Phonological history of English diphthongs

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English diphthongs have undergone many changes since the Middle English period. Each of the following sound changes involved at least one phoneme which historically was a diphthong. The sound changes discussed here may also have involved a phoneme which was historically or is now a monophthong. For sound changes involving English-language centering diphthongs see English-language vowel changes before historic /r/.

Middle English[edit]

Vein–vain merger[edit]

The vein–vain merger is the merger of the Middle English diphthongs /ei/ and /ai/ that occurs in all dialects of present English. The merger was complete by perhaps the fourteenth century.[1][2]

In early Middle English before the merger, vein and vain were pronounced differently as /ˈvein/ and /ˈvain/, and day and way, from Old English dæġ and weġ, had different vowels. After the merger, vein and vain were homophones, and day and way had the same vowels.[1]

The merged vowel was a diphthong, transcribed /ɛi/ or /æi/. Later, /ɛi/ merged in most dialects with the /eː/ of words like pane in the pane–pain merger. However, in Australian English the merger instead resulted in /ai/.

Late Middle English[edit]

The English of southeastern England around 1400 had seven diphthongs:[3]

Some diphthongs ended in a front vowel:

  • /æi/ as in nail, day, whey
  • /ɔi/ as in joy, noise, royal, coy
  • /ʊi/ as in boil, destroy, coin, join

Some ended in a back vowel:

  • /ɪu/ as in view, new, due, use, lute, suit, adieu
  • /ɛu/ as in few, dew, ewe, shrewd, neuter, beauty
  • /ɑu/ as in cause, law, salt, change, chamber, psalm, half, dance, aunt.
  • /ɔu/ as in low, soul

Typical spellings are as in the examples above. The spelling Cew (where C represents any consonant) is ambiguous between /ɪu/ and /ɛu/, and the spellings oi and oy are ambiguous between /ɔi/ and /ʊi/.[3] The most common words with Cew pronounced /ɛu/ were dew, few, hew, lewd, mew, newt, pewter, sew, shew (show), shrew, shrewd and strew.[3] Words in which /ʊi/ was commonly used included boil, coin, destroy, join, moist, point, poison, soil, spoil, Troy, turmoil and voice, although there was significant variation.[3]

Diphthongization before velar fricatives[edit]

In Middle English, the vowels /a/, /ɛ/, and /ɔ/ were diphthongized when followed by /h/, becoming respectively /au/, /ɛi/, and /ɔu/. The phoneme /h/ was realized as [ç] after front vowels and [x] after back vowels. Thus, the words taught and weight /tauht wɛiht/ had diphthongs followed by fricatives [tauxt wɛiçt]. The elimination of these fricatives resulted in the taut–taught merger and the wait–weight merger.

Taut–taught merger[edit]

The taut–taught merger is a process that occurs in modern English that causes /h/ to be dropped in words like thought, night, daughter etc.[4][5][6] /nɪxt/ [nɪçt] > /niːt/, later > /naɪt/ night by the Great Vowel Shift.

/h/ sometimes became /f/, with shortening of previous vowel.

Inconsistent development of [x] combined with ambiguity of ou (either /ou/ or /uː/ in Early Middle English) produced multiple reflexes of orthographic ough. Compare Modern English through /θruː/, though /ðoʊ/, bough /baʊ/, cough /kɒf/, /kɔf/ or /kɑf/, rough /rʌf/.

Some accents in northern England show slightly different changes, for example, night as /niːt/ (neat) and in the dialectal words owt and nowt (from aught and naught, pronounced like out and nout, meaning anything and nothing). Also, in Northern England, the distinction between wait and weight is often preserved, so those speakers lack the wait–weight merger.

The words ugh and chutzpah did not exist yet in the English language at this point in time, and thusly the presence of /x/ in those words is unrelated to this.

Wait–weight merger[edit]

The waitweight merger is the merger of the Middle English sequences /ɛi/ in wait and /ɛix/ in weight. This merger occurs in most dialects of English.[7] It was triggered by the loss of the dorsal fricative /h/ in weight /wɛiht/, so that it came to be pronounced like wait /wɛit/.

This merger occurred after veinvain merger, in which the vowel of vein merged with that of vain and wait. The panepain merger occurred later, and through it the vowel of pane merged with that of pain, wait, and weight.

Many Yorkshire dialects underwent the panepain merger,[citation needed] but not the waitweight merger, so wait /weːt/ and late /leːt/ rhyme and are distinct from weight /wɛɪt/.

Modern English[edit]

Great Vowel Shift[edit]

By the mid sixteenth century, the Great Vowel Shift had created two new diphthongs out of what were formerly close long vowels of Middle English. These were /əɪ/ as in tide, and /əʊ/ as in house.[8] At this period, the English of South-Eastern England could thus have had nine diphthongs.

Late sixteenth century[edit]

By the end of the sixteenth century, the inventory of diphthongs was reduced as a result of several developments, all of which took place in the mid-to-late sixteenth century:[9]

  • /ɛu/ merges with /iʊ/, so that dew and due are homophones
  • /ɛɪ/, from the veinvain and waitweight mergers, merges with /ɛː/ (pane–pain merger)
  • /aʊ/ is monophthongised to /ɒː/
  • /ɔʊ/ is monophthongised to /ɔː/

This left /iu/, /ɔɪ/, /ʊi/, /əɪ/ and /əʊ/ as the diphthongs of South-Eastern England.

Late seventeenth century[edit]

By the end of the seventeenth century, the following further developments had taken place in the dialect of South-Eastern England:[9]

  • /ɔː/ is raised to [oː]
  • the falling diphthong /iʊ/ of due and dew changes to a rising diphthong [juː]
  • the diphthongs /əɪ/ and /əʊ/ widen to [aɪ] and [aʊ] respectively
  • the diphthong /ʊi/ merges with /aɪ/

As a result of these changes, there remained only the three diphthongs /aɪ/, /aʊ/ and /ɔɪ/

In literature from this period there frequently occur rhymes such as Mindjoin'd in Congreve, joinline in Pope, childspoil'd in Swift, toilssmiles in Dryden. The present-day pronunciations with /ɔɪ/ in these words result from regional variants which had always had [ɔɪ] rather than [ʊi], perhaps influenced by the spelling.[10]

The shift of /iʊ/ to /juː/ did not occur in all dialects. Conservative dialects like Welsh English and some North American dialects have /ɪʊ/ in these words.

Long mid mergers[edit]

The earliest stage of Early Modern English had a contrast between the long mid monophthongs /eː, oː/ (as in pane and toe respectively) and the diphthongs /ɛi, ɔu/ (as in pain and tow respectively). In the vast majority of Modern English accents these have been merged, so that the pairs panepain and toetow are homophones. These mergers are grouped together by Wells[11] as the long mid mergers.

Pane–pain merger[edit]

The pane–pain merger is a merger of the long mid monophthong /eː/ and the diphthong /ei/ that occurs in most dialects of English. In the vast majority of Modern English accents the vowels have been merged; whether the outcome is monophthongal or diphthongal depends on the accent. But in a few regional accents, including some in East Anglia, South Wales, and even Newfoundland, the merger has not gone through (at least not completely), so that pairs like pane/pain are distinct.

A distinction, with the pane words pronounced with [eː] and the pain words pronounced with [æɪ], survived in Norfolk English into the 20th century. Trudgill describes the disappearance of this distinction in Norfolk, saying that "This disappearance was being effected by the gradual and variable transfer of lexical items from the set of /eː/ to the set of /æɪ/ as part of dedialectalisation process, the end-point of which will soon be (a few speakers even today maintain a vestigial and variable distinction) the complete merger of the two lexical sets under /æɪ/ — the completion of a slow process of lexical diffusion."[12]

Walters (2001)[13] reports the survival of the distinction in the Welsh English spoken in the Rhondda Valley, with [eː] in the pane words and [ɛi] in the pain words.

In accents that preserve the distinction, the phoneme /ei/ is usually represented by the spellings ai, ay, ei and ey as in day, play, rain, pain, maid, rein, they etc. and the phoneme /eː/ is usually represented by aCe as in pane, plane, lane, late etc. and sometimes by eCe and e as in re, cafe, Santa Fe etc.

Toe–tow merger[edit]

The toe–tow merger is a merger of the post-Early Modern English vowels /oː/ (as in toe) and /ou/ (as in tow) that occurs in most dialects of English. (The vowels in Early Modern English itself were /ɔː/ and /ɔu/ respectively, but this changed with the Great Vowel Shift.)

The merger occurs in the vast majority of Modern English accents; whether the outcome is monophthongal or diphthongal depends on the accent. The traditional phonetic transcription for General American and earlier Received Pronunciation in the 20th century is /oʊ/, a diphthong. But in a few regional accents, including some in Northern England, East Anglia and South Wales, the merger has not gone through (at least not completely), so that pairs like toe and tow, moan and mown, groan and grown, sole and soul, throne and thrown are distinct.

In 19th century England, the distinction was still very widespread; the main areas with the merger were in the northern Home Counties and parts of the Midlands.[14]

The distinction is most often preserved in East Anglian accents, especially in Norfolk. Peter Trudgill[12] discusses this distinction, and states that "...until very recently, all Norfolk English speakers consistently and automatically maintained the nose-knows distinction... In the 1940s and 1950s, it was therefore a totally unremarkable feature of Norfolk English shared by all speakers, and therefore of no salience whatsoever."

In a recent investigation into the English of the Fens,[15] young people in west Norfolk were found to be maintaining the distinction, with [ʊu] or [ɤʊ] in the toe set and a fronted [ɐʉ] in the tow set, with the latter but not the former showing the influence of Estuary English.

Walters (2001)[16] reports the survival of the distinction in the Welsh English spoken in the Rhondda Valley, with [oː] in the toe words and [ou] in the tow words.

In accents that preserve the distinction, the phoneme descended from Early Modern English /ɔu/ is usually represented by the spellings ou, and ow as in soul, dough, tow, know, though etc. or through L-vocalization as in bolt, cold, folk, roll etc., while that descended from Early Modern English /ɔː/ is usually represented by oa, oe, or oCe as in boat, road, toe, doe, home, hose, go, tone etc.

This merger did not occur before r originally, and only later occurred (relatively recently) as the horsehoarse merger. This merger is not universal, however, and thusly words with our and oar may not sound the same as words with or in some dialects.

Cot–coat merger[edit]

The cot–coat merger is phenomenon occurring for some speakers of Zulu English where the phonemes /ɒ/ and /oʊ/ are not distinguished making "cot" and "coat" homophones. Zulu English also generally has a merger of /ɒ/ and /ɔː/, so that sets like "cot", "caught" and "coat" can be homophones.[17]

Rod–ride merger[edit]

The rod–ride merger is a merger of /ɑ/ and /aɪ/ occurring for some speakers of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), in which rod and ride are merged as /rad/. Some other speakers of AAVE may keep the contrast, so that rod is /rɑd/ and ride is /raːd/.[18] This merger requires the presence of the father-bother merger before it can occur.

Smoothing of /aɪ.ə/[edit]

Smoothing of /aɪ.ə/ is a process that occurs in many varieties of British English where bisyllabic /aɪ.ə/ becomes the triphthong /aɪə/ in certain words with /aɪ.ə/. As a result, "scientific" is pronounced /saɪən.ˈtɪf.ɪk/ with three syllables and "science" is pronounced /ˈsa(ɪ)əns/ with one syllable.[19]

Glide deletion of /aɪ/[edit]

Pride–proud merger[edit]

The pride–proud merger is a merger of the diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ before voiced consonants into monophthongal /ä/ occurring for some speakers of African American Vernacular English making pride and proud, dine and down, find and found etc. homophones. Some speakers with this merger, may also have the rod–ride merger hence having a three–way merger of /ɑː/, /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ before voiced consonants, making pride, prod, and proud and find, found and fond homophones.[18]

Line–loin merger[edit]

The line–loin merger is a merger between the diphthongs /aɪ/ and /ɔɪ/ that occurs in some accents of Southern English English, Hiberno-English, Newfoundland English, and Caribbean English. Pairs like line/loin, bile/boil, imply/employ are homophones in merging accents.[20]

Coil–curl merger[edit]

Examples of the coil–curl merger in the words "circus," "thirty-five," and "first," as spoken by native New York City English speaker Groucho Marx.

Problems playing this file? See media help.

The coil–curl merger is a vowel merger that historically occurred in some dialects of English. It is particularly associated with the early twentieth-century (but now extinct or moribund) dialects of New York City, New York; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Charleston, South Carolina.[21] In fact, in speakers born before World War I, this merger apparently predominated throughout older Southern U.S. speech, ranging from "South Carolina to Texas and north to eastern Arkansas and the southern edge of Kentucky."[22]

The merger caused the vowel classes associated with the General American phonemes /ɔɪ/, as in choice, and /ɝ/, as in nurse, to merge, making words like coil and curl, as well as voice and verse, homophones. The merged vowel was typically a diphthong [əɪ], with a mid central starting point (though sometimes [ɜɪ]), rather than the back rounded starting point of /ɔɪ/ of choice in most other accents of English. The merger happened only before a consonant; stir and boy never rhymed.[23]

The merger is responsible for the "Brooklynese" stereotypes of bird sounding like boid and thirty-third sounding like toity-toid. The songwriter Sam M. Lewis, a native New Yorker, rhymed returning with joining in the lyrics of the English-language version of Gloomy Sunday.

In 1966, according to a survey that was done by William Labov in New York City, 100% of the people over 60 used [əɪ] for bird. With each younger age group, however, the percentage got progressively lower: 59% of 50–59-year-olds, 33% of 40–49-year-olds, 24% of 20–39-year-olds, and finally, only 4% of people 8–19 years old used [əɪ]. Nearly all native New Yorkers born since 1950, even those whose speech is otherwise non-rhotic, now pronounce bird as [ˈbɝd].[24]

Mare–mayor merger[edit]

The mare–mayor merger is a process occurring in many varieties of British English, as well as the Philadelphia dialect and Baltimorese, where bisyllabic /eɪ.ə/ is pronounced as the central diphthong /eə/ in many words. In these varieties, mayor is pronounced /ˈmeə(r)/, homophonous with mare.

In North American English accents with the merger, it also affects sequences without /r/, where some words with the /eɪ.ə/ sequence merge with /eə/ associated with æ-tensing. Because this particular /eə/ derived from /æ/, such words are frequently hypercorrected with /æ/. The best known examples of this are mayonnaise (/ˈmeəneɪz~ˈmæneɪz/) and graham (/ˈɡreəm~ˈɡræm/, a homophone of gram).


  1. ^ a b Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 192. ISBN 0-521-24225-8. 
  2. ^ Index.html
  3. ^ a b c d Barber, pp. 112-116
  4. ^
  5. ^ *
  6. ^ [1][dead link]
  7. ^ (Wells 1982: 192–94, 337, 357, 384–85, 498)
  8. ^ Barber, p. 108
  9. ^ a b Barber, pp. 108, 116
  10. ^ Barber, pp. 115-116
  11. ^ Wells, ibid., 192–94, 337, 357, 384–85, 498
  12. ^ a b Norfolk England Dialect Orthography
  13. ^ Walters, J. R. (2001). "English in Wales and a 'Welsh Valleys' accent". World English 20: 283–304. 
  14. ^ Britain, D. (2001). "Where did it all start? Dialect contact, the 'Founder Principle' and the so-called (-own) split in New Zealand English". Transactions of the Philological Society 99: 1–27. doi:10.1111/1467-968X.00072. 
  15. ^ Britain, D. (2002). "Surviving 'Estuary English': Innovation diffusion, koineisation and local dialect differentiation in the English Fenland" (PDF). Essex Research Reports in Linguistics 41: 74–103. 
  16. ^ Walters, ibid.
  17. ^ Rodrik Wade, MA Thesis, Ch 4: Structural characteristics of Zulu English at the Wayback Machine (archived May 17, 2008)
  18. ^ a b Wells, ibid., 557
  19. ^ Wells, John "Whatever happened to received pronunciation?" Wells: Whatever happened to received pronunciation? Author's webpage; accessed 19 April 2011.
  20. ^ Wells, ibid., 208–10
  21. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:259)
  22. ^ Thomas, Erik R. (2006), "Rural White Southern Accents" (PDF), Atlas of North American English (online) (Walter de Gruyter): 8 
  23. ^ Wells, ibid., 508 ff.
  24. ^ Labov, William (1966). Social stratification of English in New York City. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics. ISBN 0-87281-149-2. 


See also[edit]