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Sound change and alternation

Monophthongization is a sound change by which a diphthong becomes a monophthong, a type of vowel shift. In languages that have undergone monophthongization, digraphs that formerly represented diphthongs now represent monophthongs. The opposite of monophthongization is vowel breaking.


Some English sounds that may be perceived by native speakers as single vowels are in fact diphthongs; the vowel sound in pay — pronounced /ˈpeɪ/ — is an example of this. However, in some dialects (e.g. Scottish English) /eɪ/ is a monophthong [e].

Some dialects of English make monophthongs out of former diphthongs. For instance, Southern American English tends to realize the diphthong /aɪ/ as in eye as a long monophthong [äː].


In Received Pronunciation, when a diphthong is followed by schwa (or possibly by an unstressed /ɪ/), a series of simplifying changes may take place, sometimes referred to as smoothing.

To begin with, the diphthong may change to a monophthong, by dropping of the second element and slight lengthening of the first element: /aɪ/→[aː], /aʊ/→[ɑː], /eɪ/→[eː], /əʊ/→[ɜː]. The vowels /iː/ and /uː/, whose usual forms are in fact slightly diphthongal (close to [ɪi], [ʊu]), may undergo the same change and become [ɪː], [ʊː].

Next, the following schwa may become non-syllabic, forming a diphthong with (what is now) the preceding monophthong. In certain cases, this diphthong can itself be monophthongized. Thus the original sequences /aʊ/+/ə/ and /aɪ/+/ə/ can end up as simply [ɑː] and [aː].

For example, the citation form of the word our is /ˈaʊə/, but in speech it is often pronounced as [ɑə] (two syllables or a diphthong), or as a monophthong [ɑː]. Similarly, fire /ˈfaɪə/ can reduce to [faə] or [faː].[1]


In Sanskrit, the sounds pronounced as /e/ and /o/ are written as ai and au in Devanagari and related alphabets. The sounds /ai/ and /au/ exist in Sanskrit but are written as if they were āi and āu, with long initial vowels.


Greek underwent monophthongization at many points during its history. For instance, the diphthongs /ei ou/ monophthongized to /eː oː/ around the 5th century BC, and the diphthong /ai/ monophthongized to /eː/ in the Koine Greek period. For more information, see Ancient Greek phonology § Monophthongization and Koine Greek phonology.


French underwent monophthongization. Hence the digraph ai, which formerly represented a diphthong, represents the sound /ɛ/ or /e/ in Modern French.


Classical Arabic has two diphthongs, /ai/ and /au/. In the majority of modern Arabic dialects, these diphthongs are realised as the long vowels /eː/ and /oː/, respectively. One notable exception is the Lebanese dialect, which preserves the original pronunciations.

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  1. ^ Wells, J.C., Accents of English, CUP 1982, pp. 238ff.