loss can operate in a single word, medial but not final loss occurs:[14]

  • PG *strangiþō > WG *strangiþu > *strengþu "strength";
  • PG *haubudō > WG *haubudu > *hēafdu "heads".

This implies that final high-vowel loss must precede medial high-vowel loss; else the result would be **strengþ, hēafd.

Loss of -(i)j-[edit]

Internal -j- and its Sievers' law variant -ij-, when they still remained in an internal syllable, were lost just after high-vowel loss, but only after a long syllable. Hence:

  • PG *wītijō > WG *wītiju > OE wītu "punishments" (if -ij- were lost before high-vowel loss, the result would be **wīt);
  • PG *dōmijaną > *dø̄mijan (after i-mutation) > OE dēman "to judge" (cf. NE deem);
  • PG *satjaną > WG *sattjaną > *sættjaną (after Anglo-Frisian brightening) > *settjan (after i-mutation) > OE settan "to set".

Note that in Proto-Germanic, the non-Sievers'-law variant -j- occurred only after short syllables, but due to West Germanic gemination, a consonant directly preceding the -j- was doubled, creating a long syllable. West Germanic gemination didn't apply to /r/, leaving a short syllable, and hence /j/ wasn't lost in such circumstances:

  • PG *arjaną > OE erian "to plow".

By Sievers' law, the variant /ij/ occurred only after long syllables, and thus was always lost when it was still word-internal at this point.

When -j- and -ij- became word-final after loss of a following vowel or vowel+/z/, they were converted into -i and , respectively. The former was affected by high-vowel loss, surfacing as -e when not deleted (i.e. after /r/), while the latter always surfaces as -e:

  • PG *kunją > WG *kunnją > *kunni > *kynni > OE cynn "kin, family, kind";
  • PG *harjaz > WG *harja (West Germanic gemination didn't apply to /r/) > *hari > *heri > OE here "army";
  • PG *wītiją > *wītī > OE wīte "punishment".

It is possible that loss of medial -j- occurred slightly earlier than loss of -ij-, and in particular before high-vowel loss. This appears to be necessary to explain short -jō stem words like nytt "use":

  • PG *nutjō > WG *nuttju > *nyttju (by i-mutation) > *nyttu (by j-loss) > OE nytt (by high-vowel deletion).

If high-vowel deletion occurred first, the result would presumably be an unattested **nytte.

A similar loss of -(i)j- occurred in the other West Germanic languages, although after the earliest records of those languages (especially Old Saxon, which still has written settian, hēliand corresponding to Old English settan "to set", hǣlend "savior"). Some details are different, as the form kunni with retained -i is found in Old Saxon, Old Dutch and Old High German (but note Old Frisian kenn, kin).

This did not affect the new /j/ (< /ʝ/) formed from palatalization of PG */ɣ/, suggesting that it was still a palatal fricative at the time of the change. For example, PG *wrōgijanan > early OE */wrøːʝijan/ > OE wrēġan (/wreːjan/).

Back mutation[edit]

Back mutation (sometimes back umlaut, guttural umlaut or u-umlaut) is a change that took place in late prehistoric Old English and caused short e, i and sometimes a to break into a diphthong (eo, io, ea respectively, similar to breaking) when a back vowel (u, o, ō, a) occurred in the following syllable.[15] Examples:

  • seofon "seven" < *sebun (cf. Gothic sibun)
  • heol(o)stor "hiding place, cover" (cf. English holster) < earlier helustr < *hulestr < *hulistran (cf. Gothic hulistr)
  • eofor "boar" < *eburaz (cf. Old High German ebur)
  • heorot "hart" < *herutaz (cf. Old High German hiruz)
  • mioluc, meoluc "milk" < *melukz (cf. Gothic miluks)
  • liofast, leofast "you (sg.) live" < *libast
  • ealu "ale" < *aluþ

Note that io turned into eo in late Old English.

A number of restrictions governed whether back mutation took place:

  • Generally it only took place when a single consonant followed the vowel being broken.
  • In the standard West Saxon dialect, back mutation only took place before labials (f, b, w) and liquids (l, r). In the Anglian dialect, it took place before all consonants except c, g (Anglian meodu "mead", eosol "donkey" vs. West Saxon medu, esol). In the Kentish dialect, it took place before all consonants (Kentish breogo "price" vs. West Saxon, Anglian bregu, brego).
  • Back mutation of a normally took place only in the Mercian subdialect of the Anglian dialect. Standard ealu "ale" is a borrowing from Mercian. Similar borrowings are poetic beadu "battle" and eafora "son, heir", cf. Gothic afar (many poetic words were borrowed from Mercian). On the other hand, standard bealu "evil" (arch. bale) and bearu "grove" owe their ea due to breaking — their forms at the time of breaking were *balwą, *barwaz, and the genitive singulars in Old English are bealwes, bearwes.

Anglian smoothing[edit]

In the Anglian (i.e. Mercian and Northumbrian) dialects of Old English, a process called smoothing undid many of the effects of breaking. In particular, before a velar (/h/, /g/, /k/) or before an /r/ or /l/ followed by a velar, diphthongs were reduced to monophthongs.[16] Note that the context for smoothing is similar to the context for the earlier process of breaking that produced many of the diphthongs in the first place. In particular:

  • ea > æ before a velar, e before /r/ or /l/ + velar
  • ēa > ē
  • eo > e
  • ēo > ē
  • io > i
  • īo > ī

This change preceded h-loss and vowel assimilation.

Note also that the diphthongs ie and īe did not exist in Anglian (or in fact in any dialect other than West Saxon).


In the same contexts where the voiceless fricatives /f, θ, s/ become voiced, i.e. between vowels and between a voiced consonant and a vowel, /h/ is lost,[17] with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel if it is short.[18] This occurs after breaking; hence breaking before /rh/ and /lh/ takes place regardless of whether the /h/ is lost by this rule. An unstressed short vowel is absorbed into the preceding long vowel.


  • sċōs "shoe" (gen.) < /ʃoːes/ < /ʃoːhes/, cf. sċōh (nom.)
  • fēos "money" (gen.) < /feːoes/ < /feohes/ < /fehes/, cf. feoh (nom.)
  • wēalas "foreigners, Welsh people" < /wæalhas/ < /wælhas/, cf. wealh (sing.)

Vowel assimilation[edit]

Two vowels that occurred in hiatus (i.e. next to each other, with no consonant separating) collapsed into a single long vowel.[19] Many occurrences were due to h-loss, but some came from other sources, e.g. loss of /j/ or /w/ after a front vowel. (Loss of /j/ occurred early, in Proto-Germanic times. Loss of /w/ occurred later, after i-umlaut.) If the first vowel was e or i (long or short), and the second vowel was a back vowel, a diphthong resulted. Examples:

  • sċōs "shoe" (gen.) < Proto-Germanic *skōhas (see under h-loss)
  • fēos "money" (gen.) < Proto-Germanic *fehas (see under h-loss)
  • frēond "friend" < frīond < Proto-Germanic *frijōndz (two syllables, cf. Gothic frijōnds)
  • sǣm "sea" (dat. pl.) < sǣum < *sǣwum < *sǣwimiz < Proto-Germanic *saiwimiz

Palatal umlaut[edit]

Palatal umlaut is a process whereby short e, eo, io appear as i (occasionally ie) before final ht, hs, hþ. Examples:

  • riht "right" (cf. German recht)
  • cniht "boy" (mod. knight) (cf. German Knecht)
  • siex "six" (cf. German sechs)
  • briht, bryht "bright" (cf. non-metathesized Old English forms beorht, (Anglian) berht, Dutch brecht)
  • hlihþ "(he) laughs" < *hlehþ < *hlæhiþ + i-mutation < Proto-Germanic *hlahiþ (cf. hliehhan "to laugh" < Proto-Germanic *hlahjaną)

Unstressed vowel reduction[edit]

There was steady vowel reduction in unstressed syllables, in a number of stages:

  1. In West Germanic times, absolutely final non-nasal * (but not e.g. *-ōz, * or *) was raised and shortened to -u.
  2. All other final-syllable *ō were lowered to *ā. By Anglo-Frisian brightening, these ended up as * (later ). Overlong *ô, as well as *ō in medial syllables, were unaffected.
  3. Although vowel nasality persisted at least up through Anglo-Frisian times and likely through the time of a-restoration, it was eventually lost (in stressed as well as unstressed syllables), with non-nasal vowels the result.
  4. Final a-loss deleted word-final short unstressed low vowels (* < PG *-az, *-a < PG *), causing preceding semivowels -j- -ij- -w- to become vocalized to -i -ī -u.
  5. Medial syncopation deleted word-medial short unstressed low/mid vowels in open syllables. This may be the same process as final a-loss.
  6. High-vowel loss deleted short unstressed high vowels /i/ and /u/ in open syllables following a long syllable, whether word-final or word-medial.
  7. All unstressed long and overlong vowels were shortened, with remaining long ō, ô shortening to a.
  8. This produced five final-syllable short vowels, which remained into early documented Old English (back a, u; front æ, e, i). By the time of the majority of Old English documents, however, all three front short vowels had merged into e.
  9. Absolutely final -u tends to be written u (sometimes o); but before a consonant, it is normally written o (e.g. seovon "seven" < PG *sibun). Exceptions are the endings -ung, -(s)um, -uc and when the root has u in it, e.g. duguþ "band of warriors; prosperity".[20]
  10. Final-syllable e is written i in the endings -ing, -iġ, -(l)iċ, -isċ, -iht.

A table showing these developments in more detail is found in Proto-Germanic#Later developments.

Dialects [edit]

Old English had four major dialect groups: West Saxon, Mercian, Northumbrian, and Kentish. West Saxon and Kentish occurred in the south, approximately to the south of the Thames river. Mercian constituted the middle section of the country, divided from the southern dialects by the Thames and from Northumbrian by the Humber river. In the south, the easternmost portion was Kentish and everywhere else was West Saxon. Mercian and Northumbrian are often grouped together as "Anglian".

The biggest differences occurred between West Saxon and the other groups. The differences occurred mostly in the front vowels, and particularly the diphthongs. (However, Northumbrian was distinguished from the rest by much less palatalization. Forms in Modern English with hard /k/ and /g/ where a palatalized sound would be expected from Old English are due either to Northumbrian influence or to direct borrowing from Scandinavian. Note that, in fact, the lack of palatalization in Northumbrian was probably due to heavy Scandinavian influence.)

The early history of Kentish was similar to Anglian, but sometime around the ninth century all of the front vowels æ, e, y (long and short) merged into e (long and short). The further discussion concerns the differences between Anglian and West Saxon, with the understanding that Kentish, other than where noted, can be derived from Anglian by front-vowel merger. The primary differences were:

  • Original (post Anglo-Frisian brightening) ǣ was raised to ē in Anglian but remained in West Saxon. This occurred before other changes such as breaking, and did not affect ǣ caused by i-umlaut of ā. Hence, e.g., dǣlan "to divide" < *dailijan appears the same in both dialects, but West Saxon slǣpan "to sleep" appears as slēpan in Anglian. (Note the corresponding vowel difference in the spelling of "deal" < dǣlan vs. "sleep" < Anglian slēpan.)
  • The West Saxon vowels ie/īe, caused by i-umlaut of long and short ea,eo,io, did not appear in Anglian. Instead, i-umlaut of ea and rare eo is spelled e, and i-umlaut of io remains as io.
  • Breaking of short /æ/ to ea did not happen in Anglian before /l/+consonant; instead, the vowel was retracted to /a/. When mutated by i-umlaut, it appears again as æ (vs. West Saxon ie). Hence, Anglian cald "cold" vs. West Saxon ċeald.
  • Merger of eo and io (long and short) occurred early in West Saxon, but much later in Anglian.
  • Many instances of diphthongs in Anglian, including the majority of cases caused by breaking, were turned back into monophthongs again by the process of "Anglian smoothing", which occurred before c,h,g, alone or preceded by r or l. This accounts for some of the most noticeable differences between standard (i.e. West Saxon) Old English and Modern English spelling. E.g. ēage "eye" became ēge in Anglian; nēah "near" became Anglian nēh, later raised to nīh in the transition to Middle English by raising of ē before h (hence "nigh" in Modern English); nēahst "nearest" become Anglian nēhst, shortened to nehst in late Old English by vowel-shortening before three consonants (hence "next" in Modern English).

As mentioned above, Modern English derives mostly from the Anglian dialect rather than the standard West Saxon dialect of Old English. However, since London sits on the Thames near the boundary of the Anglian, West Saxon, and Kentish dialects, some West Saxon and Kentish forms have entered Modern English. For example, "bury" has its spelling derived from West Saxon and its pronunciation from Kentish (see below).

Summary of vowel developments[edit]

NOTE: Another version of this table is available at Phonological history of English#Through Middle English. This covers the same changes from a more diachronic perspective. It includes less information on the specific differences between the Anglian and West Saxon dialects of Old English, but includes much more information on the Proto-Indo-European changes leading up to the vowels below, and the Middle English vowels that resulted from them.

NOTE: This table only describes the changes in accented syllables. Vowel changes in unaccented syllables were very different and much more extensive. In general, long vowels were reduced to short vowels (and sometimes deleted entirely) and short vowels were very often deleted. All remaining vowels were reduced to only the vowels /u/, /a/ and /e/, and sometimes /o/. (/o/ also sometimes appears as a variant of unstressed /u/.)

West Germanic Condition Process Old English Examples
*a   Anglo-Frisian brightening æ e *dagaz > dæġ "day"; *fastaz > fæst "fast (firm)"; *batizǫ̂ > betera "better"; *taljaną > tellan "to tell"
+n,m   a,o e *namǫ̂ > nama "name"; *langaz > lang, long "long"; *mannz, manniz > man, mon "man", plur. men "men"
+mf,nþ,ns Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law ō ē *samftijaz, samftô > sēfte, *sōfta >! sōfte "soft"; *tanþs, tanþiz > tōþ, plur. tēþ "tooth"; *gans, gansiz > gōs "goose", plur. gēs "geese"
(West Saxon) +h,rC,lC breaking ea ie *aldaz, aldizǫ̂ > eald "old", ieldra "older" (cf. "elder"); *armaz > earm "arm"; Lat. arca > earc "arc"; *darniją > dierne "secret"; *ahtau > eahta "eight"
(Anglian) +h breaking, Anglian smoothing æ e *ahtau > æhta "eight"
(Anglian) +lC retraction a æ *aldaz, aldizǫ̂ > ald "old", ældra "older" (cf. "elder")
(Anglian) +rc,rg,rh breaking, Anglian smoothing e e Lat. arca > erc "arc"
(Anglian) +rC (C not c,g,h) breaking ea e *armaz > earm "arm"; *darniją > derne "secret"
(West Saxon) +hV,hr,hl breaking, h-loss ēa īe *slahaną > slēan "to slay"; *stahliją > stīele "steel"
(Anglian) +hV,hr,hl breaking, Anglian smoothing, h-loss ēa ē *slahaną, -iþi > slēan "to slay, 3rd sing. pres. indic. slēþ "slays"; *stahliją > stēle "steel"
(West Saxon) k,g,j+ palatal diphthongization ea ie Lat. castra > ċeaster "town, fortress" (cf. names in "-caster, -chester"); *gastiz > ġiest "guest"
before a,o,u1 a-restoration a (by analogy) æ plur. *dagôs > dagas "days"; *talō > talu "tale"; *bakaną, -iþi > bacan "to bake", 3rd sing. pres. indic. bæcþ "bakes"
(mostly non-West-Saxon) before later a,o,u back mutation ea eo2 *alu > ealu "ale"; *awī > eowu "ewe", *asiluz > non-West-Saxon eosol "donkey"
before hs,ht,hþ + final -iz palatal umlaut N/A i (occ. ie) *nahtiz > nieht > niht "night"
*e3     e N/A3 *etaną > etan "to eat"
+m   i N/A *nemaną > niman "to take"
(West Saxon) +h,rC,lc,lh,wV breaking eo N/A *fehtaną > feohtan "to fight"; *berkaną > beorcan "to bark"; *werþaną > weorðan "to become"
(Anglian) +h,rc,rg,rh breaking, Anglian smoothing e N/A *fehtaną > fehtan "to fight"; *berkaną > bercan "to bark"
(Anglian) +rC (C not c,g,h); lc,lh,wV breaking eo N/A *werþaną > weorðan "to become"
+hV,hr,hl breaking, (Anglian smoothing,) h-loss ēo N/A *sehwaną > sēon "to see"
+ late final hs,ht,hþ palatal umlaut i (occ. ie) N/A *sehs > siex "six"; *rehtaz > riht "right"
(West Saxon) k,g,j+ palatal diphthongization ie N/A *skeraną > sċieran "shear"
*i     i i *fiską > fisċ "fish"; *itiþi > 3rd sing. pres. indic. iteþ "eats"; *nimiþi > 3rd sing. pres. indic. nimeþ "takes"; *skiriþi > 3rd sing. pres. indic. sċirþ "shears"
+ mf,nþ,ns Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law ī ī *fimf > fīf "five"
(West Saxon) +h,rC breaking io > eo ie *Pihtôs > Piohtas, Peohtas "Picts"; *lirnōjaną > liornian, leornian "to learn"; *hirdijaz2 > hierde "shepherd"; *wirþiþi > 3rd sing. pres. indic. wierþ "becomes"
(Anglian) +h,rc,rg,rh breaking, Anglian smoothing i i *stihtōjaną > stihtian "to establish"
(Anglian) +rC (C not c,g,h) breaking io > eo i *a + firrijaną > afirran "to remove" (cf. feorr "far")
(West Saxon) +hV,hr,hl breaking, h-loss īo > ēo īe *twihōjaną > twīoġan, twēon "to doubt"
(Anglian) +hV,hr,hl breaking, Anglian smoothing, h-loss īo > ēo ī *twihōjaną > twīoġan, twēon "to doubt"; *sihwiþi > 3rd sing. pres. indic. sīþ "sees"
before w breaking io > eo i *niwulaz > *niowul, neowul "prostrate"; *spiwiz > *spiwe "vomiting"
before a,o,u back mutation i (io, eo) N/A *miluks > mioluc,meolc "milk"
*u     u y *sunuz > sunu "son"; *kumaną, -iþi > cuman "to come", 3rd sing. pres. indic. cymþ "comes"; *guldijaną > gyldan "to gild"
+ mf,nþ,ns Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law ū ȳ *munþs > mūþ "mouth"; *wunskijaną > wȳsċan "wish"
before non-nasal + a,e,o4 a-mutation o (by analogy) e *hurną > horn "horn"; *brukanaz > brocen "broken"; *duhter, duhtriz > dohter "daughter", plur. dehter "daughters"
+hV,hr,hl h-loss ū ȳ *uhumistaz > ȳmest "highest"
(*ē >) *ā   Anglo-Frisian brightening (West Saxon) ǣ ǣ *slāpaną > slǣpan "to sleep", Lat. strāta > strǣt "street"; *dādiz > dǣd "deed"
(Anglian) ē ē *slāpaną > slēpan "to sleep", Lat. strāta > strēt "street"; *dādiz > dēd "deed"; Lat. cāseus > ċēse "cheese"; *nāhaz, nāhistaz > nēh "near" (cf. "nigh"), superl. nēhst "nearest" (cf. "next")
(West Saxon) k,g,j+ palatal diphthongization ēa īe *jārō > ġēar "year"; Lat. cāseus > ċīese "cheese"
+n,m   ō ē *mānǫ̂ > mōna "moon"; *kwāniz > kwēn "queen"
(West Saxon) +h breaking ēa īe *nāhaz, nāhistaz > nēah "near" (cf. "nigh"), superl. nīehst "nearest" (cf. "next")
+w;ga,go,gu;la,lo,lu a-restoration ā ǣ *knāwaną, -iþi > cnāwan "to know", 3rd sing. pres. indic. cnǣwþ "knows"
    ē ē *mēdą > mēd "reward"
    ō ē *fōts, fōtiz > fōt "foot", plur. fēt "feet"
    ī ī *wībą > wīf "wife"; *līhiþi > Anglian 3rd sing. pres. indic. līþ "lends"
(West Saxon) +h breaking īo > ēo īe *līhaną, -iþi > lēon "to lend", 3rd sing. pres. indic. līehþ "lends"
    ū ȳ *mūs, mūsiz > mūs "mouse", plur. mȳs "mice"
*ai     ā ǣ *stainaz > stān "stone", Lat. Caesar > cāsere "emperor", *hwaitiją > hwǣte "wheat"
*au     ēa (West Saxon) īe *auzǭ > ēare "ear"; *hauzijaną > hīeran "to hear"; *hauh, hauhist > hēah "high", superl. hīehst "highest"
(Anglian) ē *auzǭ > ēare "ear"; *hauzijaną > hēran "to hear"
(Anglian) +c,g,h;rc,rg,rh;lc,lg,lh Anglian smoothing ē ē *hauh, hauhist > hēh "high", superl. hēhst "highest"
*eu5     ēo N/A5 *deupaz > dēop "deep"; *fleugǭ > flēoge "fly"; *beudaną > bēodan "to command"
(Anglian) +c,g,h;rc,rg,rh;lc,lg,lh Anglian smoothing ē N/A *fleugǭ > flēge "fly"
*iu5     N/A (West Saxon) īe *biudiþi > 3rd sing. pres. indic. bīett "commands"; *liuhtijaną > līehtan "to lighten"
(Anglian) īo *biudiþi > 3rd sing. pres. indic. bīott "commands"
(Anglian) +c,g,h;rc,rg,rh;lc,lg,lh Anglian smoothing N/A ī *liuhtijaną > līhtan "to lighten"

1 The process of a-restoration, as described here, reversed the previous process of Anglo-Frisian brightening, leaving an /a/. However, it was blocked when an /i/ or /j/ followed in the next syllable; instead, /a/ was converted to /æ/ by Anglo-Frisian brightening, and then umlauted to /e/. This accounts for the outcomes of PG *talō > talu "tale" vs. the related PG *taljaną > tellan "to tell". However, in some instances when a-restoration was blocked, the /æ/ that remained from Anglo-Frisian brightening was still reverted to /a/ by analogy with related words where a-restoration did apply; this /a/ was then umlauted to /æ/. This happened especially in verbs when some forms (e.g. the third-person singular present indicative) had umlaut, and other forms (e.g. the infinitive) did not; for example, PG *bakaną > OE bacan "to bake" vs. PG *bakiþi > OE bæcþ "(he) bakes". This accounts for the "(by analogy)" notation in the i-umlaut column. The following diagrams show the processes involved in more detail:

No analogy:

Step "tale" "to tell" Reason
1 /talō/ /taljaną/ original forms
2 /talu/ /talljan/ after various changes, irrelevant here (e.g. West Germanic gemination)
3 /tælu/ /tælljan/ Anglo-Frisian brightening
4 /talu/ /tælljan/ a-restoration
5 /talu/ /tælljan/ unaffected by analogy
6 /talu/ /telljan/ i-mutation
7 talu tellan after further changes, irrelevant here


Step "to bake" "(he) bakes" Reason
1 /bakaną/ /bakiþi/ original forms
2 /bakan/ /bakiþ/ after various changes, irrelevant here
3 /bækan/ /bækiþ/ Anglo-Frisian brightening
4 /bakan/ /bækiþ/ a-restoration
5 /bakan/ /bakiþ/ by analogy with the infinitive
6 /bakan/ /bækiþ/ i-mutation
7 bacan bæcþ after further changes, irrelevant here

Analogy took place between related forms of a single lexical item, e.g. different forms of the same verb or noun. It generally did not take place between related lexical items derived from the same root, e.g. between talu "tale" and tellan "to tell".

2 This entry is misleading. Back mutation actually took place after i-mutation; this is why the result of applying both i-mutation and back mutation to a is eo rather than ie, the normal i-mutation of ea. Note also that back mutation applies only when the following syllable contains a, o, u, while i-mutation applies only when the following syllable contains i, j; hence you would not expect both back mutation and i-mutation to apply in a single word. All instances in which this occurs had one suffix substituted for another between the operation of the two processes. For example:

  • Latin asellum "donkey" > Proto-Germanic *asilu (replacement of Latin diminutive suffix -ell- with similar Proto-Germanic diminutive suffix -il) > *æsil (a-fronting) > *esil (i-mutation) > *esel (a normal change in unstressed syllables) > esol (substitution of more common -ol for less common -el) > eosol (back mutation)
  • Proto-Germanic *awī "ewe" > *awi (vowel reduction in unstressed syllables) > *ewi (i-mutation) > ewu (feminine -i disappeared in prehistoric Old English and was replaced with -u; a similar change occurred in e.g. menigu "multitude", cf. Gothic managei /managī/) > eowu (back mutation)

3 Proto-Indo-European /e/ was already mutated to /i/ in Proto-Germanic in two contexts: When occurring before /n/ plus consonant, and when occurring before /i/ or /j/. The more general i-mutation that applied to all vowels in Old English is a separate process that occurred many centuries later, although it had the same effect on /e/. (Note that due to this earlier change there were few instances of /e/ that could be affected by Old English i-mutation. For this reason, the i-mutations of /e/ are listed in parens, e.g. (i), to indicate that the given results are not due directly to i-mutation of /e/, but to i-mutation of /i/ or of some vowel derived from it, e.g. io.) This is also why the Proto-West-Germanic form of hierde "shepherd" appears already as *hirdijaz with /i/ in the root even though it's clearly related to heord "herd" (Proto-West-Germanic *herdō). It's also why there's no entry for "+mf,nþ,ns" under /e/ even though it occurs for all other vowels. Furthermore, describing i as the i-mutation of e, or ie as the i-mutation of eo, is misleading at best. In fact, as just described, e was not mutated to i by i-mutation, but rather in an i-mutation environment i already appeared due to the earlier mutation of /e/ to /i/. Similarly, eo from earlier /e/ in a "breaking" environment was not mutated to ie by i-mutation. In this case again, /i/ already appeared in the i-mutation environment, which was broken to io due to the "breaking" environment it was in, and this io was then mutated to ie by i-mutation. Note further that the breaking environments for /i/ were more restrictive than those for /e/. Hence it's possible for post-breaking non-umlaut-context eo to correspond to umlaut-context i rather than io (e.g. before lh or lc), and therefore for a post-umlaut alternation between eo and i to exist. Presumably, these anomalous alternations were mostly eliminated by analogy.

4 A very similar process to what's described in note 1 resulted in the umlaut of /o/ sometimes appearing as /y/ (the "normal" outcome), and sometimes as /e/ (by analogy). Just like a-restoration, a-mutation (which lowered /u/ to /o/ before /a, e, o/) was blocked by a following /i/ or /j/, and the /u/ that was left over was sometimes changed into /o/ by analogy, and sometimes not changed.

5 Proto-Germanic mutation of /e/ to /i/ before /i/ or /j/ also affected /eu/, producing /iu/. In fact, /iu/ occurs only before /i/ or /j/ in the following syllable, and /eu/ never occurs in these circumstances. That is, /iu/ is in fact an allophone of /eu/. It is typically written as /iu/, rather than [iu], because in the later Germanic dialects the reflexes of the sound do in fact become separate phonemes.

Changes leading up to Middle and Modern English[edit]

For a detailed description of the changes between Old English and Middle/Modern English, see the article on the phonological history of English. A summary of the main vowel changes is presented below. Note that the spelling of Modern English largely reflects Middle English pronunciation. Note also that this table presents only the general developments. Many exceptional outcomes occurred in particular environments, e.g. vowels were often lengthened in late Old English before /ld/, /nd/, /mb/; vowels changed in complex ways before /r/, throughout the history of English; vowels were diphthongized in Middle English before /h/; new diphthongs arose in Middle English by the combination of vowels with Old English w, g /ɣ/ > /w/, and ġ /j/; etc. The only conditional development considered in detail below is Middle English open-syllable lengthening. Note that, in the column on modern spelling, CV means a sequence of a single consonant followed by a vowel.

NOTE: In this table, abbreviations are used as follows:

Late Old English (Anglian), c. 1000 Middle English pronunciation, c. 1400 Modern English spelling, c. 1500 Early Modern English pronunciation, c. 1600 Modern English pronunciation, c. 2000 Source Example
a; æ; ea; ā+CC; often ǣ+CC,ēa+CC; occ. ē+CC (WS ǣ+CC) /a/ a /a/ /æ/ OE a OE mann > man; OE lamb > lamb; OE sang > sang; OE sacc > sack; OE assa > ass (donkey)
OE æ OE fæþm embrace > fathom; OE sæt > sat; OE æt > at; OE mæsse > mass (at church)
OE ea OE weax > wax; OE healf > half /hæf/ (GA)
OE +CC OE āscian > ask /æsk/ (GA); OE fǣtt > fat; OE lǣstan > to last /læst/ (GA) ; OE blēddre (WS blǣddre) > bladder; OE brēmbel (WS brǣmbel) > bramble
(w+, not +g,ck,ng,nk) GA /ɑ/, RP /ɒ/ OE a OE swan > swan; OE wasċan > to wash; OE wann dark > wan
OE æ OE swæþ > swath; OE wæsp > wasp
OE ea OE wealwian > to wallow; OE swealwe > swallow (bird)
(+r) /ar/ > GA /ɑr/, RP /ɑː/ OE heard > hard; OE ærc (WS earc) > ark
(w+ and +r) /ɔr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ OE ea OE swearm > swarm; OE sweart > old poetic swart >! swarthy; OE weardian > to ward; OE wearm > warm; OE wearnian > to warn
(+lC,l#) /ɔː/ OE smæl > small; OE all (WS eall) > all; OE walcian (WS wealcian) to roll > to walk
(+lm) GA /ɑ/, RP /ɑː/ OE ælmesse > alms; Latin palma > OE palm > palm
(RP, often +f,s,th) /ɑː/ OE glæs > glass; OE græs > grass; OE pæþ > path; OE æfter > after; OE āscian /ɑːsk/ > to ask; OE lǣstan /lɑːst/ > to last
(leng.) /aː/ [æː] aCV /ɛː/ /eː/ > /ei/ OE a OE nama > name; OE nacod > naked; OE bacan > to bake
OE æ OE æcer > acre; OE hwæl > whale; OE hræfn > raven
(+r) /eːr/ > GA /ɛr/, RP /ɛə/ OE a OE caru > care; OE faran > to fare; OE starian > to stare
e; eo; occ. y; ē+CC; ēo+CC; occ. ǣ+CC,ēa+CC /e/ e /ɛ/ /ɛ/ OE e OE helpan > to help; OE elh (WS eolh) > elk; OE tellan > to tell; OE betera > better; OE streċċan > to stretch
OE eo OE seofon > seven
OE y OE myriġ > merry; OE byrġan > to bury /bɛri/; OE lyft- weak > left (hand); OE cnyll > knell
OE +CC OE cēpte > kept; OE mētte > met; OE bēcnan (WS bīecnan) > to beckon; OE clǣnsian > to cleanse; OE flǣsċ > flesh; OE lǣssa > less; OE frēond > friend /frɛnd/; OE þēofþ (WS þīefþ) > theft; OE hēold > held
(+r) ar /ar/ GA /ɑr/, RP /ɑː/ OE heorte > heart; OE bercan (WS beorcan) > to bark; OE teoru (WS teru) > tar; OE steorra > star
(w+ and +r) /ɔr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ AN werra > war; AN werbler > to warble
(occ. +r) er /ɛr/ /ər/ > GA /ər/, RP /ɜː/ OE e OE sterne (WS stierne, styrne) > stern
OE eo OE eorl > earl; OE eorþe > earth; OE liornian, leornian > to learn
OE +CC OE hērde (WS hīerde) > heard
(leng.) /ɛː/ ea,eCV /eː/ /iː/ OE specan > to speak; OE mete > meat; OE beofor > beaver; OE meotan (WS metan) > to mete /miːt/; OE eotan (WS etan) > to eat; OE meodu (WS medu) > mead; OE yfel > evil
(+r) /iːr/ > GA /ɪr/, RP /ɪə/ OE spere > spear; OE mere > mere (lake)
(occ.) /ei/ OE brecan > to break /breik/
(occ. +r) /eːr/ > GA /ɛr/, RP /ɛə/ OE beoran (WS beran) > to bear; OE pere, peru > pear; OE swerian > to swear; OE wer man > were-
(often +th,d,t,v) /ɛ/ OE leþer > leather /lɛðɚ/; OE stede > stead; OE weder > weather; OE heofon > heaven; OE hefiġ > heavy
i; y; ī+CC,ȳ+CC; occ. ēoc,ēc; occ. ī+CV,ȳ+CV /i/ i /ɪ/ /ɪ/ OE i OE writen > written; OE sittan > to sit; OE fisċ > fish; OE lifer > liver
OE y OE bryċġ > bridge; OE cyssan > to kiss; OE dyde > did; OE synn > sin; OE gyldan > to gild; OE bysiġ > busy /bɪzi/
OE +CC OE wīsdōm > wisdom; OE fīftiġ > fifty; OE wȳsċan > to wish; OE cȳþþ(u) > kith; OE fȳst > fist
OE ȳ+CV,ī+CV OE ċīcen > chicken; OE lȳtel > little
OE ēoc,ēc OE sēoc > sick; OE wēoce > wick; OE ēc + nama > ME eke-name >! nickname
(+r) /ər/ > GA /ər/, RP /ɜː/ OE gyrdan > to gird; OE fyrst > first; OE styrian > to stir
(leng. — occ.) /eː/ ee /iː/ /iː/ OE wicu > week; OE pilian > to peel; OE bitela > beetle
o; ō+CC /o/ o /ɔ/ GA /ɑ/, RP /ɒ/ OE o OE god > god; OE beġeondan > beyond
OE +CC OE gōdspell > gospel; OE fōddor > fodder; OE fōstrian > to foster
(GA, +f,s,th,g,ng) /ɔː/ OE moþþe > moth; OE cros > cross; OE frost > frost; OE of > off; OE oft > oft; OE sōfte > soft
(+r) /ɔr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ OE corn > corn; OE storc > storc; OE storm > storm
(leng.) /ɔː/ oa,oCV /oː/ GA /ou/, RP /əu/ OE fola > foal; OE nosu > nose; OE ofer > over
(+r) /oːr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ OE borian > to bore; OE fore > fore; OE bord > board
u; occ. y; ū+CC; w+ e,eo,o,y +r /u/ u,o /ʊ/ /ʌ/ OE u OE bucc > buck /bʌk/; OE lufian > to love /lʌv/; OE uppe > up; OE on bufan > above
OE y OE myċel > ME muchel >! much; OE blysċan > to blush; OE cyċġel > cudgel; OE clyċċan > to clutch; OE sċytel > shuttle
OE +CC OE dūst > dust; OE tūsc > tusk; OE rūst > rust
(b,f,p+ and +l,sh) /ʊ/ OE full > full /fʊl/; OE bula > bull; OE bysċ > bush
(+r) /ər/ > GA /ər/, RP /ɜː/ OE u OE spurnan > to spurn
OE y OE ċyriċe > church; OE byrþen > burden; OE hyrdel > hurdle
OE w+,+r OE word > word; OE werc (WS weorc) > work; OE werold > world; OE wyrm > worm; OE wersa (WS wiersa) > worse; OE weorþ > worth
(leng. — occ.) /oː/ oo /uː/ /uː/ OE (brȳd)-guma > ME (bride)-gome >! (bride)-groom
(+r) /uːr/ > /oːr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ OE duru > door
(often +th,d,t) /ʌ/  ?
(occ. +th,d,t) /ʊ/ OE wudu > wood /wʊd/
ā; often a+ld,mb /ɔː/ oa,oCV /oː/ GA /ou/, RP /əu/ OE ā OE āc > oak; OE hāl > whole
OE +ld,mb OE camb > comb; OE ald (WS eald) > old; OE haldan (WS healdan) > to hold
(+r) /oːr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ OE ār > oar, ore; OE māra > more; OE bār > boar; OE sār > sore
ǣ; ēa /ɛː/ ea,eCV /eː/ /iː/ OE ǣ OE hǣlan > to heal /hiːl/; OE hǣtu > heat; OE hwǣte > wheat
OE ēa OE bēatan > to beat /biːt/; OE lēaf > leaf; OE ċēap > cheap
(+r) /iːr/ > GA /ɪr/, RP /ɪə/ OE rǣran > to rear ; OE ēare > ear; OE sēar > sere; OE sēarian > to sear
(occ.) /ei/ OE grēat > great /greit/
(occ. +r) /eːr/ > GA /ɛr/, RP /ɛə/ OE ǣr > ere (before)
(often +th,d,t) /ɛ/ OE ǣ OE brǣþ odor > breath; OE swǣtan > to sweat; OE -sprǣdan > to spread
OE ēa OE dēad > dead /dɛd/; OE dēaþ death; OE þrēat menace > threat; OE rēad > red; OE dēaf > deaf
ē; ēo; often e+ld /eː/ ee,ie(nd/ld) /iː/ /iː/ OE ē OE fēdan > to feed; OE grēdiġ (WS grǣdiġ) > greedy; OE > me; OE fēt > feet; OE dēd (WS dǣd) > deed; OE nēdl (WS nǣdl) > needle
OE ēo OE dēop deep; OE fēond > fiend; OE betwēonum > between; OE bēon > to be
OE +ld OE feld > field; OE ġeldan (WS ġieldan) to pay > to yield
(often +r) /ɛːr/ ear,erV /eːr/ /iːr/ > GA /ɪr/, RP /ɪə/ OE ē OE hēr > here; OE hēran (WS hīeran) > to hear; OE fēr (WS fǣr) > fear
OE ēo OE dēore (WS dīere) > dear
(occ.) /eːr/ > GA /ɛr/, RP /ɛə/ OE þēr (WS þǣr) > there; OE hwēr (WS hwǣr) > where
(occ. +r) /eːr/ eer /iːr/ /iːr/ > GA /ɪr/, RP /ɪə/ OE bēor > beer; OE dēor > deer; OE stēran (WS stīeran) > to steer; OE bēr (WS bǣr) > bier
ī; ȳ; often i+ld,mb,nd; often y+ld,mb,nd /iː/ i,iCV /əi/ /ai/ OE ī OE rīdan > to ride; OE tīma > time; OE hwīt > white; OE mīn > mine (of me)
OE ȳ OE mȳs > mice; OE brȳd > bride; OE hȳdan > to hide
OE +ld,mb,nd OE findan > to find; OE ċild > child; OE climban > to climb; OE mynd > mind
(+r) /air/ > GA /air/, RP /aiə/ OE fȳr > fire; OE hȳrian > to hire; OE wīr > wire
ō; occ. ēo /oː/ oo /u:/ /u:/ OE ō OE mōna > moon; OE sōna > soon; OE fōd > food /fuːd/; OE dōn > to do
OE ēo OE cēosan > to choose; OE sċēotan > to shoot
(+r) /uːr/ > /oːr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ OE flōr > floor; OE mōr > moor
(occ. +th,d,v) /ʌ/ OE blōd > blood /blʌd/; OE mōdor > mother /mʌðə(r)/; OE glōf > glove /glʌv/
(often +th,d,t,k) /ʊ/ OE gōd > good /gʊd/; OE bōc > book /bʊk/; OE lōcian > to look /lʊk/; OE fōt > foot /fʊt/
ū; often u+nd /uː/ ou /əu/ /au/ OE ū OE mūs > mouse; OE ūt, ūte > out; OE hlūd > loud
OE +nd OE ġefunden > found; OE hund > hound; OE ġesund > sound (safe)
(+r) /aur/ > GA /aur/, RP /auə/ OE OE ūre > our; OE sċūr > shower; OE sūr > sour
(occ. +t) /ʌ/ OE būtan > but; OE strūtian > ME strouten > to strut

Note that the Modern English vowel usually spelled au (British /ɔː/, American /ɔ/) does not appear in the above chart. Its main source is late Middle English /au/, which come from various sources: Old English aw and ag ("claw" < clawu, "law" < lagu); diphthongization before /h/ ("sought" < sōhte, "taught" < tāhte, "daughter" < dohtor); borrowings from Latin and French ("fawn" < Old French faune, "Paul" < Latin Paulus). Other sources are Early Modern English lengthening of /a/ before /l/ ("salt, all"); occasional shortening and later re-lengthening of Middle English /ɔː/ ("broad" < /brɔːd/ < brād); and in American English, lengthening of short o before unvoiced fricatives and voiced velars ("dog, long, off, cross, moth", all with /ɔ/ in American English, at least in dialects that still maintain the difference between /a/ and /ɔ/).

As mentioned above, Modern English is derived from the Middle English of London, which is derived largely from Anglian Old English, with some admixture of West Saxon and Kentish. One of the most noticeable differences among the dialects is the handling of original Old English /y/. By the time of the written Old English documents, the Old English of Kent had already unrounded /y/ to /e/, and the late Old English of Anglia unrounded /y/ to /i/. In the West Saxon area, /y/ remained as such well into Middle English times, and was written u in Middle English documents from this area. Some words with this sound were borrowed into London Middle English, where the unfamiliar /y/ was substituted with /u/. Hence:

  • "gild" < gyldan, "did" < dyde, "sin" < synn, "mind" < mynd, "dizzy" < dysiġ "foolish", "lift" < lyft "air", etc. show the normal (Anglian) development.
  • "much" < myċel shows the West Saxon development.
  • "merry" < myriġ shows the Kentish development.
  • "build" < byldan and "busy" < bysiġ have their spelling from West Saxon but pronunciation from Anglian.
  • "bury" /bɛri/ < byrġan has its spelling from West Saxon but its pronunciation from Kentish.

Note that some apparent instances of modern e for Old English y are actually regular developments, particularly where the y is a development of earlier (West Saxon) ie from i-mutation of ea, as the normal i-mutation of ea in Anglian is e; for example, "stern" < styrne < *starnijaz, "steel" < stȳle < *stahliją (cf. Old Saxon stehli). Also, some apparent instances of modern u for Old English y may actually be due to the influence of a related form with unmutated u, e.g. "sundry" < syndriġ, influenced by sundor "apart, differently" (cf. "to sunder" and "asunder").


The prologue to Beowulf:

Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in ġēar-dagum
[ˈʍæt weː ˈɡɑːrdenɑ in ˈjæːɑrdɑɣum]
þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon,
[ˈθeːodkyniŋɡɑ ˈθrym jeˈfruːnon]
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
[huː ðɑː ˈæðeliŋɡɑs ˈelːen ˈfremedon]
Oft Sċyld Sċēfing sċeaþena þrēatum,
[oft ˈʃyld ˈʃeːviŋɡ ˈʃɑðenɑ ˈθræːɑtum]
monegum mǣġþum meodo-setla oftēah.
[ˈmoneɣum ˈmæːjðum ˈmeodosetlɑ ofˈtæːɑx]
Eġsode eorl, syððan ǣrest wearð
[ˈejzode ˈeorˠɫ ˈsyθːɑn ˈæːrest wæɑrˠθ]
fēa-sceaft funden; hē þæs frōfre gebād,
[ˈfæːɑʃɑft ˈfunden heː ðæs ˈfroːfre jeˈbɑːd]
wēox under wolcnum, weorð-myndum þāh,
[ˈweːoks under ˈwolknum ˈweorˠðmyndum ˈθɑːx]
oð þæt him ǣġhwylċ þāra ymb-sittendra
[ˈoθːæt him ˈæːjʍyltʃ ˈθɑːrɑ ymbˈsittendrɑ]
ofer hron-rāde hȳran sċolde,
[ˈover ˈr̥onrɑːde ˈhyːrɑn ʃolde]
gomban ġyldan; þæt wæs gōd cyning.
[ˈɡombɑn ˈjyldɑn ˈθæt wæz ˈɡoːd ˈkyniŋɡ]
Recording of the Lord's Prayer in reconstructed Old English

Problems playing this file? See media help.

The Lord's Prayer:

Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum,
[ˈfæder ˈuːre | ˈθuː ðe ˈæɑrˠt on ˈheovonum]
Sī þīn nama ġehālgod.
[ˈsiː ðiːn ˈnɑmɑ jeˈhɑːlɣod]
Tōbecume þīn rīċe,
[toːbeˈkume ˈðiːn ˈriːtʃe]
ġewurþe þīn willa, on eorðan swā swā on heofonum.
[jeˈwurðe ˈðiːn ˈwilːɑ | on ˈeorˠðɑn ˈswɑːswɑː on ˈheovonum]
Ūrne ġedæġhwāmlīcan hlāf syle ūs tō dæġ,
[ˈuːrne jeˈdæjʍɑːmliːkɑn ˈl̥ɑːf | ˈsyle ˈuːs toːˈdæj]
and forġyf ūs ūre gyltas, swā swā wē forġyfað ūrum gyltendum.
[ɑnd forˈjyv uːs | ˈuːre ˈɡyltɑs | ˈswɑːswɑː ˈweː forˈjyfɑθ | ˈuːrum ˈɡyltendum]
And ne ġelǣd þū ūs on costnunge, ac ālȳs ūs of yfele.
[ɑnd ne jeˈlæːd ðuː | ˈuːz on ˈkostnuŋɡe | ɑk ɑːˈlyːs | uːz ov ˈyvele]


  1. ^ a b Cercignani 1983.
  2. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 50–51.
  3. ^ Campbell 1959, p. 53.
  4. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 52–53.
  5. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 54–60.
  6. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 60–62.
  7. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 62-64.
  8. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 64–71.
  9. ^ Campbell 1959.
  10. ^ Mitchell & Robinson 2001.
  11. ^ Lass 1994.
  12. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 143–144.
  13. ^ Mitchell & Robinson 1992, p. 25.
  14. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 146–147.
  15. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 85–93.
  16. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 93–98.
  17. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 186–187.
  18. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 104–105.
  19. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 98–104.
  20. ^ Campbell 1959, pp. 155–156.


Baker, Peter S. (2007), Introduction to Old English (2nd edition ed.), Oxford: Blackwell, ISBN 978-1-4051-5272-3 .
Campbell, A. (1959), Old English Grammar, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-811943-7 .
Cercignani, Fausto (1983), "The Development of */k/ and */sk/ in Old English", Journal of English and Germanic Philology 82 (3): 313–323 .
Lass, Roger (1994), Old English: A historical linguistic companion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-43087-9 .
Mitchell, Bruce; Robinson, Fred C. (2001), A Guide to Old English (6th edition ed.), Oxford: Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-22636-2 .

External links[edit]