Middle English phonology

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Middle English phonology is necessarily somewhat speculative, since it is preserved only as a written language. Nevertheless, there is a very large text corpus of Middle English. The dialects of Middle English vary greatly over both time and place, and in contrast with Old English and Modern English, spelling was usually phonetic rather than conventional. Words were generally spelled according to how they sounded to the person writing a text, rather than according to a formalised system that might not accurately represent the way the writer's dialect is pronounced, as Modern English is today.

The Middle English speech of the city of London in the late 14th century (essentially, the speech of Geoffrey Chaucer) is used as the standard Middle English dialect in teaching and when specifying "the" grammar or phonology of Middle English. It is this form that is described below, unless otherwise indicated.

In the rest of the article, abbreviations are used as follows:

Sound inventory[edit]

The surface sounds of Chaucerian Middle English (whether allophones or phonemes) are shown in the tables below.

Consonants[edit]

Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n (ŋ)
Stop p  b t  d tʃ  dʒ k  ɡ
Fricative f  v θ  ð s  z ʃ (ç) (x) h
Approximant r[1] j w
Lateral l

1. ^ The exact nature of Middle English r is not known. It may have been an alveolar approximant [ɹ], as in most Modern English accents, an alveolar tap [ɾ], or an alveolar trill [r]. In this article we will use the symbol /r/ indiscriminately to stand for this phoneme.

Consonant allophones[edit]

The sounds marked in parentheses in the table above are allophones:

  • [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ occurring before /k/ and /ɡ/
    • For example, ring "ring" is [riŋɡ]; [ŋ] did not occur alone word-finally in Middle English as it does in Modern English.
  • [ç, x] are allophones of /h/ occurring in coda position after front and back vowels respectively. 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 */ɣ/ to /j/ after front vowels in pre-Old English makes it very likely. Moreover, in late Middle English (post-Chaucer), /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.
    • For example, night "night" is [niçt], while taught "taught" is [tauxt].
  • Based on evidence from Old English and Modern English, /l/ and /r/ apparently had velar allophones [ɫ] and [ɹʷ], or similar, in some positions (perhaps all, in the case of /r/).

Voiced fricatives[edit]

In Old English, [v], [ð], [z] were allophones of /f/, /θ/, /s/, respectively, occurring between vowels or voiced consonants. This led to many alternations e.g. hūs "house" [huːs] vs. hūses "of a house" [huːzes]; wīf "woman, wife" [wiːf] vs. wīfes "of a woman, of a wife" [wiːves]. In Middle English, these voiced allophones become phonemes, and are solidly established in Modern English as separate phonemes. The sources of the new phonemic distinctions are:

  1. Borrowings from foreign languages, especially Latin, Ancient Greek, and Old French, which introduced sounds in positions they formerly did not occur; e.g. modern fine vs. vine (both borrowings from French); ether (from Greek) vs. either (native).
  2. Dialect mixture between Old English dialects (e.g. Kentish) that voiced initial fricatives, and the more standard dialects that didn't do this. Compare fat vs. vat (both with f- in standard Old English), and fox vs. vixen (Old English fox vs. fyxen, from Proto-Germanic *fuhsa- vs. *fuhsin-).
  3. Analogical changes that leveled former alternations; e.g. grass, grasses, grassy and glass, glasses, glassy with /s/ replacing original /z/ between vowels (but to graze and to glaze, still with /z/ and originally derived from grass and glass, respectively). Contrast house vs. houses, to house, still with /z/ in both cases; wife vs. wives; greasy, still with a /z/ in some dialects (e.g. that of Boston); and staff, with two plurals, analogical staffs and inherited staves.
  4. Loss of final /e/, resulting in voiced fricatives at the end of a word where formerly only voiceless fricatives occurred. This is the source of the modern distinctions house vs. to house, teeth vs. to teethe, half vs. to halve.
  5. Reduction of double consonants to single consonants. This explains the contrast between kiss, to kiss (Old English coss, cyssan with double s) vs. house, to house with /z/ in the verb (Old English hūs, hūsian with single s).
  6. Sandhi effects that introduced voiced fricatives at the beginning and end of certain unstressed function words. Contrast this with /s/ vs. is with /z/; off with /f/ vs. of with /v/, originally the same word in both cases; with with /ð/ in some dialects vs. pith with /θ/; this with initial /ð/ vs. thistle with initial /θ/.

The status of these sources in Chaucer's Middle English is as follows:

  • The first three sources (borrowing, dialect mixture, analogy) were already established.
  • As indicated by versification, the loss of final /e/ was normal in Chaucer's time before a vowel-initial word, and optional elsewhere; it is assumed that this is a poetic relic, and loss of final /e/ was already complete in spoken English of the time.
  • Reduction of double consonants had apparently not yet occurred, but was about to occur.[citation needed]
  • The sandhi effects on unstressed function words occurred somewhat later, in the transition to Modern English.[citation needed]

The strongest distinction was between /f/ and /v/ due to the large number of borrowings from Old French. This is also the only distinction consistently indicated in spelling, as f and v respectively. /z/ sometimes appears as z (especially in borrowings from Greek), and sometimes as s. Both /ð/ and /θ/ are spelled th.

Vowels[edit]

Monophthongs[edit]

Front Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Close i iː (y yː) u uː
Close-mid e eː (ø øː) o oː
Open-mid ɛː (œː) ɔː
Open a

Middle English has a distinction between close-mid and open-mid long vowels, but no corresponding distinction in short vowels. Although the behavior of open syllable lengthening seems to indicate that the short vowels were open-mid in quality, according to Lass they were close-mid. (There is some direct documentary evidence of this, for example in early texts where open-mid /ɛː/ is spelled ea while both /e/ and /eː/ are spelled eo.) At some point later in the history of English, these short vowels were in fact lowered to become open-mid vowels, as shown by their values in Modern English.

The front rounded vowels /y yː ø øː œː/ existed in the southwest dialects of Middle English, which developed from the standard Late West Saxon dialect of Old English, but not in the standard Middle English dialect of London. The close vowels /y/ and /yː/ are direct descendants of the corresponding Old English vowels, and were indicated as u. (In the standard dialect of Middle English, these sounds became /i/ and /iː/; in Kentish, they became /e/ and /eː/.)

The mid front rounded vowels /ø øː œː/ likewise existed earlier on in the southwest dialects, but not in the standard Middle English dialect of London. They were indicated as o. Sometime in the 13th century they became unrounded and merged with the normal front mid vowels. They derived from the Old English diphthongs /eo̯/ and /eːo̯/. There is no direct evidence that were was ever a distinction between open-mid /œː/ and close-mid /øː/, but it can be assumed based on the corresponding distinction in the unrounded mid front vowels. /øː/ would have derived directly from Old English /eːo̯/, while /œː/ derived from the open syllable lengthening of short /ø/, from the Old English short diphthong /eo̯/.

The quality of the short open vowel is unclear. Early in Middle English, it presumably was central /a/, since it represented the coalescence of the Old English vowels /æ/ and /ɑ/. During the Early Modern English period, it was fronted (in most environments) to [æ] in southern England, and this or even closer values are found in the contemporary speech of southern England, North America, and the southern hemisphere: it remains [a] in much of Northern England, Scotland, and the Caribbean.[1] Meanwhile the long open vowel, which developed later due to open syllable lengthening, was [aː].[2] At the time of Middle English breaking, the short open vowel was not a front vowel, since a /u/ rather than /i/ was introduced after it. It was gradually fronted, to successively [æː], [ɛː] and [eː], in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[3]

Diphthongs[edit]

Diphthongs Second element /u̯/ Second element /i̯/
Back Front Back Front
High /iu/ /ui/
Mid high early /ou/ > /ɔu/; later /ou/ > /uː/1 /eu/ > /iu/ /oi/ > /ui/ /ei/ > /iː/
Mid low /ɔu/ /ɛu/ /ɔi/ /ɛi/ > /ai/
Low /au/ /ai/

1The Old English sequences /oːw/, /oːɣ/ produced late Middle English /ɔu/, apparently passing through early Middle English /ou/; e.g. OE grōwan "grow" > LME /ɡrɔue/. However, early Middle English /ouh/ due to Middle English breaking produced late Middle English /uːh/; e.g. OE tōh "tough" > EME /touh/ > LME /tuːh/. Apparently, early /ou/ became /ɔu/ before the occurrence of Middle English breaking, which generated new occurrences of /ou/ that later became /uː/.

All of the above diphthongs came about within the Middle English era. Old English had a number of diphthongs, but all of them were reduced to monophthongs in the transition to Middle English. Middle English diphthongs came about due to various processes and at various time periods. Diphthongs tended to change their quality over time. The changes shown above mostly occurred between early and late Middle English. Early Middle English had a distinction between low-mid and high-mid diphthongs, whereas all of the high-mid diphthongs had been eliminated by late Middle English times.

The processes that produced the above diphthongs are:

  • Reinterpretation of Old English sequences of vowel followed by /w/, /ɣ/ > /w/, or /j/. Examples:
    • OE weg "way" > EME /wɛi/ > LME /wai/
    • OE dæg "day" > ME /dai/
  • Middle English breaking before /h/ ([x], [ç])
  • Borrowing, especially from Old French

Phonological processes[edit]

The following sections describe the major phonological processes occurring between written Late West Saxon (the standard written form of Old English) and the end of Middle English, conventionally dated to around 1500 AD.

Homorganic lengthening[edit]

Late in Old English, vowels were lengthened before certain clusters: /nd/, /ld/, /rd/, /mb/, /ŋɡ/. Later on, the vowels in many of these words were shortened again, giving the appearance that no lengthening happened; but evidence from the Ormulum indicates otherwise.

Stressed vowel changes[edit]

Late West Saxon (the standard written form of Old English) included matched pairs of short and long vowels, including seven pairs of pure vowels (monophthongs), /ɑ(ː)/ /æ(ː)/ /e(ː)/ /i(ː)/ /o(ː)/ /u(ː)/ /y(ː)/, and two pairs of height-harmonic diphthongs, /æ̆ă/ /æɑ/ and /ĕŏ/ /eo/. Two additional pairs of diphthongs, /ĭŭ/ /iu/ and /ĭy̆/ /iy/, existed in earlier Old English but had been reduced to /ĕŏ/ /eo/ and /y(ː)/, respectively, by late Old English times.

In the transition to Middle English, this system underwent major changes, eliminating the diphthongs and leaving only one pair of low vowels, but with a vowel distinction appearing in the long mid vowels:

  • The diphthongs /æ̆ă/ /æɑ/ simplified to /æ/ and /æː/, respectively. Subsequently, the low vowels were modified as follows:
    • /æ/ and /ɑ/ merged to a single central vowel /a/.
    • /æː/ and /ɑː/ raised to /ɛː/ and /ɔː/, respectively.
  • The diphthongs /ĕŏ/ /eo/ simplified to new front-round vowels /ø/ and /øː/, respectively. Everywhere except in the southwest, these vowels quickly unrounded to become /e/ and /eː/, respectively; in the southwest, it took 200 or 300 years for this process to take place, and in the meantime the sounds were spelled <o> in texts from the southwest.
  • The front-rounded vowels /y/ and /yː/ unrounded to /i/ and /iː/, respectively, everywhere but in the southwest (former West Saxon area) and southeast (former Kentish area).
    • In the southwest, these front-rounded vowels remained, and were spelled u.
    • In the southeast, the vowels had already been unrounded to /e/ and /eː/, respectively, in Old English times, and remained as such in Middle English.

This left an asymmetric system consisting of five short vowels /a/ /e/ /i/ /o/ /u/ and six long vowels /ɛː/ /eː/ /iː/ /ɔː/ /oː/ /uː/, with additional front-rounded vowels /ø/ /øː/ /y/ /yː/ in the southwest area. Some symmetry was restored by open-syllable lengthening, which restored a long low vowel /aː/.

Reduction and loss of unstressed vowels[edit]

Unstressed vowels were gradually confused in late Old English, although the spelling lagged behind, due to the existence of a standardized spelling system. By early Middle English, all unstressed vowels were spelt e, probably representing /ə/. Also in late Old English, final unstressed /m/ became /n/; during the Middle English period, this final /n/ was dropped when it was part of an inflectional syllable (but remained when part of the root, e.g. "seven", or in derivational endings, e.g. "written"). Around Chaucer's time, final /ə/ was dropped; judging from inflectional evidence, this occurred first when the following word began with a vowel. A century or so later, unstressed /ə/ also dropped in the plural and genitive ending -es (spelled -s in Modern English).

These changes steadily effaced most inflectional endings, e.g.:

  • OE mētan > ME meete(n) > LME /meːt/ > NE meet /miːt/
  • OE wicu > ME weeke > LME /weːk/ > NE week /wiːk/
  • OE nama > ME nāme > LME /næːm/ > NE name /neɪm/

In the last two examples, the stressed vowel was affected by open-syllable lengthening.

Breaking[edit]

During the 12th or 13th centuries, 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). Short /a/ was treated as a back vowel in this process (the long equivalent did not occur in the relevant context).

Open-syllable lengthening[edit]

Around the 13th century, short vowels were lengthened in an open syllable (i.e. when followed by a single consonant that in turn is followed by another vowel). In addition, non-low vowels were lowered: /i/ > /eː/, /e/ > /ɛː/, /u/ > /oː/, /o/ > /ɔː/. This accounts, for example, for the vowel difference between staff and the alternative plural staves (Middle English staf vs. stāves, with open-syllable lengthening in the latter word). This process was restricted in the following ways:

  1. It did not occur when two or more syllables followed, due to the opposing process of trisyllabic laxing.
  2. It only occasionally applied to the high vowels /i/ and /u/, e.g. OE wudu > ME /woːd/ > wood; OE wicu > ME /weːk/ > week. Most instances of /i/ and /u/ remained as such, e.g. OE hnutu > NE nut, OE riden > NE ridden.

The effects of open-syllable lengthening and trisyllabic laxing often led to differences in the stem vowel between singular and plural/genitive. Generally these differences were regularized by analogy in one direction or another, but not in a consistent way:

  • ME path, pāthes > NE path, paths, but ME whal, whāles > NE whale, whales
  • ME crādel, cradeles > NE cradle, cradles, but ME sādel, sadeles > NE saddle, saddles

Trisyllabic laxing[edit]

Main article: Trisyllabic laxing

In late Old English, vowels were shortened before clusters of two consonants when two or more syllables followed. Later in Middle English this process was expanded, and applied to all vowels when two or more syllables followed. This led to the Modern English variations between divine vs. divinity, school vs. scholarly, grateful vs. gratitude, etc. In some cases, later changes have led to apparently anomalous results, e.g. south vs. southern with only two syllables (but /suːðernə/ at the time that trisyllabic laxing applied). This change is still fairly productive in Modern English.

Pre-cluster shortening[edit]

In late Old English, vowels were shortened before clusters of three consonants:

  • OE gāst > NE ghost /ɡoʊst/; OE gāstliċ > NE ghastly
  • OE ċild > NE child /tʃaɪld/; OE ċildru + OE -an > NE children /tʃɪldrən/
  • OE gōdspell > NE gospel

As shown by ghastly, this shortening occurred before the raising of OE /ɑː/ to EME /ɔː/, which occurred in the transition to Middle English.

Later in Middle English, vowels were shortened before clusters of two consonants, except before /st/ and in some cases where homorganic lengthening applied. Examples:

  • OE cēpte > kept (cf. OE cēpan > keep)
  • OE mētte > met (cf. OE mētan > meet)

H-loss[edit]

During late Middle English (post-Chaucer, before the Great Vowel Shift), all occurrences of [ç] (the allophone of /h/ after a front vowel) were dropped, lengthening the preceding vowel in the process:

  • OE niht "night" > ME /niht/ [niçt] > /niːt/ > NE /naɪt/

Occurrences of [x] (the allophone of /h/ after a back vowel) were either dropped in the same fashion as above, or became /f/, shortening the preceding vowel (and absorbing the /u/ of a diphthong) in the process:

  • OE hlæhhan "to laugh" > ME [lauxə] > LLME /laf/ > ENE /laːf/ > NE /læ(ː)f, lɑːf/
  • OE tōh "tough" > ME [tuːx] > LLME /tuf/ > NE /tʌf/

This variable outcome, along with other variable changes and the ambiguity of the Middle English spelling <ou>, accounts for the numerous pronunciations of Modern English words in -ough- (e.g. though, through, bough, rough, trough, thought, with -ough- pronounced /ou/, /uː/, /au/, /ʌf/, /ɒːf/, /ɔː/ respectively).

Great Vowel Shift[edit]

The Great Vowel Shift was a fundamental change in late Middle English (post-Chaucer) and Early Modern English that affected the pronunciation of all of the long vowels. The high vowels /iː/ and /uː/ were diphthongized, ultimately producing the modern diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/, and all other vowels were raised. See Great Vowel Shift for more information.

Diphthong loss[edit]

Although not normally considered a part of the Great Vowel Shift, during the same time period most of the pre-existing Middle English diphthongs were monophthongized:

  • /ai/ > ENE /ɛː/ > /eː/ > NE /eɪ/
  • /ɛi/ > LME /ai/, same outcome as above
  • /au/ > ENE /ɔː/
  • /ɔu/ > ENE /oː/ > NE /oʊ/

The remaining diphthongs developed as follows:

  • /ɛu/, /iu/ > ENE /ɪu/ > NE /juː/. /ɪu/ is still used in Welsh English.
  • /ɔi/, /ui/ > NE /ɔɪ/

Vowel equivalents from Old English to 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. The spelling of Modern English largely reflects Middle English pronunciation.

Monophthongs[edit]

This table presents 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; etc. Vowels were diphthongized in Middle English before /h/, and new diphthongs arose in Middle English by the combination of vowels with Old English w, g /ɣ/ > /w/, and ġ /j/; for more information, see the section below. The only conditional development considered in detail below is Middle English open-syllable lengthening. 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


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/ < early /au/ and /ɔu/, 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.
  • bury /bɛri/ < byrġan has its spelling from West Saxon but its pronunciation from Kentish.

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 < *stahlijaN (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).

Diphthongs[edit]

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 (Old and Modern English forms given)[4]
æg, ǣg /ai/ /ai/ [æi] /eː/ /ei/ dæġ > day; mæġ > may; mæġden > maiden; næġl > nail; fæġer > fair; clǣġ > clay; grǣġ > gray
eg, ēg# /ɛi/ weġ > way; pleġan > to play; reġn > rain; leġer > lair; leġde > laid; hēġ (WS hīeġ) > hay
ēgV /ei/ > /iː/ /iː/ /əi/ /ai/ ēage > ēġe > eye; lēogan > lēġan > to lie (deceive); flēoge > flēġe > fly
ig, īg, yg, ȳg /iː/ tiġel > tile; liġe > (I) lie ("recline"); hīġian > to hie; ryġe > rye; byġe > (I) buy; drȳġe > dry
æw, aw, agV /au/ /au/ /ɔː/ /ɔː/ clawu > claw; lagu > law; dragan > to draw
ǣw, ēaw, ew, eow /ɛu/ /ɛu/ /juː/ /(j)uː/ mǣw > mew; lǣwede > lewd; scrēawa > shrew; eowu > ewe
ēw, ēow /eu/ /iu/ ċēowan > to chew; hrēowan > to rue; blēow > blew; trēowþ > truth
iw, īw, yw, ȳw /iu/ hīw > hue; nīwe > new; trīewe (WS) > true; Tīwesdæġ > Tiwesdæġ > Tuesday
āw, āgV, ow, ogV, ōw, ōgV /ɔu/ /ɔu/ /ou/ > /oː/ /əu/ (British), /ou/ (American) /bou/; flogen > flown
ugV, ūgV /uː/ /uː/ /əu/ /au/ /bau/
æh, ah, ag# /auh/ /auh/ ([x] > ) /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] > ) /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/ āhte > ought; dohtor > daughter; þoht > thought; sōhte > sought
ōh#, ōg# /ouh/ > /uːh/ /uːh/ ([x] > ) /əu/ /au/ bōg > bough; plōg > plōh > plough
([x] > /f/) /ʊf/ (centralized) /ʌf/ ġenōg, ġenōh > enough; tōh > tough; ruh > rough
uh, ug#, ūh, ūg# /uːh/ (non-centralized) /ʊf/  ?


Prosody[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Dobson (1968), pp. 545 ff.
  2. ^ Dobson (1968), pp. 594 ff.
  3. ^ Dobson (1968), p. 594
  4. ^ Many examples from Fernand Mossé (1968), A Handbook of Middle English, tr. James Walker, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, pp. 27–29.

Bibliography[edit]