Vowel breaking

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Sound change and alternation

In historical linguistics, vowel breaking (sometimes called vowel fracture)[1] is the change of a monophthong into a diphthong or triphthong. The change into a diphthong is also known as diphthongization. Vowel breaking is often distinguished from diphthongization and defined more narrowly as a harmonic (i.e., assimilatory) process involving diphthongization triggered by a following vowel or consonant. The original pure vowel typically breaks into two segments, where the first segment matches the original vowel and the second segment is harmonic with the nature of the triggering vowel or consonant. For example, the second segment may be /u/ (a back vowel) if the following vowel or consonant is back (e.g., velar or pharyngeal), and the second segment may be /i/ (a front vowel) if the following vowel or consonant is front (e.g., palatal). Thus, vowel breaking in this restricted sense can be viewed as an example of assimilation of a vowel to a following vowel or consonant.

Southern American English[edit]

Vowel breaking is characteristic of the "Southern drawl" of Southern American English, where the short front vowels have developed a glide up to [j], and then in some areas back down to schwa: pat [pæjət], pet [pɛjət], pit [pɪjət].[citation needed]

Middle English[edit]

In early Middle English, a vowel /i/ was inserted between a front vowel and a following /h/ (pronounced [ç] in this context), and a vowel /u/ was inserted between a back vowel and a following /h/ (pronounced [x] in this context). This is a prototypical example of the narrow sense of "vowel breaking" as described above: The original vowel breaks into a diphthong that assimilates to the following consonant, gaining a front /i/ before a palatal consonant and /u/ before a velar consonant.

Old English[edit]

There are two processes in Old English that are examples of harmonic vowel breaking, called Old English breaking and back umlaut.

Old English breaking is a process in prehistoric Old English whereby stressed short and long i, e, æ become short and long diphthongs spelled io, eo, ea (respectively), when followed by h or by r, l + another consonant (short vowels only), and sometimes w (only for certain short vowels).

Examples are:[2]

  • PG *fallanfeallan "fall"
  • PG *erþōeorþe "earth"

Back umlaut is a process in late prehistoric Old English whereby short i, e, æ become short diphthongs spelled io, eo, ea (respectively) before a back vowel in the next syllable, if the intervening consonant is of a certain nature. The specific nature of which consonants trigger back umlaut and which block them varies from dialect to dialect.

Old Norse[edit]

Proto-Germanic stressed short e becomes ja or (before u) regularly in Old Norse except after w, r, l. Examples are:

According to some scholars,[3] the diphthongisation of e is an unconditioned sound change, whereas other scholars speak about epenthesis[4] or umlaut.[5]

Scottish Gaelic[edit]

Vowel breaking is present in Scottish Gaelic with the following changes occurring often but variably between dialects: Archaic Irish → Scottish Gaelic and Archaic Irish → Scottish Gaelic [6] Specifically, central dialects have more vowel breaking than others.

Romance languages[edit]

Many Romance languages underwent vowel breaking. The Vulgar Latin open vowels e /ɛ/ and o /ɔ/ in stressed position underwent breaking only in open syllables in French and Italian, but in both open and closed syllables in Spanish. Vowel breaking was completely absent in Portuguese. The result of breaking varies between languages: e and o became ie and ue in Spanish, ie and uo in Italian, but ea and oa in Romanian. Thus:

Syllable shape Latin Spanish French Italian Portuguese
Open petra, focus piedra, fuego pierre, feu pietra, fuoco pedra, fogo
Closed festa, porta fiesta, puerta fête, porte festa, porta festa, porta

Highlighted words underwent vowel breaking.

Quebec French[edit]

In Quebec French, long vowels are generally diphthongized in the last syllable.

  • tard [tɑːʁ][tɑɔ̯ʁ]
  • père [pɛːʁ][paɛ̯ʁ]
  • fleur [flœːʁ][flaœ̯ʁ]
  • fort [fɔːʁ][fɑɔ̯ʁ]
  • autre [oːtʁ̥][ou̯tʁ̥]
  • neutre [nøːtʁ̥][nøy̯tʁ̥]
  • pince [pẽːs][pẽɪ̯̃s]
  • onze [õːz][õʊ̯̃z]


Some scholars[7] believe that Proto-Indo-European (PIE) i, u has a kind of breaking before an original laryngeal in Greek, Armenian and Tocharian, whereas the other Indo-European languages have monophthongs. Typical examples are:

  • PIE *gʷih3wos → *gʷioHwos "alive" → Gk. ζωός, Toch. B śāw-, śāy- (but Skt. jīvá-, Lat. vīvus)
  • PIE *protih3kʷom → *protioHkʷom "front side" → Gk. πρόσωπον "face", Toch. B pratsāko "breast" (but Skt. prátīka-)
  • PIE *duh2ros → *duaHros "long" → Gk. δηρός, Arm. *twārerkar (Skt. dūrá-, Lat. dūrus).

However, the hypothesis is not adopted by most handbooks.

See also[edit]


  • Crowley, Terry. (1997) An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press.
  1. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
  2. ^ Robert B. Howell 1991. Old English breaking and its Germanic analogues (Linguistische Arbeiten, 253.). Tübingen: Max Niemeyer
  3. ^ J. Svensson, Diftongering med palatalt förslag i de nordiska språken, Lund 1944.
  4. ^ H. Paul, "Zur Geschichte des germanischen Vocalismus", Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Kultur 6 (1879) 16-30.
  5. ^ K. M. Nielsen, Acta Philologica Scandinavica 24 (1957) 33-45.
  6. ^ Martin John Ball, James Fife. The Celtic Languages. p. 152. 
  7. ^ F. Normier, in: Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung 91 (1977) 171-218; J.S. Klein, in: Die Laryngaltheorie und die Rekonstruktion des indogermanischen Laut- und Formensystems, Heidelberg 1988, 257-279; J.E. Rasmussen, in: Selected Papers on Indo-European Linguistics, Copenhagen 1999, 442-458.