Open syllable lengthening

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In linguistics, open syllable lengthening is the process by which short vowels become long when in an open syllable. It occurs in many languages at a phonetic or allophonic level, where no meaningful distinction in length is made. However, as it became phonemic in many Germanic languages, it is especially significant there, both historically and in the modern languages.

Germanic languages[edit]

Open syllable lengthening affected the stressed syllables of all Germanic languages in their history to some degree. Curiously, it seems to have affected the languages around a similar time, somewhere between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries (the late Middle Ages). The languages mainly differ in which vowels were lengthened and in which specific environment, but also in what the result of this lengthening was. There is substantial variation and in many languages the process has been largely undone by paradigmatic leveling. Sometimes, the newly lengthened vowels merged with existing long vowels, while in other languages they remained distinct because the older long vowels underwent changes of their own (such as in Icelandic, and in the Scandinavian languages to a lesser degree).

The lengthening often also applied in reverse at some point, shortening long vowels in closed syllables. As a consequence of the combination of these two changes, vowel length and consonant length came to be in complementary distribution. Because of that, one of the two features is no longer distinctive, being predictable from the other. Many languages shortened the long consonants at some point afterwards. This in turn had consequences for spelling, in which consonant length was generally marked by doubling in the various Germanic languages, but vowel length was not. The doubled consonants then came to be used as an indicator for vowel length (and later, quality), a feature seen in most Germanic languages today.

Some Germanic varieties such as High Alemannic German have no general open syllabic lengthening. It may be restricted to a few cases before sonorant consonants, as in Bernese German [ˈv̥aːrə] ('to drive') or [ˈtæːlər] ('valleys'), or it may not occur at all, as in Walser German. Consequently, these varieties feature both distinctive vowel length and distinctive consonant length.


In Dutch, the process was already underway around the twelfth century, making it one of the earliest languages to be affected. In written documents of the thirteenth century, long vowels in closed syllables are generally written by doubling the vowel or by adding e or i. But in open syllables this was not done, and only a single vowel was written regardless of whether the vowel was originally short or originally long, suggesting that length was implicit there. Early Middle Dutch still had long consonants, which acted to close the preceding syllable and prevent lengthening. Once the lengthening had occurred, these consonants began to lose their distinctive length, so that vowel length once again became distinctive in open syllables.

The lengthened vowels did not merge with any of the older long vowels, judging from evidence in texts from certain areas, as well as modern dialects which retain such a distinction. Instead, the lengthening produced four entirely new long vowels (see Middle Dutch phonology). These are conventionally denoted with a macron, while the original long vowels are denoted with a circumflex. The exact phonetic nature of the two types of long vowel is not known, and probably differed by area. Differences in vowel height, backness and/or diphthongal quality may have played a role. The following table shows the changes:

Lengthened Originally long
Old Dutch Middle Dutch Middle Dutch Old Dutch
a ā /ɑː~ aː/ â /ɒː~ æː/ ā
e ē /ɛː~ ɛi/ ê /eː~ eɛ/ ē
i î /iː/ ī
o ō /ɔː/ ô /oː/ ō
u û /yː/ ū
y ø̄

The vowels ā and â merged early on in most dialects, but were kept distinct in the easternmost areas (Limburg, Low Rhenish), where â tended to merge with ō (this also happened in Middle Low German). The vowels ē and ō were generally kept separate from ê and ô, but they were eventually merged in the history of modern Dutch. Some dialects still retain a difference, however.

Modern Dutch spelling uses a combination of vowel and consonant doubling to indicate vowel length, a feature inherited directly from the tradition that began in the thirteenth century. However, because consonant length is no longer contrastive, doubled consonants are purely an orthographical device to indicate vowel length. Long vowels in closed syllables are doubled, and consonants are doubled following short vowels in open syllables even when this is not etymological.

Low German[edit]

Lengthening occurred in the transition from Old Saxon to Middle Low German along the same lines as it did in Middle Dutch. Lengthened vowels remained distinct from original long vowels, which were more closed and eventually became diphthongs in most areas. Unlike in most of Middle Dutch, umlaut had also affected long vowels. These umlauted long vowels remained distinct from the lengthened vowels. The following table shows the development:

Lengthened Originally long
Old Saxon MLG MLG Old Saxon
a ā â ā
e ē ê ē
i î ī
o ō ô ō
u û ū
y ø̄ ŷ ȳ
ø̂ ø̄

The vowels â and ō later merged.


Vowel lengthening in English was very similar to the process in Dutch, and began only a short while later. As in Dutch and Low German, vowels were lowered when lengthened. However, apart from /a/, they merged with existing long vowels rather than remaining distinct.

Lengthened Originally long
Early ME Late ME Early ME
e ɛː ɛː
o ɔː ɔː

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".

As in Dutch, long vowels were often written doubled in closed syllables, and they were often long in open syllables. This process applied neither as consistently nor as thoroughly as in Dutch, however. Generally, only e and o were doubled in this way. As word-final schwa began to disappear, the newly created silent e was added to the end of the words in which it was not etymologically justified, as a way of indicating vowel length.

The lengthening still survives in Modern English, and 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). 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"


Vowel lengthening in German is generally thought to have occurred somewhat later, further towards the end of the Middle Ages. As a feature it probably spread north and south from the Netherlands and northern Germany, taking a century or two to reach High German. The process itself has remained much the same, however, as in Dutch.

Because the process did not begin until scribal traditions were already in place, spelling was generally not adapted to the change in length, and long vowels continued to be written as single vowels. As a result, the following consonants alone were taken to indicate length, but this was not always consistent. Substantial levelling also occurred in noun and verb paradigms, with the short-vowel forms with no ending generally adopting the long vowel of the forms with an ending by analogy.

North Germanic languages (except Danish)[edit]

The North Germanic languages do not have open-syllable lengthening as such, except for Danish which follows the West Germanic pattern. Instead, they underwent a similar process of syllable weight neutralization. In this process, vowels were lengthened in short syllables regardless of whether the syllable was open or not; single-syllable words were also affected. An opposing process acted to shorten long vowels in overlong syllables. As a result, all stressed syllables came to have heavy syllable weight. The lengthening and shortening also increased the number of phonemes, as the new sounds did not always merge with the old ones. For example, while Old Norse originally possessed short i and long í, modern Icelandic has short and long i as well as short and long í, depending entirely on syllable structure.

The following table shows the result of lengthening and shortening from Old Icelandic (Icelandic Old Norse) to modern Icelandic. "(ː)" indicates that length depends on syllable structure.

Originally short Originally long
Spelling OIc. MIc. Spelling OIc. MIc.
a /a/ /a(ː)/ á /aː/ /au(ː)/
e /e/ /ɛ(ː)/ é /eː/ /jɛ(ː)/
i, y /i/, /y/ /ɪ(ː)/ í, ý /iː/, /yː/ /i(ː)/
o /o/ /ɔ(ː)/ ó /oː/ /ou(ː)/
u /u/ /ʏ(ː)/ ú /uː/ /u(ː)/
ö (ø, ǫ) /ø/ /œ(ː)/ æ (œ) /ɛː/ /ai(ː)/

The following table shows the outcomes for Old East Norse to modern Swedish. Unlike in Icelandic, the old short and long vowels merged in many cases. They remained distinct in the case of original /a(ː)/, /o(ː)/ and /u(ː)/.

Originally short Originally long
/a/ /a/ ~ /ɑː/ /ɔ/ ~ /oː/ /aː/
/e/ /ɛ/ ~ /eː/ /eː/
/i/ /ɪ/ ~ /iː/ /iː/
/o/ /ɔ/ ~ /oː/ /ʊ/ ~ /uː/ /oː/
/u/ /ɵ/ ~ /ʉː/, /ɔː/  ? ~ /ʉː/ /uː/
/y/ /ʏ/ ~ /yː/ /yː/
/ɛ/ /ɛ/ ~ /ɛː/ /ɛː/
/ø/ /œ/ ~ /øː/ /øː/