Phonological history of English
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The phonological history of English describes changing phonology of the English language over time, starting from its roots in proto-Germanic to diverse changes in different dialects of modern English.
Within each section, changes are in approximate chronological order.
NOTE: In the following description, abbreviations are used as follows:
The time periods for many of the following stages are extremely short due to the extensive population movements occurring during the early AD period, which resulted in rapid dialect fragmentation:
- The migration of the Goths from southeast Sweden to the Baltic Sea area around AD 1,[dubious ] followed by the migration to southeast Romania around AD 200. (Later migrations carried the Crimean Goths eastward to the Crimea area in modern Ukraine, the Ostrogoths to Italy, and carried the Visigoths westward to Spain.)
- The migration of the High German ancestors southward, starting around AD 260, and renewed in the 5th century AD.
- The migration of the Anglo-Saxons westward into Britain, starting around AD 450.
- 1 Late Proto-Germanic period
- 2 West Germanic period
- 3 Ingvaeonic and Proto-Anglo-Frisian period
- 4 Old English period
- 5 Until Middle English
- 6 Up to Shakespeare's English
- 7 Up to the American–British split
- 8 After American–British split, up to the 20th century
- 9 After 1900
- 10 Summary of vowel developments
- 11 Notes
- 12 See also
- 13 References
Late Proto-Germanic period
This period is estimated to last to approximately AD 1–200. This includes changes in late Proto-Germanic, up to the appearance of Proto-West-Germanic c. AD 200:
- Word-final /m/ became /n/.
- Word-final /n/ was then lost after unstressed syllables with nasalization of the preceding vowel. Hence PrePG *dʰogʰom > early PG *dagam > late PG dagã > OE dæġ "day (acc. sg.)". The nasalisation was retained at least into the earliest history of Old English.
- Unstressed word-final /a/ and /e/ were lost. Early PG *barta > late PG *bart "you carried (sg)".
- After an unstressed syllable, word-final /t/ was lost. This followed the loss of word-final /n/, because it remained before /t/: PrePG *bhr̥n̥t > early PG *burunt > late PG *burun "they carried".
- /e/ was raised to /i/ in unstressed syllables.
- The original vowel remained when followed by /r/, and was later lowered to /ɑ/.
- Early i-mutation: /e/ was raised to /i/ when an /i/ or /j/ followed in the next syllable.
- This occurred before deletion of word-final /i/; hence PIE *upéri > early PG *uberi > late PG *ubiri > German über "over". Compare PIE *upér > early PG *uber > late PG *ubar > German ober "over".
- But it occurred after the raising of unstressed /e/ to /i/: PIE *bherete > PG *berid > *birid "you carry (pl)".
- This also affected the diphthong /eu/, which became /iu/.
- As a consequence of this change, /ei/ > /iː/. The Elder Futhark of the Proto-Norse language still contained different symbols for the two sounds.
- z-umlaut: /e/ is raised to /i/ before /z/.
- Early PG *mez "me, dative" > late PG *miz > OHG mir, OS mi, ON mér (with general lowering and lengthening of i before r).
- This change was only sporadic at best because there were barely any words in which it could have occurred at all, since /e/ remained only in stressed syllables. The umlauting effect of /z/ remained, however, and in Old West Norse it was extended to other vowels as well. Hence OEN glaʀ, hrauʀ, OWN gler, hreyrr.
- Pre-nasal raising: /e/ > /i/ before nasal + consonant. PrePG *bʰendʰonom > PG *bendanan > *bindanan > OE bindan > NE bind (Latin of-fendō).
- This was later extended in PreOE times to vowels before all nasals; hence OE niman "take" but OHG neman.
- Loss of /n/ before /x/, with nasalization and compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel.
- The nasalization was eventually lost, but remained through the Ingvaeonic period.
- Hence PrePG *tongjonom > PG *þankijanan > OE þencan > NE think, but PrePG *tonktos > PG *þanhtaz > *þā̃htaz > OE þōht > NE thought.
- This change followed the raising of /e/ before a nasal: PG *þenhanã > *þinhanã > *þī ̃hanã > Gothic þeihan.
- Final-syllable short vowels were generally deleted in words of three syllables or more. PG *biridi > Goth baíriþ /beriθ/ "(he) carries" (see above), and also PG *-maz, *-miz > *-mz (dative and instrumental plural ending of nouns, 1st person plural ending of verbs, as on the Stentoften Runestone).
West Germanic period
This period is estimated to be c. AD 200–400. This includes changes up through the split of Ingvaeonic and High German (c. AD 400). Starting with this period, vowels in unstressed syllables were gradually reduced or eliminated. The specifics are quite complex and occurred as a result of many successive changes, with successive stages often happening hundreds of years after the previous stage.
- Loss of word-final /z/.
- This change must have occurred before rhotacization, as original word-final /r/ was not lost.
- But it must have occurred after the Northwest Germanic split, since word-final /z/ was not eliminated in Old Norse, instead merging with /r/.
- /z/ was not lost in single-syllable words in southern and central German. Compare PG *miz > OS mi, OE me vs. OHG mir.
- OE nominative plural -as (ME -s), OS nominative plural -ōs may be from original accusative plural *-ans (rather than original nominative plural *-ōz; cf. ON nominative plural *-ar), following Ingvaeonic nasalization/loss of nasals before fricatives.
- Rhotacization: /z/ > /r/.
- This change also affected Proto-Norse; but in Proto-Norse, the date and nature are contested. /z/ and /r/ were still distinct in the Danish and Swedish dialect of Old Norse, as is testified by distinct runes. (/z/ is normally assumed to be a rhotic fricative in this language, but there is no actual evidence of this.)
- Initial i-mutation: Short back vowels were fronted when followed in the next syllable by /i/ or /j/, by i-mutation: /ɑ/ > [æ], /o/ > [ø], /u/ > [y]
- In this initial stage, the mutated vowels were still allophonically conditioned, and were not yet distinct as phonemes. Only later, when the /i/ and /j/ were modified or lost, the new sounds were phonemicized.
- i-mutation affected all the Germanic languages except for Gothic, although with a great deal of variation. It appears to have occurred earliest, and to be most pronounced, in the Schleswig-Holstein area (the home of the Anglo-Saxons), and from there to have spread north and south. However, it is possible that this change already occurred in Proto-Germanic proper, in which case the phenomenon would have remained merely allophonic for quite some time. If that is the case, that would be the stage reflected in Gothic, where there is no orthographic evidence of i-mutation at all.
- Long vowels and diphthongs were affected only later, probably analogically, and not in all areas. Notably, they were not mutated in most (western) Dutch dialects, whereas short vowels were.
- a-mutation: /u/ is lowered to /o/ when a non-high vowel follows in the next syllable.
- This is blocked when followed by a nasal followed by a consonant, or by a cluster with /j/ in it. Hence PWG *guldã > OE/NE gold, but PWG guldijanã > OE gyldan > NE gild.
- This produces a new phoneme /o/, due to inconsistent application and later loss of word-final vowels.
- West Germanic Gemination of consonants except /r/, when followed by /j/. This only affected consonants preceded by a short vowel, because those preceded by a long vowel or by another consonant were never followed by /j/ due to Sievers' law.
- PG /ɛː/ (maybe already /æː/ by late PG) becomes /ɑː/.
- Word-final long vowels were shortened.
- Final /oː/ becomes /u/ in NWG, /a/ in Gothic. Hence PG *berō > early OE beru "(I) carry", but Goth baíra; PG *gebō > OE giefu "gift (nom. sg.)", but Goth giba.
- "Extra-long"' vowels were shorted to long vowels. There is a great deal of argument about what is exactly going on here.
- The traditional view is that a circumflex accent arose (as in Ancient Greek) when two adjacent vowels were contracted into a single long vowel in a final syllable. This circumflexed vowel then remained long when other long vowels shortened.
- A newer view holds that "overlong" (tri-moraic) vowels arose from the contraction of two vowels, one of which was long. Furthermore, final-syllable long vowels remained long before certain final consonants (/z/ and /d/).
- The reason why such theories are necessary is that some final-syllable long vowels are shortened, while others remain. Nominative singular *-ōn shortens, for example; likewise first singular *-ōn < *-ōm; while genitive plural *-ōn < *-ōm remains long. Both of the above theories postulate an overlong or circumflex ending *-ôn in the genitive plural arising in the vocalic (PIE /o/ and /aː/, PG a- and ō-declensions, arising from contraction of the vocalic stem ending with the genitive plural ending.
- Other examples of vowels that remain long are a-stem and ō-stem nominative plural *-ôz < early PIE *-o-es and -eh₂-es; PrePG ablative singular *-ôd, *-êd (Gothic ƕadrē "whither", undarō "under"); ō-stem dative singular PG *gibâi > Goth gibái "gift" (but a-stem dative singular PG *stainai > Goth staina "stone").
- Unstressed diphthongs were monophthongized. /ai/ > /eː/, /au/ > /oː/.
- Results were different in Gothic. Diphthongs remained except for absolutely final diphthongs stemming from PIE short diphthongs, which became short /a/.
- Hence PIE *sunous > PG *sunauz > Goth sunáus, but > PWG *sunō > OE suna "son (gen. sing.)"; PIE *nemoit > PG *nemait > *nemai > Goth nimái, but > PWG *nemē > OE nime "(he) takes (subj.)"; PIE (loc.?) *stoinoi > PG *stainai > Goth staina, but > PWG *stainē > OE stāne "stone (dat. sing.)"; PIE (loc.?) *gʰebʰāi > PG *gebōi > Goth gibái, but > PWG *gebē > OE giefe "gift" (dat. sing.).
Ingvaeonic and Proto-Anglo-Frisian period
This period is estimated to be c. AD 400–475. This includes changes from c. AD 400 up through the split of the Anglo-Frisian languages from Ingvaeonic, followed by the split of pre-Old English from pre-Old Frisian (c. AD 475). The time periods for these stages are extremely short due to the migration of the Anglo-Saxons westward through Frisian territory and then across the English Channel into Britain, around AD 450.
- Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law: Loss of nasals before fricatives, with compensatory lengthening. Hence PG *munþaz > NHG Mund but OE mūþ, NE mouth.
- An intermediate stage was a long nasal vowel, where nasal /ɑ ̃ː/ > /õː/. PrePG *donts > PG *tanþs > OE tōþ "tooth". (NHG Zahn < OHG zant.)
- Anglo-Frisian brightening:
- Fronting of /ɑ/ to /æ/ (unless followed by a geminate, by a back vowel in the next syllable, or in certain other cases). Hence OE dæġ /dæj/ "day", plural dagas /dɑɣɑs/ "days" (dialectal NE "dawes"; compare NE "dawn" < OE dagung /dɑɣunɡ/). Gothic dags, plural dagos.
- This does not affect nasal /ã/. And since this is a back vowel, /ɑ/ in a preceding syllable was prevented from being fronted as well. This created an alternation between the infinitive in *-anã and strong past participle in *-ana (< PG *anaz), where the former became -an in OE but the latter became *-ænæ > -en.
- Fronting of /ɑː/ to /æː/ (generally, unless /w/ followed).
- Fronting of /ɑ/ to /æ/ (unless followed by a geminate, by a back vowel in the next syllable, or in certain other cases). Hence OE dæġ /dæj/ "day", plural dagas /dɑɣɑs/ "days" (dialectal NE "dawes"; compare NE "dawn" < OE dagung /dɑɣunɡ/). Gothic dags, plural dagos.
- Final-syllable /æ/, /ɑ/ and /ɑ ̃/ are lost.
- No attested West Germanic languages show any reflexes of these vowels. However, the way it affected the fronting of /ɑ/ as described above shows that at least /ɑ ̃/ was retained into the separate history of Anglo-Frisian.
- Loss of word-final /i/ and /u/ (also from earlier /oː/) except when following a short syllable (i.e. one with a short vowel followed by a single consonant.) For example, PIE *sunus > PG *sunuz > OE sunu "son (nom. sing.)", PIE *peḱu > PG *fehu > OE feohu "cattle (nom. sing.)", PIE *wenis > PG *winiz > OE wine "friend (nom. sing.)", but PrePG *pōdes > PG *fōtiz > WG *fø̄ti > OE fēt "foot (nom. pl.)".
Old English period
- Breaking of front vowels.
- Most generally, before /x/, /w/, /r/ + consonant, /l/ + consonant (assumed to be velar [ɹ], [ɫ] in these circumstances), but exact conditioning factors vary from vowel to vowel
- Initial result was a falling diphthong ending in /u/, but this was followed by diphthong height harmonization, producing short /æ̆ɑ̆/, /ɛ̆ɔ̆/, /ɪ̆ʊ̆/ from short /æ/, /ɛ/, /ɪ/, long /æɑ/, /eo/, /iu/ from long /æː/, /eː/, /iː/. (Written ea, eo, io, where length is not distinguished graphically.)
- Result in some dialects, for example Anglian, was back vowels rather than diphthongs. West Saxon ceald; but Anglian cald > NE cold.
- Diphthong height harmonization. The height of one element of each diphthong is adjusted to match that of the other.
- /ɑi/ > /ɑː/ through this change, possibly through an intermediate stage /ɑæ/. PG *stainaz > OE stān > NE stone.
- /ɑu/ was first fronted to /æu/ and then harmonized to /æa/. PG *draumaz > OE drēam "joy" (cf. NE dream, NHG Traum). PG *dauþuz > OE dēaþ > NE death (Goth dáuþus, NHG Tod). PG *augō > OE ēage > NE eye (Goth áugo, NHG Auge).
- /eu/ is harmonized to /eo/.
- /k/, /ɣ/, /ɡ/ were palatalized to /tʃ/, /ʝ/, /dʒ/ in certain complex circumstances (see Old English phonology).
- /ʝ/ later becomes /j/, but not before the loss of older /j/ below.
- This change, or something similar, also occurred in Old Frisian.
- /sk/ was palatalized to /ʃ/ in almost all circumstances. PG *skipaz > NE ship (cf. skipper < Dutch schipper, where no such change happened). PG *skurtjaz > OE scyrte > NE shirt, but > ON skyrt > NE skirt. An example of retained /sk/ is PG *aiskōną > OE ascian > NE ask.
- /œ/ and /øː/ are unrounded to /ɛ/ and /eː/, respectively.
- Some Old English dialects retained the rounded vowels, however.
- Loss of /j/ and /ij/ following a long syllable.
- A similar change happened in the other West Germanic languages, although after the earliest records of those languages.
- This did not affect the new /j/ (< /ʝ/) formed from palatalisation 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/).
- Following this, PG */j/ occurred only word-initially and after /r/ (which was the only consonant that was not geminated by /j/ and hence retained a short syllable).
- Shortening of Vowels
- In two particular circumstances, vowels were shortened when falling immediately before either three consonances or the combination of two consonants and two additional syllables in the word. Thus, OE gāst > NE ghost, but OE găstliċ > NE ghastly (ā > ă/_CCC) and OE crīst > NE Christ, but OE crĭstesmæsse > NE Christmas (ī > ĭ/_CC$$).
- Probably occurred in the seventh century as evidenced by eighth century Anglo-Saxon missionaries' translation into Old Low German, "Gospel" as Gotspel, lit. "God news" not expected *Guotspel, "Good news" due to gōdspell > gŏdspell.
- /ɪ̆ʊ̆/ and /iu/ were lowered to /ɛ̆ɔ̆/ and /eo/ between 800 and 900 AD.
- More reductions in unstressed syllables:
- /oː/ became /ɑ/.
- Palatal diphthongization: Initial palatal /j/, /tʃ/, /ʃ/ trigger spelling changes of a > ea, e > ie. It is disputed whether this represents an actual sound change or merely a spelling convention indicating the palatal nature of the preceding consonant (written g, c, sc were ambiguous in OE as to palatal /j/, /tʃ/, /ʃ/ and velar /ɡ/ or /ɣ/, /k/, /sk/, respectively).
- Similar changes of o > eo, u > eo are generally recognized to be merely a spelling convention. Hence WG /junɡ/ > OE geong /junɡ/ > NE "young"; if geong literally indicated an /ɛ̆ɔ̆/ diphthong, the modern result would be *yeng.
- It is disputed whether there is Middle English evidence of the reality of this change in Old English.
- Initial /ɣ/ became /ɡ/ in late Old English.
Until Middle English
This period is estimated to be c. AD 900–1400.
- Vowels were lengthened before /ld/, /mb/, /nd/, /rd/, probably also /ŋɡ/, /rl/, /rn/, when not followed by a third consonant or two consonants and two syllables.
- This probably occurred around AD 1000.
- Later on, many of these vowels were shortened again; but evidence from the Ormulum shows that this lengthening was once quite general.
- Remnants persist in the Modern English pronunciations of words such as child (but not children, since a third consonant follows), field (plus yield, wield, shield), old (but not alderman as it is followed by at least two syllables), climb, find (plus mind, kind, bind, etc.), long and strong (but not length and strength), fiend, found (plus hound, bound, etc.).
- Vowels were shortened when followed by two or more consonants, except when lengthened as above.
- This occurred in two stages, the first stage affecting only vowels followed by three or more consonants.
- Inherited height-harmonic diphthongs were monophthongized by the loss of the second component, with the length remaining the same.
- /æː/ and /ɑː/ became /ɛː/ and /ɔː/.
- /æ/ and /ɑ/ merged into /a/.
- /ʏ/ and /yː/ were unrounded to /ɪ/ and /iː/.
- /ɣ/ became /w/ or /j/, depending on surrounding vowels.
- New diphthongs formed from vowels followed by /w/ or /j/ (including from former /ɣ/).
- Length distinctions were eliminated in these diphthongs.
- Middle English breaking: Diphthongs also formed by the insertion of a glide /w/ or /j/ (after back and front vowels, respectively) preceding /x/.
- Many diphthong combinations soon merged.
- Trisyllabic laxing: Shortening of stressed vowels when two syllables followed.
- This results in pronunciation variants in Modern English such as divine vs divinity and south vs. southern (OE súðerne).
- Middle English open syllable lengthening: Vowels were usually lengthened in open syllables (13th century), except when trisyllabic laxing would apply.
- Remaining unstressed vowels merged into /ə/.
- Initial clusters /hɾ/, /hl/, /hn/ were reduced by loss of /h/.
- Voiced fricatives became independent phonemes through borrowing and other sound changes.
- /sw/ before back vowel becomes /s/; /mb/ becomes /m/.
- Modern English sword, answer, lamb.
- /w/ in swore is due to analogy with swear.
Up to Shakespeare's English
This period is estimated to be c. AD 1400–1600.
- Loss of most remaining diphthongs.
- /ai/ (and former /ɛi/, merged into /ai/ in Early Middle English) became /ɑː/ before the Great Vowel Shift.
- /ou/ (and former /ɔu/, merged into /ou/ in Early Middle English) became /oː/ and /ei/ became /eː/ after the shift causing the long mid mergers.
- /au/ became /ɔː/ after the shift.
- The dew–new merger: /ɛu/ and /iu/ merge, and they then become /juː/ after the shift.
- The vein–vain merger: /ai/ and /ei/ merge, so that vain and vein are now homonyms.
- The dew–duke merger: /y/ and /iu/ merge, so that dew and duke now have the same vowel.
- /oi/ remained.
- In a few regional accents, including some in Northern England, East Anglia, South Wales, and even Newfoundland, monophthongization has not been complete, so that pairs like pane /pain and toe/tow are distinct. (Wells 1982, pp. 192–94, 337, 357, 384–85, 498)
- /x/ (written gh) lost in most dialects causing the taut–taught merger.
- Great Vowel Shift; all long vowels raised or diphthongized.
- /aː/, /ɛː/, /eː/ become /ɛː/, /eː/, /iː/, respectively.
- /ɔː/, /oː/ become /oː/, /uː/, respectively.
- /iː/, /uː/ become /əi/ and /əu/, later /ai/ and /au/.
- New /ɔː/ developed from old /au/ (see above).
- Note that /ɔː/, /oː/, /uː/, /au/ effectively rotated in-place.
- /ɛː/, /eː/ are shifted again to /eː/, /iː/ in Early Modern English, causing merger of former /eː/ with /iː/; but the two are still distinguished in spelling as ea, ee.
- Loss of /ə/ in final syllables.
- Initial cluster /ɡn/ loses first element; but still reflected in spelling.
- /kn/ reduces to /n/ in most dialects, causing the not–knot merger.
- /rʷ/ and /r/ merge to a single sound in most dialects, causing the rap–wrap merger.
- Doubled consonants reduced to single consonants.
Up to the American–British split
This period is estimated to be c. AD 1600–1725.
- At some preceding time after Old English, all /r/ become /ɹ/.
- The foot–strut split: In southern England, /ʊ/ becomes unrounded and eventually lowered unless preceded by a labial and followed by a non-velar. This gives put [pʊt] but cut [kʌt] and buck [bʌk]. This distinction later become phonemicized by an influx of words shortened from /uː/ to /ʊ/ both before (flood, blood, glove) and after (good, hood, book, soot, took) this split.
- Ng-coalescence: Reduction of /nɡ/ in most areas produces new phoneme /ŋ/.
- In some words, /tj/, /sj/, /dj/, /zj/ coalesce to produce /tʃ/, /ʃ/, /dʒ/, and new phoneme /ʒ/ (examples: nature, mission, procedure, vision).
- Long vowels /eː/ and /uː/ (Middle English /ɛː/ and /oː/) inconsistently shortened, especially before /t/, /d/, /θ/ and /ð/. Shortening of /uː/ occurred at differing time periods, both before and after the centralizing of /ʊ/ to /ʌ/; hence blood /blʌd/ vs. good /ɡʊd/. (Modern English sweat, head, bread, breath, death, leather, weather, foot, soot, blood, good, etc.)
- The meet–meat merger: Meet and meat become homophones in most accents.
- Changes affect short vowels in many varieties before an /r/ at the end of a word or before a consonant
- [aɫ] and [ɔɫ] undergo mutations:
- Before /f/ or /v/, the [ɫ] becomes silent, so that half and calf are pronounced with /af/, and salve and halve are pronounced with /av/. [ɔɫv] is exempt, so that solve keeps its [ɫ]. [ɔɫf] is not wholly exempt, as the traditional pronunciation of golf was [ɡɔf].
- Before /m/, [aɫ] and [ɔɫ] become /ɑː/ and /oː/, as in alms, balm, calm, Holmes, palm.
- Before /k/, a coronal consonant or word-finally, [aɫ] and [ɔɫ] are diphthongized to [ɔuɫ] and [ouɫ] (today /ɔːl/ and /oʊl/), as in all, bald, colt, false, folk, malt, roll, sold, talk, Walsh. But then:
- The combinations [ɔuɫk] and [ouɫk] lose their [ɫ] in most accents to become [ɔuk] and [ouk] (today /ɔːk/ and /oʊk/), affecting words like caulk, folk and talk. Words acquired after this change (such as talc) were not affected. falcon was also historically affected, but in some modern dialects (notably American English) has acquired a /ˈfælkən/ spelling pronunciation.
- /a/, as in cat and trap, fronted to [æ] in many areas. In certain other words it becomes /ɑː/, for example father /ˈfɑːðər/. /ɑː/ is actually a new phoneme deriving from this and words like calm (see above).
- The pane–pain merger: The words pane and pain become homophones in most accents.
- The toe–tow merger: The words toe and tow become homophones in most accents.
- The above two mergers happen in the most important dialects, but remain distinct in many regional dialects as late as the 20th century.
- /ɔu/ likewise becomes /ɔː/, merging with the vowel in broad and the /ɔː/ of the lot–cloth split below.
- The lot–cloth split: in some varieties, lengthening of /ɔ/ before voiced velars (/ŋ/, /ɡ/) (American English only) and voiceless fricatives (/s/, /f/, /θ/). Hence American English long, log, loss, cloth, off with /ɔː/ (except in dialects with the cot–caught merger where the split is made completely moot).
- /uː/ becomes /ʊ/ in many words spelt oo: for example, book, wool, good, foot. This is partially resisted in the northern and western variants of English English, where words ending in -ook might still use /uː/. (Trudgill, p. 71)
After American–British split, up to the 20th century
This period is estimated to be c. AD 1725–1900.
- Split into rhotic and non-rhotic accents: loss of syllable-final /ɹ/ in some varieties, especially of English English, producing new centering diphthongs /ɛə/ (square), /ɪə/ (near), /ɔə/ (cord), /oə/ (sore), /ʊə/ (cure), and highly unusual phoneme /ɜː/ (nurse).
- The father–bother merger: North American English merger of /ɒ/ as in lot, bother with /ɑ/ as in father; result is /ɑ/.
- The trap–bath split: southern English English /æ/ inconsistently becomes /ɑː/ before /s/, /f/, /θ/ and /n/ or /m/ followed by another consonant.
- Reduction of /hw/ to /w/ results in the wine–whine merger in most varieties of English English; also, regionally, in American English.
- American and Australian English flapping of /t/ and /d/ to [ɾ] in some circumstances.
- Generally, between vowels (including syllabic [ɹ̩], [l̩] and [m̩]), when the following syllable is completely unstressed.
- But not before syllabic [n̩] in American English, for example cotton [kɑʔn̩].
- Happy-tensing (the term is from Wells 1982): final lax [ɪ] becomes tense [i] in words like happy. Absent from some dialects.
- Line–loin merger: merger between the diphthongs /aɪ/ and /ɔɪ/ in some accents of Southern English English, Hiberno-English, Newfoundland English, and Caribbean English.
- H-dropping begins in English English and Welsh English, but this does not affect the upper-class southern accent that developed into Received Pronunciation, nor does it affect the far north of England or East Anglia. (Trudgill, p. 28-30)
Some of these changes are in progress.
- æ-tensing: raising, lengthening and/or diphthongization of /æ/ in some varieties of American English, especially before nasal consonants
- Bad–lad split: the lengthening of /æ/ to [æː] in some words, found especially in Australian English and to a degree in Southern English English.
- Lock–loch merger: the replacement of /x/ with /k/ among some younger Scottish English speakers from Glasgow , .
- Pin–pen merger: the raising of /ɛ/ to /ɪ/ before nasal consonants; can be found in Southern American English and southwestern varieties of Hiberno English.
- Back-vowel-fronting: in many varieties of English all over the world, /u/ and to a lesser extent /o/ are gradually moving forward in the mouth. (Compare casual pronunciation of "food" to [fud].)
- T-glottalization becomes increasingly widespread in Great Britain. (Trudgill, pp. 77–78)
- Various treatments of th: Th-fronting, th-stopping, th-debuccalization and th-alveolarization
- L-vocalization in the south-east of England, including London. This is not unique to the south-east of England, however, and is found in many other dialects. (Trudgill, pp. 63–66)
- Yod-dropping losing /j/ in initial consonant clusters
- Northern cities vowel shift: raising and tensing of /æ/, fronting of /ɑ/, lowering of /ɔ/, backing and lowering of /ɛ/, backing of /ʌ/ and lowering and backing of /ɪ/ in Inland Northern American English.
Summary of vowel developments
From the Old and Middle English perspective
This table describes the main changes from Late Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic up through Old English, Middle English and Modern English. It focuses on the Old English and Middle English changes leading to the modern forms. Other tables are also available to cover specific areas in more detail:
- A table specifically covering the vowel history from Proto-Germanic to Old English.
- A table specifically covering the vowel history from Old English to Modern English, providing particular detail about the Modern English developments.
- A table specifically focusing on the history of Middle English diphthongs, covering the period from Old English to Modern English.
This table only describes the changes in accented syllables. Vowel changes in unaccented syllables were very different and much more extensive. In general:
- In Old English, 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/.)
- In Middle English, almost all unstressed vowels were reduced to /ə/; then, final /ə/ was dropped. The main exception is Old English -iġ, which becomes Modern English -y.
- Unstressed vowels in Modern English other than those spelled <e> are due either to compounds or to borrowed words (especially from Latin and Old French).
NOTE: The Old English words in this table are given in their Anglian form, since this is the form that underlies Modern English. However, standard Old English was based on the West Saxon dialect, and when the two dialects differ, the West Saxon form is indicated with a WS in parentheses following the Anglian form.
NOTE: In this table, abbreviations are used as follows:
1"Pre-Germanic" in this context refers to a post-PIE language that maintains PIE phonology but with morphological adjustments made as necessary to account for the Proto-Germanic form. Reconstructions are only given for solidly reconstructible Proto-Indo-European roots.
|Late PIE1||Proto-Germanic1||Condition||Old English||Middle English||Modern English||Examples|
|a, o, h₂e, h₃e, H̥||a||æ||e||/a/||/e/||/æ/; RP /ɑː/||/ɛ/||PG *paþaz > OE pæþ > "path"; PG *batizôN > OE betera > "better"; PG *taljanaN > OE tellan > "to tell"|
|(leng.) /aː/||/ɛː/||/ei/||/iː/; /ei/; /ɛ/||PG *hwalaz > OE hwæl > "whale"; PG *matiz > OE, ME mete "food" > "meat"; PG *stadiz > OE, ME stede > "stead"|
|(+g) /ai/||/ɛi/ > /ai/||/ei/||/ei/||PG *dagaz > OE dæġ > "day"|
|(+h) /au/||/ɛu/||/ɔː/; /æf/||/(j)uː/||PG *hlahtraz > OE hlæhtor (WS hleahtor) > "laughter"; PG *slahtiz > OE sleht (WS slieht) > ME sleight "slaughter"|
|+n,m||a,o||e||/a/ (occ. /o/)||/e/||/æ/; occ. GA /ɔ/, RP /ɒ/||/ɛ/||PG *mannz, manniz > OE man, mon > "man", plur. men > "men"; PG *hamuraz > OE hamor > "hammer"; PG *handuz > OE hand > "hand"; PG *sange > OE past sang > "sang"; PG *lambaz > OE lamb > "lamb"; Latin candēla > OE candel > "candle"; PG '*gandrôN > gandra > "gander"; PG *langaz > OE lang, long > "long"; PG *sandijanaN > OE sendan > "send"; PG *bankiz > OE benċ > "bench"; PG *hanjō > OE henn > "hen"|
|(leng.) /aː/||/ɛː/||/ei/||/iː/; /ei/; /ɛ/||PG *namôN > OE nama > "name"; PG lamôN > OE lama "lame"; PG *banôN > OE bana "slayer" > "bane"|
|+nf,nþ,ns||ō||ē||/oː/||/eː/||/uː/; /ʌ/; /ʊ/||/iː/||PreG *donts, dontes > *PG *tanþz, tanþiz > OE tōþ > "tooth", plur. tēþ > "teeth"; PG *gans, gansiz > OE gōs > "goose", plur. gēs > "geese"; PG *anþaraz > OE ōþer > "other"|
|(+CC) /o/||/e/||GA /ɔ/, RP /ɒ/; GA /ɔː/||/ɛ/||PG *samftōN > OE sōfte > "soft(ly)"; PG *anstiz > OE ēst "favor" > ME "este"|
|+lC||a||æ > e||/a/||/e/||/ɔː/||/ɛ/||PG *fallanaN > OE fallan (WS feallan) > "to fall"; PG *fallijanaN > OE fællan > fellan (WS fiellan) > "to fell"|
|(+ld) /ɔː/||/ɛː/||GA /ou/, RP /əu/||/iː/; /ei/; /ɛ/||PG *aldaz, aldizôN > OE ald (WS eald) > "old", ældra (WS ieldra) "older" > "elder"; PG *haldanaN > OE haldan (WS healdan) > "to hold"|
|+rc,rg,rh||æ > e||e||/e/||/e/||GA /ɑ/(+r), RP /ɑː/||GA /ɑ/(+r), RP /ɑː/||Latin arca > OE erc (WS earc) > "ark"|
|+rC (C not c,g,h)||ea||e||/a/||/e/||GA /ɑ/(+r), RP /ɑː/||GA /ɑ/(+r), RP /ɑː/||PG *harduz > OE heard > "hard"|
|before a,o,u||a||(by analogy) æ||/a/||/a/||/æ/; RP /ɑː/||/æ/; (RP) /ɑː/||Latin cattus > OE catt > "cat"|
|(leng.) /aː/||/aː/||/ei/||/ei/||PG *talō > OE talu > "tale"; PG *bakanaN, -iþ > OE bacan > "to bake", 3rd sing. pres. indic. bæcþ "bakes"|
|(+g,w) /au/||/au/||/ɔː/||/ɔː/||PG plur. *dagôs > OE dagas "days" > dial. "dawes"; PG *laguz > OE lagu > "law"; PG *clawō > OE clawu > "claw"|
|before later a,o,u||ea||eo||/a/||/e/||/æ/; (RP) /ɑː/||/ɛ/|
|(leng.) /aː/||/ɛː/||/ei/||/iː/; /ei/; /ɛ/||PG *alu(þ) > OE ealu > "ale"; PG *asiluz > OE eosol (WS esol) "donkey"|
|(+g,w) /au/||/ɛu/||/ɔː/||/(j)uː/||PG *awī > OE eowu > "ewe"|
|before hs,ht,hþ + final -iz||N/A||i (occ. ie)||N/A||/i/||N/A||/ai/||PIE *nokwtis > PG *nahtiz > OE nieht > OE niht > "night"|
|e, h₁e, occ. i+C*e,a,o||e||e||N/A||/e/||N/A||/ɛ/||N/A||PIE *nizdos > PG *nestaz > OE nest > "nest"; PG *helpanaN > OE helpan > "to help"; PG *fehtanaN > OE fehtan (WS feohtan) "to fight" (irreg.); PG *berkanaN > OE bercan (WS beorcan) > "to bark"|
|(leng.) /ɛː/||N/A||/iː/; /ei/; /ɛ/||N/A||PG *brekanaN > OE brecan > "to break"; PG *ebnaz > OE ef(e)n > "even"; OE feþer > "feather"|
|(+g,h) /ɛi/ > /ai/||N/A||/ei/||N/A||PG *wegaz > OE weġ > "way"; PG *regnaz > OE reġn > "rain"; PG *seglaz > OE seġl > "sail"|
|(+ld) /eː/||N/A||/iː/||N/A||PG *felduz > OE feld > "field"; PG *geldanaN > OE ġeldan (WS ġieldan) "to pay" > "to yield"|
|+m||i||N/A||/i/||N/A||/ɪ/||N/A||PG *remôN > OE rima > "rim"; PG *nemanaN > OE niman "to take" > archaic "to nim"|
|+rC (C not c,g,h); wV; C (C not c,g) +later a,o,u||eo||N/A||/e/||N/A||/ɛ/; (+r) GA /ɑ/(+r), RP /ɑː/||N/A||PG *werþanaN > OE weorðan "to become"; PG *hertōN > OE heorte > "heart"|
|(leng.) /ɛː/||N/A||/iː/; /ei/; /ɛ/||N/A||*etanaN > OE eotan (WS etan) > "to eat"; PG *beranaN > OE beoran (WS beran) > "to bear"|
|+ late final hs,ht,hþ||i (occ. ie)||N/A||/i/||N/A||/ɪ/||N/A||PG *sehs > OE siex > "six"; PG *rehtaz > OE riht > "right"|
|i, (h₁)e+C*i, (h₁)e+C*y, (h₁)e+nC||i||i||i||/i/||/i/||/ɪ/||/ɪ/||PG *fiskaN > OE fisċ > "fish"; PG *hringaz > OE hring > "ring"; PG *bidjanaN > OE biddan "to pray" > "to bid"; PG *itiþ > OE 3rd sing. pres. indic. iteþ "eats"; PG *skiriþ > OE 3rd sing. pres. indic. sċirþ (WS sċierþ) "shears"; PG *stihtōjanaN > OE stihtian "to establish"|
|(leng.) /eː/||/eː/||/iː/||/iː/||PG *wikō > OE wicu > "week"|
|(+g) /iː/||/iː/||/ai/||/ai/||Latin tegula > OE tiġele > "tile"; PG *brigdilaz > OE briġdel > "bridle"|
|(+ld,nd) /iː/||/iː/||/ai/||/ai/||PG *blindaz > OE blind > "blind" /blaind/; PG *kildaz (plur. *kildōzō) OE ċild > "child" /tʃaild/; PG *wildijaz > OE wilde > "wild" /waild/|
|+ nf,nþ,ns||ī||ī||/iː/||/iː/||/ai/||/ai/||PG *fimf > OE fīf > "five"; PG *linþijō > OE līþe "gentle" > "lithe"|
|(+CC) /i/||/i/||/ɪ/||/ɪ/||PG *fimf tigiwiz > OE fīftiġ > "fifty"|
|+rC (C not c,g,h); w||io > eo||i||/e/||/i/||/ɛ/||/ɪ/||PG *liznōjanaN > OE liornian > OE leornian > "learn"; PG *a + firrijanaN > OE afirran (WS afierran) "to remove" (cf. feorr "far")|
|(+w) /eu/ > /iu/||/iu/||/(j)uː/||/(j)uː/||PG *niwulaz > OE niowul, neowul "prostrate"; PG *spiwiz > OE spiwe "vomiting"; PG *hiwiz > OE hīw > "hue"|
|before a,o,u||i (io, eo)||N/A||/i/ (/e/)||N/A||/ɪ/ (/ɛ/)||N/A||PG *milukz > OE mioluc,meolc > "milk"|
|(leng.) /eː/ (/ɛː/)||N/A||/iː/ (/iː/; /ei/; /ɛ/)||N/A|
|(+g) /iː/ (/ɛi/ > /ai/)||/iː/||/ai/ (/ei/)||/ai/|
|u, n̥(H), m̥(H), l̥(H), r̥(H)3||u||u||y||/u/||/i/||/ʌ/; /ʊ/||/ɪ/||PG *sunuz > OE sunu > "son"; PG *kumanaN, -iþ > OE cuman > "to come", 3rd sing. pres. indic. cymþ "comes"; PG *guldijanaN > OE gyldan > "to gild"|
|(leng.) /oː/||/eː/||/uː/; /ʌ/; /ʊ/; (+r) GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/||/iː/||PreG *dhurus > PG *duruz > OE duru > "door"; PG *widuz > OE widu >> OE wudu > "wood"; PG *ubilaz > OE yfel > "evil"|
|(+g) /uː/||/iː/||/au/||/ai/||OE ryġe > "rye"|
|+ nf,nþ,ns||ū||ȳ||/uː/||/iː/||/au/||/ai/||PG *munþz > OE mūþ > "mouth"; PG *kunþijanaN > OE cȳþan "to make known" > ME "kithe"|
|(+CC) /u/||/i/||/ʌ/; /ʊ/||/ɪ/||PG *tunskaz > OE tūsc > "tusk"; PG *wunskijanaN > OE wȳsċan > "wish"; PG *kunþiþō > OE cȳþþ(u) > "kith"|
|before non-nasal + a,e,o||o||(by analogy) e||/o/||/e/||GA /ɔ/, RP /ɒ/||/ɛ/||PG *drupôN > OE dropa > "drop"; PG *fulkaN > OE folc > "folk"|
|(leng.) /ɔː/||/ɛː/||GA /ou/, RP /əu/; (+r) GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/||/iː/; /ei/; /ɛ/||PG *fulôN > OE fola > "foal"; PG *nusuz (*nusōu?) > OE nosu > "nose"; PG *hupõjanaN > OE hopian > "to hope"|
|(+g,h,w) /ɔu/||/ɛi/ > /ai/||GA /ou/, RP /əu/; GA /ɔːf/, RP /ɒf/||/ei/||PG *duhter, duhtriz > OE dohter > "daughter", plur. dehter "daughters"; PG *trugaz > OE trog > "trough"; PG *bugôN > OE boga > "bow" /bou/|
|(+ld,rd) /ɔː/||/ɛː/||GA /ou/, RP /əu/; (+r) GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/||/iː/; /ei/; /ɛ/||PG *guldaz > OE gold > "gold"; PG *burdaN > OE bord > "board"|
|ē(H), eh₂||ǣ > ā||ē||ē||/eː/||/eː/||/iː/||/iː/||PG *slǣpanaN > OE slēpan (WS slǣpan) > "to sleep", Latin strāta > OE strēt (WS strǣt) > "street"; PG *dǣdiz > OE dēd (WS dǣd) > "deed"; Latin cāseus > OE ċēse (WS ċīese) > "cheese"|
|(+g,h) /iː/||/iː/||/ai/||/ai/||PG *nǣhaz, nǣhistaz > OE nēh (WS nēah) "near" > "nigh", superl. nēhst (WS nīehst) "nearest" > "next"|
|+n,m||ō||ē||/oː/||/eː/||/uː/||/iː/||PG *mǣnôN > OE mōna > "moon"; PG *kwǣniz > OE kwēn > "queen"|
|+w; ga,go,gu||ā||ǣ||/ɔː/||/ɛː/||GA /ou/, RP /əu/||/iː/; /ei/; /ɛ/|
|(+g) /ɔu/||/ɛi/ > /ai/||GA /ou/, RP /əu/||/ei/||PG *mǣgôz > OE māgas "relatives"|
|(+w) /ɔu/||/ɛu/||GA /ou/, RP /əu/||/(j)uː/||PG *knǣwanaN, -iþ > OE cnāwan > "to know", 3rd sing. pres. indic. cnǣwþ "knows"|
|ēi, iz, etc.4||ē||ē||ē||/eː/||/eː/||/iː/||/iː/||PG *hēr > OE hēr > "here"; PIE *mizdhā > PG *mēdō > OE mēd "reward"|
|(+g,h) /iː/||/iː/||/ai/||/ai/||OE past hēht "called" > "hight"|
|(+w) /eu/ > /iu/||/eu/ > /iu/||/(j)uː/||/(j)uː/|
|ā, ō, aH, oH, eh₂, eh₃; an+K, on+K, h₂en+K, h₃en+K||ō; āN+h||ō||ē||/oː/||/eː/||/uː/; /ʌ/; /ʊ/||/iː/||PG *fōtz, fōtiz > OE fōt > "foot", plur. fēt > "feet"|
|(+CC) /o/||/e/||GA /ɔ/, RP /ɒ/; GA /ɔː/||/ɛ/||PG PG *kōpi-dǣþ > OE cēpte > "kept"; PG *mōti-dǣþ > OE mētte > "met"|
|(+g,h) /ɔu/; /uː/||/iː/||GA /ou/, RP /əu/; /au/; /ʌf/||/ai/||PG *swōganaN' > OE swōgan "to sound" > ME /sɔuə/ > "sough" /sou/; PG *bōgaz > OE bōg > ME /buːh/ > "bough" /bau/; PG *tōhaz > OE tōh > ME /tuːh/ > "tough" /tʌf/; PG past *sōh-dǣþ > OE sōhte > ME /sɔuhtə/ > "sought"|
|(+w) /ɔu/||/eu/ > /iu/||GA /ou/, RP /əu/||/(j)uː/||PG *grōwanaN > OE grōwan > "grow"|
|(h₁)ei, ī, iH; (h₁)en+K, in+K||ī; īN+h||ī||ī||/iː/||/iː/||/ai/||/ai/||PG *wībaN > OE wīf > "wife"; PG *līhiþ > 3rd sing. pres. indic. līþ (WS līehþ) "lends"; PIE *lengwhtos > PG *līhtaz > OE līht (WS lēoht) > "light" (in weight)|
|(+g,h) /iː/||/iː/||/ai/||/ai/||PG *hīgōjanaN > OE hīgian > "hie"|
|(+w) /iu/||/iu/||/(j)uː/||/(j)uː/||PG *Tīwaz > OE Tīw (name of a god) + -es "'s" + dæġ "day" > "Tuesday"|
|ū, uH; n̥+K, un+K||ū; ūN+h||ū||ȳ||/uː/||/iː/||/au/||/ai/||PG *mūs, mūsiz > OE mūs "mouse", plur. mȳs > "mice"; PG *hūdijanaN > OE hȳdan > "to hide"|
|(+CC) /u/||/i/||/ʌ/; /ʊ/||/ɪ/||PG *rūstaz > OE rūst > "rust"; PIE *pn̥kʷstis > PG *fūhstiz > OE fȳst > "fist"|
|(+g,h) /uː/||/iː/||/au/; /ʌf/||/ai/||PG *būganaN > OE būgan "to bend" > "bow"; PG *rūhaz > OE rūh > "rough" /rʌf/; PG *drūgijaz > OE drȳge > "dry"|
|(+w) /uː/||/iu/||/au/||/(j)uː/||OE trūwian "to trust" > archaic "trow" /trau/|
|ai, oi, h₂ei, h₃ei||ai||ā||ǣ||/ɔː/||/ɛː/||GA /ou/, RP /əu/; (+r) GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/||/iː/; /ei/; /ɛ/||PG *stainaz > OE stān > "stone"; PreG perfect *roidhe > PG past *raide > OE rād > "rode"; PreG *oyerā > PG *airō > OE ār > "oar"; PIE *ayes > PG *aiz > OE ār "bronze" > "ore"; PG *hwaitijaN > OE hwǣte > "wheat"|
|(+CC) /a/||/a/||/æ/; RP /ɑː/||/æ/; RP /ɑː/||PG *faittiz > OE fǣtt > "fat"|
|(+g,h) /ɔu/||/ɛi/ > /ai/||GA /ou/, RP /əu/||/ei/||PG *aiganaN > OE āgan > "owe"; PG *daigaz > OE dāg, dāh > "dough"|
|(+w) /ɔu/||/ɛu/||GA /ou/, RP /əu/||/(j)uː/||PG *maiwiz > OE mǣw > "mew"|
|au, ou, h₂eu, h₃eu||au||ēa||ē||/ɛː/||/eː/||/iː/; /ei/; /ɛ/||/iː/||PG *auzōN > OE ēare > "ear"; PG *hauzijanaN > OE hēran (WS hīeran) > "to hear"|
|(+w) /ɛu/||/eu/ > /iu/||/(j)uː/||/(j)uː/||PG *skrawwôN > OE sċrēawa > ME "shrewe" > "shrew"|
|+c,g,h; rc,rg,rh;lc,lg,lh||ē||ē||/eː/||/eː/||/iː/||/iː/||PG *auke(?), *aukijanaN > OE ēc, ēċan (WS ēac, īeċan) "also, to increase" > ME "eke, eche" > "eke" (archaic), "to eke"|
|(+g,h) /iː/||/iː/||/ai/||/ai/||PG *augōN > OE ēġe (WS ēage) > "eye"; PG *hauhaz, hauhistaz > OE hēh (WS hēah) > "high", superl. hēhst (WS hīehst) "highest"; PIE *leuktos > PG *leuhtaz > OE lēht (WS lēoht) > "light" (brightness)|
|(h₁)eu||eu||ēo||N/A||/eː/||N/A||/iː/||N/A||PG *deupaz > OE dēop > "deep"; PG *beudanaN > OE bēodan "to command"|
|(+w) /eu/ > /iu/||N/A||/(j)uː/||N/A||PG *hrewwanaN > OE hrēowan > "to rue"|
|+c,g,h; rc,rg,rh; lc,lg,lh||ē||N/A||/eː/||N/A||/iː/||N/A||PG *reukanaN > OE rēcan (WS rēocan) > "to reek"|
|(+g,h) /iː/||N/A||/ai/||N/A||PG *fleugōN > OE flēge (WS flēoge) > "fly"; PG *leuganaN > OE lēgan (WS lēogan) > "to lie"|
|(h₁)eu+C*i, (h₁)eu+C*y||iu||N/A||īo > ēo||N/A||/eː/||N/A||/iː/||PIE *newios > PG *niujaz > OE nīwe > "new"; PG *biudiþ > 3rd sing. pres. indic. bīott (WS bīett) "commands"|
|(+w) N/A||/eu/ > /iu/||N/A||/(j)uː/||PG *triwwiz > *triwwijaz > OE trīowe, trēowe > ME "trewe" > "true"|
|+c,g,h; rc,rg,rh; lc,lg,lh||N/A||ī||N/A||/iː/||/ai/||/ai/||PIE *leuktionom > PG *liuhtijanaN > OE līhtan (WS līehtan) "to light"|
1A + separates the sounds that produced the Proto-Germanic vowels in question from the sounds that formed the conditioning environment. The notation C* means a sequence of zero or more consonants.
2I-umlaut refers to a sound change that took place around 500 AD with pervasive effects on English vowels. Specifically, vowels were fronted or raised whenever an /i/ or /j/ followed in the next syllable. Nearly every vowel was affected. Affected vocabulary is shown in a different color.
3PIE n̥ and n̥H became Proto-Germanic un; similarly for m̥, l̥ and r̥. K refers to either of the PIE sounds ḱ or k, which fell together in Proto-Germanic and the other Centum languages; or to any of the nine PIE velars when followed directly by a voiceless consonant (especially t). H refers to any laryngeal sound. N indicates nasalization of the preceding vowel.
4The origins of Proto-Germanic ē are somewhat in dispute.
From the Middle and Modern English perspective
This table describes the main historical developments of English vowels in the last 1000 years, beginning with late Old English and focusing on the Middle English and Modern English changes leading to the current forms. It takes a later perspective than the previous table. In particular, it provides much more detail about the changes taking place in the last 600 years (since Middle English), while omitting any detail in the Old English and earlier periods.
This table omits the history of Middle English diphthongs; see that link for a table summarizing the developments.
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/|
|OE +CC||OE fǣtt > "fat"; OE lǣstan > "to last"; 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 ea||OE wealwian > "to wallow"|
|(+r) /ar/ > GA /ɑr/, RP /ɑː/||OE heard > "hard"|
|(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 > "to ask"|
|(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 +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"; OE erc (WS earc) > "ark"|
|(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 meotan (WS metan) > "to mete" /miːt/; OE eotan (WS etan) > "to eat"; OE meodu (WS medu) > "mead"|
|(+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 dyde > "did"; OE fisċ > "fish"; OE lifer > "liver"|
|OE y||OE bryċġ > "bridge"; OE cyssan > "to kiss"; 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 >> "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||(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 >> "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 guma >> "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 mē > "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 ȳ||OE mȳs > "mice"|
|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" /glʌf/|
|(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"|
History of Middle English diphthongs
This table describes the main developments of Middle English diphthongs, starting with the Old English sound sequences that produced them (sequences of vowels and g, h or w) and ending with their Modern English equivalents. Many special cases have been ignored.
Note: V means "any vowel"; C means "any consonant"; # means "end of word".
|Late Old English (Anglian)||Early Middle English||Late Middle English||Early Modern English||Modern English||Example|
|æg, ǣg||/ai/||/ai/||/eː/||/ei/||dæg > "day"; grǣg > "gray"|
|eg||/ɛi/||weg > "way"; regn > "rain"|
|ēg||/ei/ > /iː/||/iː/||/əi/||/ai/||ēage > ēge > "eye"; lēogan > lēgan > "lie"|
|ig, īg, yg, ȳg||/iː/||tigel > "tile"; hīgian > "hie"; ryge > "rye"; drȳge > "dry"|
|æw, aw, agV||/au/||/au/||/ɔː/||/ɔː/||clawu > "claw"; lagu > "law"|
|ǣw, ēaw, ew, eow||/ɛu/||/ɛu/||/juː/||/juː/||mǣw > "mew"; lǣwede > "lewd"; scrēawa > "shrew"; eowu > "ewe"|
|ēw, ēow||/eu/||/iu/||hrēowan > "rue"|
|iw, īw, yw, ȳw||/iu/||hīw > "hue"; nīwe > "new"|
|āw, āgV, ow, ogV, ōw, ōgV||/ɔu/||/ɔu/||/ou/ > /oː/||/əu/ (British), /ou/ (American)||cnāwan > "know"; āgan > "owe"; grōwan > "grow"; boga > "bow" /bou/|
|ugV, ūgV||/uː/||/uː/||/əu/||/au/||drugaþ > drouth > "drought"; būgan > "bow" /bau/|
|æh, ah, ag#||/auh/||/auh/||([x] → nil) /ɔː/||/ɔː/||slæht (WS sleaht) + -or > "slaughter"|
|([x] → /f/) /af/||/æf/||hlæhtor > "laughter"|
|eh||/ɛih/||/ɛih/||/ei/ > /eː/||/ei/||streht > "straight"|
|ēh||/eih/ > /iːh/||/iːh/||/əi/||/ai/||hēah > hēh > "high"; þēoh > þēh > "thigh"; nēh > "nigh"|
|ih, īh, yh, ȳh||/iːh/||reht > riht > "right"; flyht > "flight"; līoht > līht > "light"|
|āh, āg#, oh, og#||/ɔuh/||/ɔuh/||([x] → nil) /ou/ > /oː/||/əu/ (British), /ou/ (American)||dāg > dāh > "dough"|
|([x] → /f/) /ɔf/||/ɒf/ (British), /ɔːf/ (American)||trog > "trough"|
|āhC, ohC, ōhC||/ɔuh/||/ɔuh/||/ɔː/||/ɔː/||dohtor > "daughter"; sōhte > "sought"|
|ōh#, ōg#||/ouh/ > /uːh/||/uːh/||([x] → nil) /əu/||/au/||bōg > "bough"; plōg > plōh > "plough"|
|([x] → /f/) /ʊf/||(centralized) /ʌf/||tōh > "tough"; ruh > "rough"|
|uh, ug#, ūh, ūg#||/uːh/||(non-centralized) /ʊf/||?|
- English language
- History of the English language
- English phonology
- Phonological history of English consonants
- Phonological history of English vowels
- Scots Vowel Length Rule
- Phonological history of the Scots language
- Project Gutenberg's Beowulf translation by Francis Gummere
- Fausto Cercignani, The Development of */k/ and */sk/ in Old English, in "Journal of English and Germanic Philology", 82/3, 1983, pp. 313–323.
- Fausto Cercignani, Shakespeare's Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1981.
- Dobson, E.J. (1968). English pronunciation, 1500–1700 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 310545793.
- John C. Wells (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22919-7 (vol. 1), ISBN 0-521-24224-X (vol. 2), ISBN 0-521-24225-8 (vol. 3) Check
- Peter Trudgill, The Dialects of England, Blackwell, Oxford, 2002.
- Vulf Plotkin, The Dynamics of the English Phonological System, Mouton, The Hague, 1972.